IDENTITY: CREATIVITY AND SECURITY
Holy creativity, all that constitutes the Earth is interdependent --
from the wood tick to the blue whale, from the virus to the mountain.
All creatures, including human beings, are complex characters. We live
constantly interacting with every part of the planet, including all
other humans. As individuals we are complex embodied relationships of
what we call feeling, thinking, believing, and more. As social creatures
we are not only wholly dependent on the entire planet but also are
always creating and maintaining each other and smaller groups we call by
many names. All is a living composition of parts: complexly
and security are always human concerns. Today how each group interprets
life on this planet grows more accessible to the other groups. This can
create new interpretations of who "we" are. But often the "other" is
construed as a threat to the security of the closely boundaried group:
the "true people," as each group often calls itself. Creativity and
security are often thought to be mutually exclusive. Closets are full,
and such security is deadening.
example, some groups in the United States describe others' treatment of
family values in terms of decay and erosion and
slippery slope and collapse. Whether caused by changing
economic and political activity by many women, or by gay or lesbian
parenting, or by growth in the number of families led by single mothers,
or by other factors, new forms of family are interpreted as abnormal.
The norm of heterosexual, reproductive monogamy is then the only route
to security. Creativity that does not reinforce only this norm is viewed
group claims that its narrow norm is universal, those who challenge the
norm often use the same categories of interpretation. Reaction is caught
in a dungeon of dualism: white/black, male/female, straight/gay,
citizen/immigrant, adult/child, etc. Celebrating exclusively what has
been dominantly defined as negative can be just as narrow as the opinion
of those who interests are served by keeping the dualism's norms.
political success may depend on celebrating what is dominantly defined
as negative. Challenging the imbalance of burdens and benefits expressed
in social policies is today more likely to be successful if particular
groups define themselves in terms of one characteristic. This is usually
called a "special interest" group. But it is "special" because a group's
interests are not served by the dominant norm.
interests are trying to obtain more power, i.e., the ability to get
interests met that are not served by the dominant norms. This is
possible by having resources that serve the interests of others and for
which the others will make changes in their own situation. For example,
endorsing political candidates is powerful in direct proportion to the
number of votes or the amount of campaign funds the endorsement
represents. Defining the group's characteristics according to the
original dualism may draw members willing to oppose the dominant norm.
special interests that are too narrow exclude characteristics either
represented within the group or by expressing exclusive social practices
of the dominant society. For example, all through the 1980s and 1990s,
most government officials and scientists have assumed that the
study of men provides universal information about the transmission of
HIV. That women, girls, and boys are different from but not inferior to
men is still an idea many who set public policy or define hypotheses for
scientific testing find difficult to accept. That women and children are
equally important has also been difficult for some to accept; they would
rather interpret the well-being of women as solely subservient to the
well-being of the child. At the same time, children are not-- by virtue
of being "not yet adult"--somehow less interested in receiving equitable
benefits and burdens in a society. But our society is deeply ambivalent
about whether children can be public agents for their own interests.
According to many adults, children's special interests are best
represented only by adults.
interests narrowly defined in order to be politically more effective has
very often in our society meant excluding "the other." To avoid this in
special interest groups takes creativity and immense energy. But first
of all it takes the desire and commitment to refuse defining identity by
the "we aren't them" approach to the norm. Special and narrow do not
have to be synonyms.
religion usually defines itself as the "true people," often to the
exclusion of those who do not match the norms defined and defended by
those elected to do so in the tradition. Here special and narrow and
true are claimed to be synonymous. In this understanding of community,
different is usually a pejorative term. Someone differs from truth. This
is cognitively heresy and actively immorality. The true believer is the
one who acts according to the norm that defines the interests of the
dominant group in the religion.
the abnormal hidden is in the interests of the dominant group. The
burdened ones are somehow kept quiet as isolated individuals. However,
developments in society now offer religious communities opportunities to
confront in public the constrictions created by some of their own norms.
This can take place in conversation within the religious community. Too
often this has not yet happened. But norms that are interpreted as
exempt from conversation are contemporaneously deadly.
religious groups in the United Stats today, five themes in conversations
and actions about persons and HIV/AIDS would be especially helpful. The
themes are the international identity of many religious groups;
religious groups as parochial communities; religious teaching about body
and spirit; the meaning of illness; and, finally, mortality. First I
pose three theological claims and elaboration here, because I believe
they are preferable to stereotypical dualism that is present in so much
Because of divine creativity, all that constitutes the Earth is
Security on earth is a function of this interdependence.
Security entails meeting basic needs -- hunger and food, for example.
Harvesting or killing some plants (and animals, for some people) is
necessary for obtaining
food (or creating maternal milk).
Thus, to harvest or to have to kill what you eat is an element of
security for you (and
breast-feeding child) and possibly deadening for what you eat.
Necessity thus sometimes entails benefits and burdens.
Justice involves the distributing of benefits and burdens in an
Benefits often entail burdens for someone or something else.
1. 9. In
whose interests do we define benefits and burdens in relation to basic
needs and why?
2. 1. Love
is acting that amplifies benefits and diminishes burdens.
2. 2. The
immediate recipient of love is the first to judge acting's efficacy.
2. 3. But
interdependence means that love is never a single action.
Amplifying benefits and diminishing burdens is a process affecting all.
2. 5. Thus
the immediate community also judges the efficacy of the acting.
2. 6. But
interdependence means that love is never only local acting.
Thus, judging love's efficacy by its impact on the distribution of
benefits and burdens globally
is necessary, even though difficult.
2. 8. Can
benefits be widely defined in such a way that not much burden is
3. 1. Self
is embodied complexity: social characteristics and distinctive
Self-interest as individualism is incomplete because interdependence is
3. 3. To
love your neighbor (whom you might be defining as enemy) as yourself is
thus to act
identity that is interdependent.
Construing benefits and burdens as isolated from each other ignores
3. 5. To
amplify benefits for some by amplifying burdens for others diminishes
the security of all.
Self-interested love entails equitable distribution of benefits and
burdens to meet basic needs of
3. 7. This
may specifically entail in some cultures diminishing economic and
context, in religious groups in the United States today, at least these
five themes in conversations and actions about persons and HIV/AIDS
would help us to stop replicating norms contrary to the well-being of
Religious denominations are often international in their identity. This
gives denominations in the United States an opportunity and
responsibility for understanding and responding to the effects of HIV
not only in this country. For example, are church pension funds invested
in a pharmaceutical company that sells a treatment drug affordable only
in affluent countries? By that action the holders of pensions are
affecting afflicted persons in non-affluent countries, especially if the
pharmaceutical company is not making the treatment drugs available
inexpensively in those countries. Counteracting narrow nationalism in
the United States is a second opportunity and responsibility provided by
the international identity of religious denominations. The stereotypical
attribution of disease to immigrants or to other countries or continents
-- such as blaming Africa for HIV and AIDS -- needs daily, explicit
challenge by religious organizations.
immigrants as dangerous carriers of illness because they are foreign
falls easily into the trap that racism sets for difference. Refusing to
attend to the cultural and economic factors that may be some of the
causes for the present rates of transmission in various groups already
in this country also contributes to racism's power. The rhetorical
commitment of white religious denominations to rid themselves and the
society of racism can be actually embodied in the daily struggle with
Religious denominations in this country are often the prime location for
experiencing community for the members. But parochial community both
binds the members together and tends to exclude those who are not
members. For various reasons this exclusiveness is now officially
rejected by many religious communities. Religious groups can be
precisely the location where the excluded, the cast out, in society are
most welcomed. With regard to persons with HIV and AIDS, this has often
meant that others members of the congregation have had to work against
their own ignorance and fear. The attribution of "problem status" to the
excluded is often a screen between oneself and another. Today many
religious denominations combine homophobia and theological cl about
divine authority. Some claim created identity and action expressing it
are separable; so they require "homosexual" persons to be celibate. Some
claim that all divinely created human identity is heterosexual.
Political organizing among gay men, lesbians, families, and
friends has opened a theological discussion within religious groups that
can assist religious groups. This is especially helpful in confronting
the idolatry that is expressed when humanly created definitions of
divine will are absolutized and often embodied in definitions of
institutional authority, including ordination.
religious denominations in this country have long construed themselves
as the experts on the human spirit and often rightly so. Religious
expertise about spirit has always been intrinsically connected with
interpretations of body, even when this was not readily admitted or a
solely negative notion of body. Today social changes in interpretations
of embodiment offer the religious communities opportunities to develop a
more existentially (including spiritually) adequate interpretation of
embodiment. To construe body and spirit (soul, mind, psyche are often
equivalent terms) as separable not only abstracts materialism and
consumerism from religious analysis. It also makes it near impossible to
interpret body as the locus of divine action. The Holy is abstracted
from history and culture. In addition, interpreting the body solely as a
medium for a functional theology of reproduction reduces sexuality to
genital reproducing, and physical pleasure of any other sort is reduced
to suspicious. Such a theology of creation is thus inadequate as a base
for a social interpretation of justice. Churches, temples, synagogues
and other religious communities today have an opportunity to become
communities based on models of family other than those developed to meet
the needs of pre-industrial agrarian societies. The economic
consequences, including regarding provision of health care, are worthy
Religious traditions have always attended to illness and healing. Today
the defining of illness is a major social dilemma. In part this is due
to the tendency in this society to use exclusive boxes to define
everything, and the boxes are not allowed to overlap on someone else's
"turf." This competitiveness never serves persons who are ill. Rather,
it turns each person into a collection of boxed identities too. The
person who is ill is then assigned the responsibility for integrating
mutually exclusive categories of identity. If a person has HIV within
her or his bodied-self, is that a matter only of excessive viral
replication? moral character? ethnic identity? ignorance of condoms and
needles? uncaring community? secular convictions? religious offenses?
lack of emotional control? destiny? Such claims are often made, serving
purposes other than the well-being of the person who has HIV. Whether
such claims are appropriate within programs of prevention is contested
by proponents of each. The claims also reinforce individualistic models
of human action. Intense and extended conversations are needed between
religious communities and medical communities to end the construing of
the duet as one sung by mutually exclusive voices. The well-being of
persons with any illness, including HIV, cannot be effected by
compelling that each person to function according to combative
categories of multiple definers of health, healing, and death.
Finitude in terms of mortality has also been an integral theme in
religion, either as problem or solution. Today in the United States
death elicits fascination and fear. Too often morality is defined solely
in terms of sexuality, and religious groups posit certain behavior as
prerequisite to post-death well-being. Too often health is defined
solely in terms of immortality, and medical groups posit a certain
behavior as prerequisite to avoiding mortality. Acknowledging finitude
does not necessarily mean celebrating unlimited behavior. But it does
reject a dominant theme in this society: perfection is the norm,
obtainable by medication, piety, consuming, hard work, genetic therapy,
or some other means. How can religious groups celebrate finitude and
create interdependent well-being simultaneously? A good, long life for
billions of people is a greater goal than denial of finitude by the
affluent. With regard to the specific illnesses of the human immune
systems, we will have to deal with the false security that individualism
offers in order to obtain the cooperative work that is necessary for
diminishing burdens and amplifying benefits on an interdependent planet.
Religious communities in the United States can be the means not only for
the social services necessary to attend to this. We can also be places
of conversation and action in which we ourselves are willing to change,
so that life around the whole planet will be more abundant in health and