Reflection (written before last weekend’s revelations by Archbishop Justin Welby) by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
One of the great privileges of being Bishop of Manchester is that I get invitations to meet with remarkable people. I learn far more from human engagement than I ever glean from books, academic articles, and (dare I say it) blogs. So the chance that came my way last month, to meet with two people from very different backgrounds and faiths, yet who are colleagues in an organisation working to bring peace to the deeply conflicted region of Kashmir, was not one to let pass by. Their work is a powerful testimony to the contribution that individuals who are prepared to engage with their hearts as well as their heads, and who are willing to have their own presuppositions and ideas about the “other” challenged, can make. The very name of this blog, Via Media, suggests that finding new ways through persistently conflicted situations is a key part of why we are here. So let me offer a few reflections and see if together we can build on them.
What struck me most in the conversation was not just that these two workers for reconciliation managed to emphasise the importance of the personal over the political, but that they did so whilst avoiding the trap that such efforts usually fall into. Two short statements summed up for me the approach; they are worth quoting in full:
- We can choose to find our own personal answer to the question “Who am I?”
- Engage with this paradox – change starts with you but isn’t about you.
I’ve been tussling with them ever since.
It’s a widely held view that traditional methods of debating and addressing conflicted issues, based on ideology, principles and supposedly rational argument, privilege the powerful. As a famous piece of graffiti put it, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in”. A necessary counter to this has been the growth in recent times of various types of “identity politics”, based around key aspects of human beings, such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation; issues which have traditionally been the basis on which significant sectors of society are marginalised. Each of them has developed its own theological counterpart. Engaging with these constructs helps me to recognise, at least some of the time, that when I think I am being rational and somehow “above” identity, I may well be simply rationalising the interests of the dominant group to which I belong. More importantly, identity politics has had genuine successes. However, at the end of the day it remains politics. It can win or lose battles, but is far less able to unite, reconcile and work for the level of mutual flourishing that may be the only way to move beyond a particular conflict.
So what I’m now interested in exploring, in the light of my Kashmir conversation, is whether there is an extended and distinct role for “identity” in conflict situations, one that doesn’t collapse into identity politics, and which can be helpful both in secular and religious contexts. The two statements I’ve quoted above give me hope that there may be.
My own answer to the question “Who am I?” is (in words movingly echoed by Archbishop Justin Welby since I first drafted this article) that I am first and foremost a deeply beloved child of God, with infinite and eternal value. You may phrase that differently, and we may all build on such a core definition in different ways. Almost certainly, somewhere early on in constructing our sense of identity we would give key importance to aspects of ourselves, such as our deepest relationships and belongings, that lie far deeper than any externally provided political construct can reach. If, by God’s grace, I build the foundations of my answer on firm enough rock, that may be enough to allow me to engage with conflicted situations without selling myself (or my soul) to politics of either the conventional or identity brand. Will that then enable me to be part of a solution where other methods have failed? Will it in fact give me the strength and confidence to let change began with me, without feeling that such change as ensues will either be a direct threat to, or a necessary condition for, my understanding of who I am?
Picture of the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, by Paul Heyes, Wednesday June 5, 2013.