I wrote this reflection for the MSA Journey into Wholeness Lenten Guide. It is also featured in the current MSA Seed Sampler, Welcoming a Majority World. The title was given by the editors of both resources.
“What do you mean by ‘just one’? I’m not choosing just one!” I told my wife on the phone. She had told me that according to the educational department of our city, in order to register our daughter in an educational program, I needed to choose just one box to indicate my ethnicity.
The options given to me were:
___A. Black ancestry
___B. White ancestry
___C. Indigenous ancestry
Taken into consideration that, as a Puerto Rican, I was born into the mestizo-rich heritage of Taino indigenous people, White Europeans mostly from Spain, and Black Africans brought to my country as slaves, to mark only one box would be to reject two of the key heritages that make me who I am. To allow myself to be boxed into one would be to reject many members of my family and many aspects of my culture and identity that I am proud of. I would therefore cease to be me. I am not me by just one part of my ancestry, but by the gifts I accept from all three of them.
This was, to say the least, an extremely uncomfortable situation for me. I was forced by a detached system to make a choice I never thought of making. I was irate because of the way in which this systemic, violent act of identity distortion goes unnoticed daily by the super-structures in a society that won’t tolerate and in fact discourages the embracing of multiple identities.
Normal everyday activities like going to the doctor’s office, playing at the park, and registering your child for an art class shouldn’t make you question your identity and wonder if there are other people out there like you. At some level, I can expect the State and the framework that supports its philosophies to try to fit everyone into one box. After all, people are easier to manage and be marketed when they belong to a generic group with already-given narratives and attributes. I have the greater trouble with the system when it comes to matters of spirituality. What if, to that list of activities/places/institutions that make us question our place, we add places of worship, communities of faith, and new expressions of Christianity? How are we to respond to the worldwide community of God’s children when our way of coming together at the Lord’s Table for prayer, discipleship, and service not only reflects, but also perpetuates divisiveness, discrimination, and oppression?
Not many of us can stay away from confronting our dark side. We avoid the pain it causes to be naked and vulnerable, especially when it is something we have the privilege to not experience. While many live in constant vulnerability due to their color, place of origin, language, sexual orientation, gender, or class, others enjoy the benefit of going through life with little to no experience of what is to be on the underside of power, oppression, and control and in the margins. Our communities of faith and places of worship are called to be places of healing and restitution. But they do not exist in a vacuum. Our churches and places of worship are not only part of our societies, but they are formed by individuals and groups with certain stories, myths, and patterns. These constructs surround and give a framework for our actions and our relationship with others. When these unarticulated beliefs and values go unexamined and unquestioned, we run the risk of living sub-human lives.
If communities of faith are to be a real place of radical hospitality and transformative relationships, they need to deal with the social constructs in which they inhabit. The social expression of the church and individual Christians does not happen outside the artificial modes of thinking about the actuality of power and privilege. We will do more damage than good if we keep addressing the issues of faith and social justice without questioning the given frameworks of racism, patriarchy, hetero/sexism, classism, and elitism. It is by pushing farther past the strings and paradigms by which the church functions that we as followers of Jesus can honestly bring a healing alternative and prophetic voice. It is by rendering visible these chains of affliction that we can move from hollow cosmetic corrections and into real salvation and transformation. Given that we are blind to our own complicity and that we have the tendency to describe things to our advantage, we need the voice of “the other” for a broader expression of God’s goodness and liberation.
This is not easy work. It involves the painful act of carrying our own cross, but also helping others carry theirs. The movement toward humanization confronts us with the scandal that those who have been marginalized bring to our realities. As we move further into this journey of examination and confrontation, we allow space for the creation of new intersections for mutual understanding, transformation, and affirmation. It is at this point that we are less worried about the scandal that others bring, and are more open to fully experience the gifts we receive from them. It is at this moment that we begin to live in the reality of the Risen Christ.