Who We Are

“What did you say?” I asked my friend, knowing that his words were already etched in my heart.

He had been casually introducing himself in a gathering of American Baptists. The context was an assembly of academically/theologically-minded persons who wanted to think deeper about what it means to be Baptist in our world. This session was to focus on ecumenical (including inter-Baptist) and inter-faith dialogue.

Though my question was out of disbelief rather than an inability to hear, he responded anyway: “We know who we are when we are among others.”

The earth shook. The walls trembled. For a moment I thought I was sinking into the abyss.

Not because of disbelief. Not even because it was a profound statement oozing with truth. It was because he spoke my heart’s truth in a way that I never before could.

My own story of faith involves a wide gamut of Baptist denominations, churches, and institutions–ranging from hard-core fundamentalist to raging liberal. On a good day, that means I am patient and compassionate in working with diversity, recognizing that all involved likely have sincerely (and dearly) held beliefs. I want to hold the ends together. I want to keep everyone at the table. I want to involve everyone in the conversation. I want everyone’s voice heard.

And I get asked why. Which never ceases to surprise me. And my flubbed but honest answer is usually about relationships changing both parties, and how knowing someone makes it harder to elevate positions and issues over people in processes and cycles of violence and hate.

But there has always been something else, too. Something lurking beneath the surface–known and unknown, seen but not comprehended, mysterious but an intrinsic part of me.

“We know who we are when we are among others.”

Without others, I am unknown to myself. Without others, I am lost to myself.

This means two things to me. First, being around diverse persons exposes the places where we are the different and the same. I know of a church that for many years billed itself as the only progressive church in town. Surprise, surprise, when they got along to doing some ecumenical things, every other church in town had also made the same claim for the last decade. Distinctives are not that distinctive unless they are actually unique. On the flip side, we may also find more in common than we could ever imagine.

This leads to the second insight, which ties into what I was trying to say before: When you know who you are, you are less threatened by diversity. Being secure in our own identity lets us see how little danger diversity actually poses to us. It is not this group of “others” who are unknown and therefore dangerous. This is Bob…or Alysia….or Samir….or Guilherme….or whoever. You have dinner together. Your kids play together. You trust each other. This is not “the enemy,” but my neighbor.

We know who we are when we are among others.

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