I think every human being experiences some tension between wanting to belong and wanting to be seen as a unique individual. In recent years that tension has become increasingly politicized.
I grew up in a family devoted to Christ. Some of my earliest memories are of church, and they were overwhelmingly positive. I enjoyed the hymn singing and the excitement of church. My parents belonged to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination where people spoke in tongues, shouted during prayer, and sometimes even danced in the Spirit. Sermons were often loud and boisterous. I was fortunate to have no unpleasant experiences associated with church until I was well into my teens.
From a young age, however, despite enjoying church, I resisted being identified as a Christian. This was largely because I learned early on what other kids thought of Christians, and it was almost all negative. Christians were “good” in the worst sense of the word. They didn’t smoke or drink or dance or go to movies or play cards or swear. Sure enough, no one in my family did any of those things1Except playing cards. We played rummy, canasta, and other card games at home, but my parents discouraged us from mentioning it outside our home. My parents reasoned that playing cards was sinful only if gambling was involved. We never gambled.. Of course, there were some Christians who did those things: Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, but we were Pentecostals. We were on the fringes of Christendom even among evangelicals. We were real Christians. I cannot remember I time in my childhood before I had learned to distinguish between real Christians and nominal Christians.
Because we moved a lot during my childhood, we also attended a lot of different churches. Sometimes there were no Assembly of God churches nearby, and sometimes my parents would try other denominations because they didn’t require driving so far. In this way, I came to know something of United Pentecostal, Nazarene, Church of Christ, and other denominations. Most were just as weird—though in different ways—as the Assemblies of God.
From adult perspectives, I was a pretty good kid: anxious to please, obedient, easily entertained. But other kids thought I was a “goody two shoes.” The very things that pleased adults displeased my peers. Since adults held most of the power in my world, I considered pleasing them the safer choice, but I also longed to belong among kids my own age. It was not a longing I could translate into action. By second grade, I was already bookish and unathletic. Since I was usually the youngest in my class, I was also usually the last one picked in any team sport. This served to reinforce my self-perception as worse than my peers at physical contests, so I affected to despise them and preferred intellectual pursuits.
Being known as a Christian just made matters worse.
The problem was that my faith, though childish, was genuine. I could not pretend not to be a Christian. Making my situation even more difficult was the pressure from church to spread the gospel. Young as I was, I was continually being told by Sunday-school teachers and pastors to invite friends to church and to tell them about Jesus. That was just too much for me. I never invited anyone to church. I never told anyone about Jesus. I knew this made me a bad Christian. I was supposed to “go ye into all the world,” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At school, I kept my head down and hoped no one would ask me any religious questions because, of course, then I would have to answer.
I became a kind of hypocrite. To the world I pretended that religion was unimportant, but secretly I read my bible all the time, prayed, agonized over my own sins, and loved going to church. I was a closeted Christian. I don’t think any of my friends2Despite my weirdness, I did make a few. realized how important my religion was to me or how guilty I felt for letting them continue blissfully on their way to hell. For that’s where they were all headed, and I was doing nothing to impeded their progress. I rationalized that there was not much I could do. I couldn’t do miracles like Jesus and the disciples did to authenticate what they said. I was stuck with a message that sounded irrational even to me, so I just kept it to myself. I was only too aware of all the weaknesses of my arguments for the validity of Christian doctrine even while I was fully persuaded that I believed them.
I came to despise labels of all kinds. I wanted to be known but known as myself, not as a member of some sect or tribe. I found that whenever people learned that you belonged to some group, they adopted a whole family of presuppositions and stereotypes about you. Then, in addition to trying to make yourself known, you had to spend precious energy on overturning their preconceptions about you. It was way too much work.
My faith has matured since I was a child. I have learned to value the radical inclusiveness of the kingdom of God where “every nation, tribe, people and language” are welcome. I know how it feels, wanting to identify with those who are like you but not wanting to be so completely identified with them that your own individuality disappears. No one wants to be pegged or pigeonholed. We all want to insist on our own uniqueness3Even though, statistically speaking, the probability is quite high that among more than 7 billion people, there is someone who is very much like us in nearly all the ways that matter most to us..
I am still a Christian, even a white, evangelical Christian. But I defy the stereotypes associated with that label, and I hope that anyone who feels pegged to an identity they don’t really embrace can defy stereotypes and insist on being themselves.
- 1Except playing cards. We played rummy, canasta, and other card games at home, but my parents discouraged us from mentioning it outside our home. My parents reasoned that playing cards was sinful only if gambling was involved. We never gambled.
- 2Despite my weirdness, I did make a few.
- 3Even though, statistically speaking, the probability is quite high that among more than 7 billion people, there is someone who is very much like us in nearly all the ways that matter most to us.