Thursday, 11 September 2014

Identity: Volf, Žižek and Rollins

While reading Miroslav Volf's commentary* on 1 Peter I was struck by his thoughts on how the church establishes its identity in the world.

By describing Christians as aliens and strangers in the world, Peter establishes a clear difference between the church and the culture that surrounds it. Volf asserts that, to Peter at least, "It is Christian identity that creates difference from the social environment, not the other way around."

That dynamic is not what normally happens. More commonly, individuals and groups form their identity through the negative process of rejecting the beliefs and practices of others. We define ourselves as "not them". But rejecting the other in order to define ourselves is an oppositional stance that almost inevitably produces resentment and conflict. It makes us insecure and defensive even at the same moment as we are acting superior and aggressive. "We have to push others away from ourselves and keep them at a distance, and we have to close ourselves off from others to keep ourselves pure of their taint."

Peter's alternative is to establish his community's identity through copying from God (1:15-17) and Jesus (2:21-24). He encourages the community to be self-controlled; to be holy; to love deeply from the heart; rid themselves of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander; to recognise themselves as a people belonging to God; submit to authorities and to each other; live in harmony with each other; speak to others with gentleness and respect; rejoice in suffering; etc. None of Peter's exhortations directly question or criticise those outside the community.

Peter surely knows that his advice will set the community apart as something different. He even expects it will result in alienation and persecution. Knowing that, he nevertheless wants to be part of a community that does not repay evil with evil but with a blessing. "But how can people give up violence in the midst of a life-threatening conflict if their identity is wrapped up in rejecting the beliefs and practices of their enemies? Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them."

This dovetails perfectly with Žižek's recent comments on the insecurity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Whereas a true fundamentalist shows an "absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life",  the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists lack true conviction and secretly consider themselves inferior. They have already internalised the judgement of the surrounding culture and measure themselves by that judgement. By defining their identity in contra-distinction to "the West" they have done the opposite of what Peter calls the Christian community to do.

Volf's interpretation also connects with Peter Rollins' claim that the Christian community is a place to eschew all identity (Chapter 5 of The Idolatry of God ). On the surface, the two views may seem contradictory. Volf is proposing a specific formulation of Christian and church identity, whereas Rollins argues that Paul, especially in Galatians 3:28, intends to subvert all religious, political and biological identities. For Rollins that radical subversion is a continual process that must even subvert any "Christian" identity.

But Rollins is big on paradox and can also write that "One's concrete identity continues to exist, but it is now held differently." His point is not that we no longer have any identity but that we hold our identities lightly, and that is very similar to Volf's "soft difference". I don’t want to imply that they share the same view: Volf's involves a degree of personal assurance (people who are "secure in their God") that Rollins' considers idolatrous. But they both wish for forms of personal and communal identity that do not fear the Other, and that consequently have no need to subordinate, blame or impose on others.

* Volf, Miroslav. 1994. ‘Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter’. Ex Auditu 10: 15–30.

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