By Ian Adams, mission spirituality adviser for Church Mission Society
Who are you? And where do you belong?
Yearnings for identity and belonging have been around a long time. In each era and setting these issues take on new characteristics and open up new perspectives.
Humans have always seemed to long to belong to a group – perhaps family, community, tribe or nation – finding strength and meaning there. In our own time and context, the desire to recognise and express the self has particularly come to the fore, alongside a new appreciation of how our individual identities have been shaped by the experiences of those who have gone before us.
So what might be a Christian approach to identity and belonging, and how might this be a gift to us and our world? This is inevitably a complex area, and one that touches on tender issues for many of us, myself included. My prayer is that this brief reflection might act as a helpful starting point in engaging with the questions.
It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus acts from a sense of the dignity and worth of the individual. He sees people and notices individuals in the crowd, particularly the forgotten or those on the edge. He engages with their stories, and calls individuals to follow him. But Jesus also nurtures a disciple community and prepares them for their communal life of prayer and witness.
This pattern of God calling both individuals and communities runs through the Old and New Testaments. In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul addressed themes of identity and belonging. Their particular issues – notably how Gentile believers might find their place of belonging in Christ and in his community – were of course different to those we face now, but the principles that we find set out by Paul in Galatians 5 may help us in the quest for identity and belonging.
And Paul begins with a bold declaration:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1 NRSV
Paul states that we are made for freedom! Why then should we wish to be, as he puts it using an image common to the time, enslaved?
In his context Paul has in mind a particular symbol of identity and belonging – circumcision – and sees reliance on this act by Gentiles as a form of servitude. The only enslavement he is interested in is our service to each other, to the community. To do anything else is, as he puts it, an indulgence.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”Galatians 5:13–14 NRSV
We belong with and to each other. Love for each other must be our goal. And Paul points out how enticing and destructive it is to denigrate the other – to cast doubt on their belonging.
If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.Galatians 5:15 NRSV
How might we live with love for our neighbour? Paul identifies the means for such a life as coming from a renewed sense of our belonging in God, and then living out from that belonging. He calls us to…
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.Galatians 5:16 NRSV
quarrels, dissensions, factions, envyGalatians 5:20b, 21a NRSV
and instead to allow God to shape us for good, and to guide us into a life of tenderness:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.Galatians 5:22–23 NRSV
As we seek to follow Jesus the Christ and find our belonging to him (Galatians 5:24) and with him in God (Colossians 3:3), tenderness towards others must become our practice.
This will require us to commit to the prayerful work of letting go of our own priorities, and re-orienting ourselves each moment, each day, each season to Christ. And then to seeking at all times to rediscover our God-given at-oneness with each other, our mutual belonging.
In the farewell discourse of John 14–17 the Gospel writer records Jesus as praying for his disciples in this way:
That they may be one, as we are one.
John 17:11b NRSV
This is, of course, the sort of bold sentiment that got Jesus executed. Earlier in the discourse Jesus reveals how this at-oneness might be realised:
Abide in me, as I abide in you.John 15:4a NRSV
The gift and challenge of the Christian path is its foundation in the person of Jesus, and our moment-by-moment participation with him in the life of God. Beneath all our human stories here is the bedrock of our identity and belonging. He is the foundation upon which our other belongings and identities can be recognised and lived with tenderness and generosity.
Thanks be to God, this may be how we might live and love in the time of (not) belonging.