Boundary-less Belonging

by

Jesus knew what it meant to be pigeon-holed. His town of Nazareth had a population of just a few hundred people, and most of his ministry took place around the Sea of Galilee, just 19 miles from his hometown. Beyond that, many of the gospel stories take place around Capernaum, and the distance from Jesus’ hometown to Capernaum was only 30 miles. Much of Jesus’ ministry, before he and his followers ventured down to Jerusalem, transpired in tiny communities where everyone likely knew each other and people walked from one town to the next.

 

Thus, Jesus’ world was small. And as he commenced his ministry, he was in a predicament. No one expected a wonder worker, let alone a teacher of profound and profoundly challenging spiritual wisdom to come from Nazareth. One of this week’s gospel readings includes Mark 6:1-6: “[Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

 

In Jesus’ day, people were identified first and foremost by family, then hometown, then religious sect, then country. These affiliations also often limited who a person could become. And people’s efforts to pigeon-hole Jesus were powerful. It is said in the reading that people’s unbelief limited what he could do among them; how they identified him had power over him—no matter how he identified himself.

 

I want to discuss identity. Because when I look out at the tensions and struggles boiling up in the world and in our own country, it seems identity somehow gets at the core of it. So often, it seems, people do not know who they are. And we must first know who we are. When we know who we are, many other things fall into place.

 

By identity, I am not talking about superficial categories. Many of us know the vague categories of identity by which a stranger might describe us after reading our bio and seeing our photo online. In my case: A white American female Christian who lives in Oregon and has certain degrees. But my closest friends will tell you: this says very little about who I am. It doesn’t begin to get at my identity.

 

Real identity seems to be about having a sense of belonging; and where I experience a sense of belonging says far more about me than the vague categories by which I am pigeon-holed.  I experience belonging when I’m with my daughter, or in a deep conversation with my friend Gloria. I experience a sense of belonging when I am writing from my heart, and out of the depths of my mind. I experience a sense of belonging in the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, and specifically the woods where my house is situated. I experience belonging among my small faith community, in contemplative prayer, in sharing love with my animals.

 

Today, sadly, many people don’t feel they belong anywhere. But because identity is so critical for our lives—because it gives us the power to “do what needs to be done,” people grasp at a false sense of belonging, grasping for a sense of identity that empowers them and makes them feel safe. People go to “race” and nation in their quest for identity. Others go to consumerism and define themselves by what they own. In each case, the results are very destructive.

 

Across the global north, we see people who refuse to let migrants belong. You do not belong here, they scream. And when these migrants no longer belong in their place of origin—either because they have not lived there since they were young, or because their lives are threatened in their home countries, or because they’ve lived so long as immigrants that they no longer feel at home where they were born—these migrants may feel they do not belong anywhere. The fortunate find belonging in groups of other immigrant friends, or in places of worship or other relationships. But some are not so fortunate. And it is a terrible thing to be without a sense of belonging, to be told: You do not belong.

 

John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite who has done conflict transformation work among different groups all around the world, talks about the need for us to develop “boundary-less identity”—or a sense of “we” that does not exclude other people.{1} Yes, we need identity—we need a sense of who we are in relationship to others, we need connection and belonging. But having a rich sense of belonging does not require having boundaries that keep others out. Again, as Lederach says, we need a “we” that does not exclude other people. Jesus was all about that “we” that does not exclude. He was always challenging different boundaries, even as people continually used boundaries and categories to exclude him.

 

How do we develop a strong sense of belonging while simultaneously including others—not pushing anyone out?  I think this is where spiritual traditions can be quite helpful. Our own Christian tradition can give so much guidance on this path, as Jesus taught that we are all children of God, we are all family. We all share the DNA of the Divine. Maybe where we find true belonging is related to where we experience loving and being loved. Perhaps, then, our crisis of belonging is a crisis of love, or more precisely, a deficit of love, a blindness to it. Maybe the path to belonging is in giving ourselves over to the wild, willful energy of Love that sent the universe exploding out in an ever-manifesting love relationship. It is everywhere; we need only tune in. In the best moments, our spiritual traditions can help us understand this—to put words, stories, and images to it. To remind us that who we are, first and foremost, is a child of that eternal Love. So too, to remind us that living and moving in this world in opposition to love—by excluding and harming others—is to betray our very identity.

 

In the generative unfolding of the Cosmos, everyone belongs.

 

1 https://onbeing.org/programs/america-ferrera-john-paul-lederach-how-change-happens-in-generational-time-jun2018/

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