At the Crossroads of Identity and Faith

Jonathan Tjandra is the Branch Officer for Faith and Religions for the ANU Students’ Association Clubs’ Council and blogs for politechs.com.au. This piece is a representation of personal experience and is not affiliated in any way with the Association. The most obvious and important realities are often the ones we find hardest to see or talk about. An important reality to discuss is the effect of invisible forces on the way we live, and how the structures of society affect our individual experiences and identity. I would like to share some reflections on the tensions within one’s identity. There are some aspects of my own identity which I have made obvious. For example, I am a straight male Australian of Chinese-Indonesian descent. What is less clear is how my faith plays into it, as there have been very few intersectional discussions focussing on identity and faith. On one level, it is rather trivial. I could simply say, ‘Hello, my name is Jonathan. I was born in Perth, my parents are from Indonesia, and by the way, I’m a Christian.’ However, Christianity is not generally seen as an identity in the way that being Asian is, or being male. It is perhaps self-identifying, as my experience is undoubtedly shaped by it. How does my faith interact with my identity? Being a Christian in Australia does not denote a particular ethnicity, in the way that being a Muslim might (or even a Coptic Christian in Egypt). It does signify membership in what theologians call the universal Body of Christ, which constitutes not only an identification with the institution of the Church but the identification with Christ through our faith. As Christians can be found in almost every culture and ethnicity, I identify with both a community which transcends borders and languages. One issue I struggle with is how I can justify identifying with a tradition which historically has been complicit in the oppression of minorities? The various churches claimed a moral high ground and failed the responsibility required of them: to seek justice for the oppressed, to show kindness to the weak, and to walk humbly with the Lord. To this, I can only reflect that every human institution has been involved in the oppression of minorities. All this says is that human beings have a great capacity to do evil, and the power that comes with these institutions invariably corrupts the individual.  The issue ultimately boils down to an inequality of power. While there are many other claims to my identity, I can confidently say that my identity is anchored, sure and steadfast, in the Christian faith. The example of Christ completely subverts all power structures: ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.’ I believe Jesus did not come to entrench the power of institutions, the government or the rich, but to empower the weak, the poor, the sick, the sinners of the world. It is true that because of my race, I have faced discrimination, but it is through my identity in Christ that has empowered me to achieve everything I have done. Identity politics asks the right questions but does not provide the answers. In my experience, it fosters divisions and leads to a race to the bottom – a race to prove a particular group is the most oppressed, or to assert their rights over any other group. I am similarly cautious about the language of rights, as it is often used as a blunt instrument without space for complexity. If it is true that one subculture cannot understand the experiences of another group, there is no clear ranking of rights, and where the rights of various groups conflict, something must give way. Certainly, there exist rights to which every human being is entitled, but each right has a limit. My right to freedom of movement ends when the courts have judged my imprisonment is better for society than my freedom. As a Christian, liberty is limited by love. In the early church, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was a divisive cultural issue. For some, it amounted to idol worship (and thus blasphemous), but for others, an idol holds no actual power and so eating sacrificial meat was amoral. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, ‘[T]ake care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.’ Paul’s was writing to the latter group to reinforce the unity of the church: don’t exercise your right to eat sacrificial food if it means your friends will have to go against their conscience. The right to exercise one’s liberties is limited by the love we should have for the people whom it affects. The tension between cultural identity and faith is another issue I have struggled with. A few years ago, my grandfather passed away and was given a traditional Chinese funeral, which among other things, includes rituals and prayers to traditional Chinese deities. These rituals are in direct conflict with my identity as a Christian, so how do I manage my rights and beliefs in the context of showing love and respect to my extended family? This is the truest expression of loving thy neighbour: we should be willing to lay down our rights and give up the things we love so that others can be empowered. Furthermore, we should be willing to bear each other’s burdens, especially to take up the cause against injustice. The identity quandary is partially resolved in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The identity of a Christian is founded solely upon being children of God, with all its connotations of immaturity, growth, belonging and so on. Our identity is not founded upon relationships between people, but rather the relationship with God, and in expressing that relationship through working for the common good. In Australia, where Christians form a majority, this means taking up the cause of minorities in times of harassment and oppression, even if it means giving up our own rights or opening ourselves up to marginalisation. I pray we would have the strength to look beyond our differences and to humbly consider not only our own interests but the interests of others above ourselves.