I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the spaces in between things. There are the transition times, or the waiting
times, that Justin talked about in an earlier blog post, but there are also the spaces between myself and others. The small cracks between on part of my identity and another, where my competing selves butt up against one another, sometimes gently and other times with brute force. There is my identity as a Mennonite, as a woman, as a young adult, as a white person, as an activist (although, full disclosure here, I feel like I often fall short in this category), as a spouse, as a friend, as a sister, daughter, team member, employee, Master’s student (for at least four more days), a democrat, a middle-class person, a pacifist and this list could go on.
Given this list, there are moments when I want to resist any simple definitions of who I am and how I’m associated. I would rather dwell in an in-between, hybrid space: a place where each of these unique identities can co-mingle and brush up against one another, without being forced to fit together too neatly.
And I know that I am not alone. Certainly there are people whose very race, gender, sexuality or class makes it impossible to “blend” with any one group. By virtue of who they are, these individuals navigate multiple worlds and cultures all the time, as well as competing messages from themselves and from society about who or how they should act and be. This is why there has been so much controversy and conversation recently surrounding the little “identity boxes” that we are asked to check on surveys or a census. How does one choose or privilege one racial or gender identity over another when the truth is so very far from that small, confined, neat box?
In her famous book, Borderlands/La Frontera (which you most definitely should read if you haven’t yet), Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “In a few centuries, the future will belong to the mestiza.Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is a change in the way we perceive reality,
the way we see ourselves and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our language, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle…”
And Anzaldúa is right. Increasingly, the United States is becoming home to children and young adults who are bi-racial and multi-racial. Queer theory is challenging us to resist narrow definitions of sexual identity, marriage and partnership. And
people are increasingly pulling on religious symbols, beliefs and models from a variety of denominations and faiths in order to build a robust spiritual identity. We will need to begin to develop much more fluid concepts of identity and selfhood.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher suggests that feminist understandings of identity, which define identity as hybrid, multi-faceted and formed by individual experiences and social location, can help to break through our traditional identity frameworks. Fletcher notes that in every individual, there is a “dynamic intersection of identity categories,” which cannot simply be easily reconciled or reduced down to any one comprehensive identity criteria. Therefore, “…one cannot ask what it means to be Christian without recognizing that the answer is also conditioned by other identity categories.” Likewise, one cannot make broad, far-reaching statements about what it means to be a Mennonite or Anabaptist, without also analyzing the other social identity constructs that enter into the fiber of each individual congregation and church member.
If I am a convinced Anabaptist coming from another faith tradition, or a Nigerian Mennonite pastor leading a congregation in Los Angeles, my Mennonite identity will almost certainly look slightly different from someone who grew up within the Mennonite church and lives in Goshen, Indiana. Each of these social locations is valuable and can offer a unique lens through which to view the church and Anabaptist theology, but it is good to realize that although we all belong to one denominational body and are unified in this way, it is not a unity without complexity or diversity.
And we need to realize that this complexity is a gift.
If we can come to understand each of our internal hybridity, the church then can become a body which reflects, “infinite internal diversity.” Fletcher suggests that to move forward, holding an awareness of and respect for this diversity, will entail an exercise in “collaborative solidarity,” that seeks to construct hybrid group identities as an alternative to rigidly bound group categories.
To me, this is an incredibly freeing idea. It frees me to be fully me, and to understand that I am the product of a whole lifetime of experiences, influences, theologies, gender experiences, etc. and that I don’t have to privilege one of my identities over another. And I don’t have to demand that anyone else does either. I can begin to see that we all resist simple definition. Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock suggests that we can begin to live with interstitial integrity (a term I first heard my friend Joanna Shenk bust out during a talk at a church assembly) when we embody a, “…refusal to rest in one place, to reject a narrowing of who we are by either/or decisions, or to be placed always on the periphery…”
Although it may feel risky to stay there, this interstitial space in between may in fact be the place where we can be most fully ourselves.
Where are the places where you feel most at home and fully yourself? What does the idea of “complex unity” mean to you?