Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Identity Politics and the Church

June 10, 2008

Further to the entry of May 26: The Anglican Theological Review has also published an issue on theological education (Spring 2008, Vol. 90, No. 2) Jenny Plane Te Paa of New Zealand is again one of the contributors. She writes “identity politics is what emerges out of this milieu of identity making through claims and counter claims for recognition, and for the rights for individuals and groups so f similar individuals. If we were the tolerant and open societies we hope to be, these politics would remain relatively benign. But we now live in increasingly pluralistic societies characterized by complex layers of difference across religious, ethnic, gender, sexuality and class divides (to name just a few popularly asserted signifiers of difference).” (p.224) She seems to be calling for both a relaxation of the hard and fast definitions that sometimes go with identity politics and calling for a return to civility in our discourse as we learn to love in a and with the love of God. She says “I now unequivocally believe that it is only in the absolute putting the “we” at risk that we can ever truly realize the possibilities of our God-given humanity.” (p.238)

This seems to me to relate to the question of how people of faith deal with the reality of differences of power in our relationships. Any of us can be in power position in one conversation and in the opposite position in another. Consider the complexity of being a black urban professional who hires a maid from the Philippines. It seems to me that the tool we have is ‘law’ in the broadest sense and always remembering tht law is made for humanity and not the other way around. Law in this sense is that complex of norms, agreements, rules, covenants and the like that govern our interactions with each other. When those agreements don’t work any more for one reason or another then the constant work of discernment and conversation and, inevitably, change becomes critically important.

As the norms of the church shift in ways that many both within and without the Episcopal Church find completely unacceptable, it seems that the process continues whereby we both maintain our agreements and converse about whether and how they might change in ways that ensure a measure of justice for all. (Jenny Plane Te Paa called her doctoral thesis ‘Justice or Just Us’.) This is playing out as the Episcopal Church maintains (properly in my view) the reality of our agreements expressed as canons and recognizes that those who do not like the outcome of those agreements and who have not prevailed in the recent councils of the Episcopal Church may leave the Episcopal Church. Hence the deposition of clergy who denounce, renounce or otherwise abandon their orders in this branch of Christ’s body in favor of some other (which may or may not be in a measure of communion with TEC) and law suits over property. In other words if we do not like the results of how things work ‘under the law’ then we either work for change or we depart for some other form of church (or none). There are those who are behaving badly according to those norms and who like to say that the church is acting in unchristian and unloving ways when that behavior is challenged.

At the same time Anglican bishops throughout the world (or many of them who desire to continue to be in conversation with one another through and perhaps in spite of disagreements) will meet this summer and consider among other matters an Anglican Covenant, or agreement as to how we will manage with one another going forward. That may or may not result in happy issue out of affliction, but it is the right conversation about how to recognize and appreciate difference (perhaps reflecting the great variety of creation) while maintaining the possibility of change in the future. It is the challenge of avoiding the danger of ultimate rigidity in identity politics while ensuring that there are ways for us to be in civil conversation.

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