By Jason Coker
Identity is a tricky thing! Religious identity in particular can be a hard one to figure out. I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, which actually has quite a bit of racial, ethnic and religious diversity, but Baptists and Pentecostals were among the strongest religious groups. Many of my Pentecostal friends really liked the structure of Baptist worship and theology, but always felt Baptists needed a lot more Spirit — Holy Spirit. They are probably right! Many of the Baptist folks liked the freedom of the more Pentecostal and Assembly of God groups, but were completely terrified by people “catching the Holy Ghost” or getting “slain in the Spirit.”
This mutual admiration, in spite of the differences, produced a lot be people who jokingly called themselves Bapticostals. This wasn’t a real identification — there’s not a Bapticostal denomination that I know of — but it is a hybrid identity of mutual admiration. It has a sense of unity somewhere in it.
In a radically different space, a parishioner at our local Episcopal church here in Wilton, Conn., who is a beloved figure in our town — all us clergy try our best to get him to come to our church — calls himself an Episcojewbu! He is a deeply faithful Episcopalian and has been all his adult life. He became interested in Buddhist meditation practices a while back and has a tremendous amount of respect for the spiritual discipline required to follow those practices. Finally, being adopted as a child, he did a DNA test to see from where his ethnic origins came and, to his surprise, found out that he was mostly ethnic Jewish! He jokingly identifies himself as an Episcojewbu. His exemplary faithfulness to his own faith and his exemplary respect for others makes this title appropriate in many ways. He embodies a hybrid identity within his own unified self — if any of us have a unified self.
But, why am I talking about Bapticostals and Episcajewbus? In both of these hybrid identities, there is a unity in diversity. And if not real/true unity, there is a real/true respect and admiration. Respect and admiration provide a strong foundation for civil discourse, which is something I think our American culture has forgotten at some level. The rancor in politics and the way “news” organizations cover events have polarized so much of our society. The “us” and “them” of vitriolic rhetoric has driven a deep wedge between people who would probably be good neighbors, given the chance.
There is a tremendous difference between diversity and divisiveness. Both concepts acknowledge difference, but do so in vastly different ways. Diversity says, “We are all so different. Thank God! Look how creative our God is!” Divisiveness says, “We are all so different. What a shame! Why can’t they all be like us!” When we isolate ourselves into small cults of the same, we systematically shelter ourselves from growth — both human and religious growth. In a religious context, this not only makes us small, it makes our God small. God becomes our reason and rationale for isolationism, which makes true diversity impossible and civil discourse very difficult.
The Tuesday of Holy Week, our local clergy association hosted our final session in a four-week series on civility. The library gave us neutral space to host the event, and there were nearly a hundred people in attendance — a strong turn-out for a religious event in our area. Sitting up front on the panel were our local Rabbi (a 27-year-old woman from Memphis, Tenn.), me (Jason the Baptist — white, heterosexual, male), the local representative from the Islamic Center (female, Shi’a from Iran), the Presbyterian minister (white, female, single mother), and the Catholic priest (African-American, male, former Baptist). The Swami from the Hindu Temple was in the audience along with some of the other clergy, and the Congregational church’s pastor (African-American, male, also former Baptist) moderated the session.
Each of us had about five minutes to explain how our faith tradition promoted civil discourse. It was incredible to hear all the different responses to how we all are called by our different faiths to care for each other. Then, we took questions from the audience — not all were softball questions! It was obvious that we all had very different beliefs, opinions, answers, etc. What made the night important for our town, and meaningful to everyone who was there, was the fact that all of the clergy in attendance really liked each other. It was obvious to everyone. I said something funny and tried to use a Texas accent, and the Rabbi laughed and told everyone in the room that’s just the way I actually sound! There were a lot of laughs like this throughout our session. We know each other, meet together every month, help each other, pray for each other, work with each other, respect each other, and even admire each other.
As a Baptist from the CBF clan, I understand our broad Fellowship to be very diverse. We have liberals, moderates, conservatives, libmocons (I just made that up), and people who hate these categories. Somehow in our diversity, we come together because we believe we can do more and be more together than we can apart. I think it’s what makes us beautiful. I think it’s what makes us a better image of God’s creativity.
I don’t say this glibly. This sort of diversity is not easy. We are not a local clergy association; we are a global denominetwork. It takes energy and intentionality for us to find our common ground for the common good. Forming together is not a part-time job! It’s worth the energy! Our differences are real and really important. Thank God! Look how creative our God is.