Showalter: Searching for identity

Dec 18, 2017 by

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The global rise of nationalism, often in the form of populism, is astonishing in its variety and extent. There seems scarcely a nation unaffected. Perhaps a good way to understand it is as a massive human identity search.

Richard Showalter


The answers to “who are we?” are complex, though we long for the simple. Universal answers such as the oneness of humanity are compelling but do not seem complete without further definition. So our answers usually distinguish ourselves from others. Nations are redefining themselves.

Xi Jinping of China extols single-party, “harmonious” democracy in the context of Confucian culture, a shift from orthodox Communism. Modi of India voices a new embrace of Hinduism, a shift from Gandhian leadership. In the U.S., Trump champions blatant self-interest — America first — but with an appeal to traditional Christianity. The actual unifying cultural context seems little other than consumer capitalism.

What is true for the nations is true for the church. Globally, Christian churches are redefining identities. Mennonites are testing new names and alliances. “Anabaptist” has a certain magic, but we’re far from certain exactly what its substance is. Is our search an expression of local ecclesiastical “nationalism”? Is it a search for a global unitary embrace of the whole body of Christ? Or is it somehow both?

I sat recently in an Indian house church with loose connections to the U.S. Anabaptist family. The group engaged in an intense discussion of identity, grounded in the desire to embrace Jesus’ way for the Indian church in the midst of many influences.

Someone asked, “What is the essence of Hinduism?” The group tried to name it, but they couldn’t identify an acceptable statement of cultural or religious essence. Monism, dualism, atheism, agnosticism, the worship of gods and goddesses, animism, even forms of monotheism — all are acceptable. Describing a common “way of life” was equally elusive. Perhaps being Hindu is simply having Hindu grandparents?

“Is Hinduism simply a civilization including many different cultures and religions? If so, should we not simply identify ourselves as Hindu followers of Jesus?” asked the leader. “Prime Minister Modi seems to be stressing Hinduism as a civilization rather than as a religion, though with preferable religious options, in his quest for democratic unity. He believes India’s religion should not be foreign.”

The discussion intensified. How can Indian “Christians” be authentically Indian? How much should we shed trappings of both foreign Protestant denominations and more traditional Indian churches descending from the ancient Thomas church? “India has yet to receive Jesus in an Indian cup,” said one. “When that happens, we might see a great ingathering of Indians into the body of Christ.”

“All too often the presence and activity of foreign Christians impede rather than stimulate the growth of the church here,” said the Indian leader. “Hindus look at the churches and conclude that they are all foreign. They don’t really belong. They’re not part of our culture. They don’t fit.”

The outcome was inconclusive. We struggle with the challenge to be local and global. Local without rampant nationalism? Global without subtle domination? What is our identity?

In all our complex identity quests there are at least two great temptations. One is to overplay the local. The other is to overplay the global.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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