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Louis R. Tarsitano on Identity Politics & the Christian
The all-sufficient question for most intellectuals, asked in splendid existential isolation, is: Who am I? They answer this question, along with their fellow members of the planning class, as if from a burning bush: “I am who I am.” The world, then, is only a stage for the self-expression of an identity rooted only in themselves.
In contrast, ordinary people ask at least one other question: What am I? They identify themselves by the blood and the land and the culture that produced them. Life for them has a more subtle texture than can be adequately described by an abstract appeal to “humankind” and to “spaceship earth.” They not only need, they also demand roots in something besides themselves, and the deeper the better.
When ordinary people lose their roots, they experience an anxiety, an itch impossible to scratch. Think of the thousands of adopted children who, despite otherwise satisfactory family lives, relentlessly search for their birth parents. They will often justify this search on the grounds of the medical necessity of knowing their heredity. But the tears of joy, sorrow, anger, or relief that most of them shed when they meet their biological parents rarely have much to do with medical histories.
Or consider Alex Haley’s modern odyssey of self-discovery, which he entitled Roots. The success of Haley’s story derived from more than the readiness of black Americans to ask, “What am I?” The rapt audience for his tale of family, land, and blood was an entire nation of immigrants, and was not limited to those whose ancestors had been brought to America in chains as slaves. The planners’ America of vast social programs dependent on an allegiance to the government in Washington, a city with no business or purpose except for government, had left people empty and hungry for something else.
Of course, once this hunger was identified, the planners tried to turn it to their own advantage. They invented, or at least manipulated, identity politics as a new opiate for the masses. The demands of ethnic groups could be played off, one against another, and an ethnic spoils system offered interesting possibilities for social engineering. But for most people, it is not the promise of governmental benefits in the present that transfixes them, but the promise of their roots in the past. Equally tantalizing is the thought that, by putting down roots themselves, they might become the ancestors of the future.
Thus, despite the premature announcements of their defeat, Generals Lee and Jackson may be winning the Civil War after all, since their sort of sense of place, of final loyalty to kith and kin, is becoming more rather than less common in America, and everywhere else in the world. Yes, there is a large, rootless mass of people out there, but they are desperately searching for an identity, even if they do not or cannot articulate their pursuit.
Empires, huge tracts of territory under a single homogenizing government, are merely ideas, even if powerful ideas backed up by economic and military force. But families, hearths, and hometowns are concrete realities. Nations are not governments. They are peoples with a memory of a shared life, of a shared hope, and of a shared vision.
Just as common soldiers in a great battle care less about strategy and generals than about the fate of their own squad or platoon, ordinary people are powerfully drawn to identify with those who struggle beside them for physical and spiritual survival. If this were not so, it would not be necessary to propagandize soldiers or civilians to believe in “the big picture.”
Sometimes, of course, “the big picture” may be substantially true, as it was in the days of the Pax Romana, or in the age of Christendom, or in the life and death contest of World War II. On the other hand, when people perceive “the big picture” as a sham to reshape them or to redefine them for the convenience of their governors, to steal from them the reality of what they have been, they rebel.
If nothing else, people turn away from the imperial idea and its attendant claims to mind their own local business. This mental abandonment may explain so many Americans’ indifference to the Clinton trial much more acutely than a claim of general immorality. Some people may take the matter further and resurrect the cultures and myths of their ancestors, asserting the lost causes and the old heroes as their true identity, as in the nationalist movements of Scotland and Wales. Others may even resort to war in the name of reclaimed identity, as is happening, or threatening to happen, among the remnants of the old Soviet Bloc.
But balkanization is not a new word, and the empires as we have known them began to break down as long ago as World War I. Since then, the rate of deterioration of all centralized organizations appears to be increasing, and we are seeing the rapid collapse of large-scale corporate identity, or at least the collapse of belief in it.
The churches, too, beyond the aggravating factor of the moral and theological deviations that have lost them so many members, are suffering from this same collapse of central institutions. Why pay tribute to a denominational or “national church” headquarters, when its sole apparent reason for existence is to prevent one from being a Christian as one’s ancestors, physical or spiritual, once were? Rather than cooperate with the ecclesiastical planners’ endless series of experiments upon them, Christians have begun to associate themselves on the basis of affinities that are more real to them than institutional membership.
Some of these affinities, certainly, are as shallow as a mutual attraction to the same local shopping mall. Others are as profound as a need to recover a sense of participation in the Communion of the Saints: to recite the old prayers from the same sort of heart that first gave life to their words, to believe as heroes and martyrs believed, to build a local habitation for the abiding presence of God.
There may well be an opportunity here for genuinely catholic and orthodox Christians to get ahead of this worldwide movement away from civil and ecclesiastical centralization, directing it away, as well, from mere isolation into a more positive direction. Rather than trying to prop up failing empires and their polities, the historic catholic Churches should be seeking to provide a spiritual, rather than an imperial bridge between localized communities of people who are reconstituting real identities of their own.
It was very much the mission of the ancient Church to make disciples of “nations,” of groups of people with a tribal identity, who found in Jesus Christ a link between people and people, between home and home. This was not the Church’s “marketing strategy,” but the Great Commission commanded by her Lord before his ascension into heaven.
The same commission remains in place for the Church today, as in every age, but its necessity becomes ever more apparent as the “glue” that binds the great political nation states and the centralized institutions together loses its strength. A common Lord is a legitimate common cause that can bind particularities together without robbing them of identity. The King of kings and Lord of lords does not arbitrarily remove the little kings and lords of place and inheritance. He binds them together in the very definition of “religion,” with their identities both cherished and intact.
A greater Christian vision of the City of God will confirm the cities of men, not as eternal powers or as the objects of an idolatrous worship, and not as the objects of a renewed political or ecclesiastical imperialism, but as the beloved human kingdoms that an Almighty God sent his Son Jesus Christ to save.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).