For you fashioned my inmost being; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I thank you because I am awesomely made, wonderfully; your works are wonders —I know this very well. – Dawid Ben Yishai
Watching a child grow up is an interesting thing. Seeing them learn about the world around them, and unconsciously form the personality within them, can leave one enchanted by the spell of God’s providence working in the macro and minute details of the world.
I have the amazing privilege of raising a hyper-energetic toddler boy. Choosing names for him was an interesting task, where meshed my Ugandan heritage, my wife’s Xhosa culture, and the faith in Jesus that we both deeply share. From the vantage point of the womb, it is almost impossible to predict the cultural and ideological attributes he may adopt through the diverse array of experiences he will be immersed in.
If one thinks back to memories of their own childhood, there are both vivid and vague memories, smells, almost-tastes on our tongues that remind us of the circumstances that formed the narrative we understand of our lives. Whether this is a certain dish enjoyed in a certain part of the world. Or a house song that takes us back to a high school dance. Or a style of braiding one’s hair that was en-vogue. All these aspects of who we are create a broth of identities that help us (and hinder us) when navigating certain contexts.
Some contexts are embracing of certain parts of who we are. Knowing the right gestures to make, and the right things to say, to form a connection with others that transcends the rational understanding of the simple words we speak, and links aspects of our soul. That trust based on bridges built between islands of separate but similar histories is comforting.
Growing up, we had annual retreats for some of the Baganda people living in South Africa. Here, we were taught and had to perform many of the folk songs of our heritage to the crowd of our parents. We caught up with those who stayed in different towns, and played endlessly with all the other third-culture kids – of Ugandan heritage but being en-cultured into a different way of life than the norm that our parents grew up in.
On the other hand, some find themselves in contexts that are antagonistic to certain aspects of who we are. We find ourselves misunderstood because the sense we thought to be common isn’t commonly shared. Some find that due to ignorance, prejudice, or both, they end up in the anxious and vulnerable position of having to row a boat into a foreign island of normal where a bridge doesn’t exist from theirs.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place – Paulus of Tarsus
Over the last few centuries, increased transport and communication technology changed the way the world worked. No longer was a person bound to the village they grew up in, but could find themselves thousands of kilometers away among a people their progenitors knew nothing of. New communities and nations were built from migrating peoples around the world, creating a dynamism of ever-changing social and national identities. Nation states with common languages and cultures have been formed and broken apart. In 2018, it is expected for someone on the southern tip of the African continent to identify as a South African, but such a geopolitical entity only came into being in 1910, making such an identity meaningless 200 years ago, but very meaningful today.
In addition to greater migration, communication technologies have aided in the spread of information, and facilitated connections and communities that defy the physical limitations. Now, someone sitting in an apartment in Mogadishu can share their appreciation for Bongo Flava music with someone sitting in a coffee shop in Dakar. A conservationist with a passion for the ecological wildlife surrounding Nairobi can become a more powerful activist by partnering with like minded parties around the world.
Yet, with the increasing interconnectedness of the world, there is an interesting trend towards tribalism. On a geopolitical level, there is the rise of nationalism around the world, with an increased inward focus and assertion of socially defined categories such as ethnicity. Also on the level of ideas, there is an increased polarization into groups representing the evolving taxonomy of thought.
We hear the polarized American news and talk shows where the conservatives are pitted against the liberals or progressives, each side deifying their own and vilifying the other. We see many countries in Europe who feel a sense of loss of their way of life by the increasing number of immigrants diluting their culture. And in many migrant communities around Africa, such as the one I grew up in, we have heard tales alluding to the subtle superiority of “our” people compared to the communities we now found ourselves in.
These caricatures we form of ourselves and others are just that, caricatures. Pictures we draw where specific features of ourselves and others are exaggerated, normally our good features, and the perceived bad features in the other. And in caricaturing, we strip away bits of the mosaic of humanity in both ourselves, and those we other.
Maybe we do it because of the continuous searching of our physical and metaphysical home, a place where we belong. And we tightly hold onto the parts of us that almost validate our existence in that seemingly heavenly space. And in our fight for this kingdom the collateral damage caused by us acquiring it is almost justified.
.. according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. – Paulus of Tarsus
Humans are complex and dynamic beings, constantly evolving and adapting to changes within and changes without. The God of the universe who fore-thought the depth our existence before the foundation of the world defines us, and as image-bearers of an infinite being, there are an infinite number properties and experiences that form who we are now, and an infinite number of persons who we can evolve into. Because of our finite minds and understanding, we don’t even have the capacity to understand ourselves fully.
Yet, we have full liberties to communally enjoy the little we do see in ourselves, and explore the glorious mysteries we see in others. In the increased tribalism of our modern age, there is a tendency to view the intersectional identities we hold as almost absolutely defining who we are, taking away some of the freedoms of exploration and association we have been given.
In absolutely holding onto the various social identities we perceive, our self-evaluation ends up being infinitely too small. We lose most of who are. Yet, somehow we constantly find ourselves constantly being pulled into the ghettos of absolute definition based on our caricatured features. And we find our natural human inclination is to lean into the perceived safety of that.
When Yeshua, the Son of Man stepped into the world, He was steeped within a specific cultural context. Yet, in His perfection, He wasn’t subjugated into the world He stepped into. Culturally, He was part of the Hebrew people with over 1500 years of deep history. Yet, while being a full participant of the people, wasn’t validated by the people. Ideologically, close to a small elite priestly cast called the Pharisees, yet was distant enough to offer stinging critique. And through His death on the cross initiated by the people who were perceptively His own, and the deity-confirming resurrection, He began the process of redeeming the world back from its corrupted delegated authority, into His perfect order.
And in this redemption we find freedom from the caricatures that promise to make us whole but can never satiate the manifold depths of our souls; and we rest in the foundational identity that we are His. And on this foundation, the threads that make up the tapestry of who we are – some known, some to be discovered, and some never to be known in this life – find the beautiful glory for which they were lovingly intended.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. – Yesu