Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? What is that makes “us” a “we?” Some combination of these questions is nearly always whirring around in the background of our consciousness, providing us with meaning, identity, and purpose as we move through our days. We self-identify in many ways from the trivial to the profound, but for many, the categories of “race” and “culture” loom largest, even incorporate and transcend all others.
There are abstract and theoretical ways to approach questions like these, but for me they are very personal questions, too. Our family represents a bit of a spectrum on the race/culture continuum. I am of white, European extraction. My ancestors were Mennonites and thus spent time wandering from Germany to the Ukraine and then to the prairies of Canada, depending on how they were negotiating the demands of their faith and various political realities at this or that specific historical moment. My wife is half-Japanese and half-German, and grew up as a part of the narrative of the forcible internment of Japanese Canadians from the west coast to the prairies during World War 2. My children are a mixture of Ojibway and Metis ancestry. Their story is inextricably bound up with Canada’s mistreatment of indigenous people, as the recently completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, with its expose of the Residential School System and the way that these church and government-run schools tried to systematically eradicate aboriginal languages and cultures, has made painfully clear. So, we have all of these different races and cultures and markers of identity bound up with each other even in our little family of four! The story gets much more complicated when we widen the circle to include extended families, communities, cities, and nations.
Is there a common human identity that can incorporate all of the specific races and cultures that we are part of? Is there a single story that can somehow embrace all of these smaller stories? We in the postmodern West are taught to be suspicious of even the possibility that there could be such a thing. How much damage has been done to marginalized races and cultures, after all, by those convinced that one story was more important than others? How many stories have been eliminated by more powerful stories that could not or would not make room for them at the table? And we must acknowledge that this is true—especially those of us who are a part of cultures that have had power and influence. We must not only acknowledge but repent for the ways in which we have implicitly or explicitly participated in the marginalization of other stories. We must begin to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the many and varied human stories that we are born into.
But we must also acknowledge that human race and culture are not the sum total of our identity, and that they shouldn’t be. No race or culture is perfect, after all. Each culture has some things that are worthy of celebration and honour and other things that need to be redeemed or set aside entirely. This is true for Japanese culture and white Mennonite culture and Ojibway culture and every other culture under the sun. Race affects who we are and who we will be in profound ways. But it is not all of who we are. All of us are profoundly “storied” beings, but these stories are a launching pad or a framework for negotiating who we are and who we will become, not a straightjacket.
It is problematic, I know, to introduce the story of Jesus at this point, especially as some kind of a story to incorporate all other stories. God knows, Christianity has been deeply enmeshed in the stifling of less dominant stories throughout history. Christians have, at many points in history, given the impression that to accept Jesus means to accept (mostly) white, Western, European culture. But I am a follower of Jesus, and so I inevitably find myself thinking about issues of race and identity in light of this one story.
Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? I have a pretty good guess as to what I think Jesus, the Incarnate God and a Palestinian Jew, would say to us if we asked him these kinds of questions. I think he would say, “You are a /human being, part of the broader human family, a dearly loved child of mine, who I have created as you are and where you are, in order to participate in the high and holy work of loving and serving God and neighbour. I think Jesus would be only too delighted to say, “you are a Japanese/Ojibway/white Mennonite/Spanish/Italian/Ghanaian/Chilean/Canadian/Australian/Russian/Colombian human being,” but only after he had said, “you are mine.”