On my last blog entry, I wandered through 80’s politics as a way to understand some of the challenges that we, the privileged,have in understanding a faithful life in Christ. Despite assertions by cable news, we don’t live in an environment in the US of extreme persecution. So how do we live fully when there is not someone waiting to jump us for our faith? I want to splash around into psychology and history for this post as one way to view how we have a role in defining what it means to be a child of God, not born of human decision, but because it made and still makes God happy to create and love his creation.
Constructivism vs Essentialism
I am more of social constructivist than essentialist. I hope to make clear why this is important for following Jesus. But for a moment I want to wade knee-deep in social theory – through Comanche history in Texas, through white women identifying as black while leading the NAACP.
Let me use an example from Texas history to distinguish how identity,religious or otherwise, can either be “constructed” from experience or “essential” to the person. Constructivism is a more nuanced version of the “nurture” side in the nature v nurture old saw.
This is a more important conversation now more than ever to have especially if you are raising a trans kid. When people argue over how to raise their kids, constructivism is counterweighted with essentialism. In the crudest form of essentialism, Popeye says, “I yam what I yam.” Our kids are so much more than they or we know, because they/we are the product of a master crafter who is constantly improving the product.
Natives and Settlers in the wild west had very different perspectives on nature v nurture. Late 19th Century Texas really was a wild place. White people were pouring into Texas to homestead the land; trains were moving people ever westward;and the Native Americans were getting an extremely raw deal in the process. Mexico initially welcomed the settlers whom they hoped would provide welcome relief from the scourge of the horse warriors.
The most feared of the Native raiders were the Comanches. It was the Comanches who rewrote the narrative of western expansion through their continual raids in the Southern part of the Great Plains. If you imagine a map of the US and Canada, the Great Plains covers a territory that resembles a giant thumbthat includes large sections of TX, OK, KS and the Dakotas, on up into Canada, with a sliver of Colorado and New Mexico. This was a short-lived fear as they were thoroughly subdued through sheer numbers of settlers and new sniper rifles that could kill a person from nearly a mile away. At the Battle of Adobe Walls in June 1874, Billy Dixon shot a Sharps rifle from 9/10s of a mile, killing a native warrior. The rifle became infamous and renamed “shoots far,” or “shoot today, kill tomorrow” gun.
One leader, Isatai, believed the writing was not on the Wall for a confederation of native warriors. They were going to drive the white people out of their land once and for all. This belief continued until that 1874 Battle of the Adobe Walls. The devastation these long guns brought to the natives and the spiritual demoralization it brought cannot be overstated. Isatai, who was originally named White Eagle, did not enjoy his new name after this - a derogatory term for a coyote’s private parts. He even blamed the native confederation for the loss because they killed a skunk that ruined the warrior magic.
Texas ain’t about no stinking therapy, but it does helpto understand constructivism
Before the long guns finally took the “art” out of warfare, the Comanche’s were artisans with horse based “up in your grill” warfare. A ten year old could hang off the side of at galloping horse and accurately shoot a target 25 yards away. They were rightly feared throughout Texas. Comanches were unapologetically “constructivist.” They would not have used the term. Their tribe was not based on blood line, but on their horse culture and way of life; anyone they abducted or gave birth to were Comanche by default.
The best example of how radically constructivist they were comes from the life of Peta Nocona, Cynthia Ann Parker and their son Quanah (“Stinky”) Parker. Peta was the terrifying military leader of the Quahada Comanches from the 1830s – 1860’s until his son “Stinky” led the group into a final submission at end of Red River War of 1875.Texas settlers rightly feared these horse warriors’ constant raids. In one raid,ten year old Cynthia Ann Parker was forcibly integrated into the Comanche band after her family was executed on their homestead.
This is where constructivism comes in. She was considered fully Comanche despite starting with them as a 10 year old white girl. As an adult, she gave birth to three kids and “Stinky” Quanah Parker would become the full-fledged leader of the tribe. He wasn’t a half breed; he was Comanche. Cynthia was never a second class Comanche. Her tribe, not blood, was central. When she was “rescued” at 34 by the Texas Rangers, she was completely forlorn. She stopped eating and died ostensibly of heartbreak.
The settlers never reconciled why Cynthia could not get over what we would call “Stockholm syndrome” because they were largely essentialist. That is that white people = settlers | brown people =savages and there is little one can do to change that. Nature over nurture for the settlers. White people of the period, before, and after were obsessed with blood line. This was not only with these “savages” but also how African, African Americans were. If you want to see how bad, how essentialist it was, just look up the differently categories for how black a black person was. Or the work of phrenologists.
If you are reading my mind now, you might be getting uncomfortable. Some of the greatest social change has come from people firmly committed to essentialism. The civil rights movement of the sixties was firmly essential. Malcolm X took the “X” because he could not find his essential name in his African lineage. This essentialism was probably necessary – as no one would have thought you were sane if you said that race was a social construct back then. Most people still think that constructivism around race is crazy talk.
The logical conclusion of constructivism makes me deeply uncomfortable around race. Rachael Dolezal recently changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. She was a white woman,raised in a Pentecostal house in Montana, who now believes completely that she is African American. She ran a chapter of the NAACP, until a reporter asked her if she was black which led to her stumbling, deer-in-the-head-lights style, off camera. She has now written a book about this experience. I only got through the amazon sample before I wanted to laugh and/or cry because of the delusional perspective she takes.
If you take constructivism theory to its reductive conclusion, then Rachel/Nkechi has every right to claim her blackness. But that seems gross to me. Maybe it is because the cultural power she has also needs to be figured into that equation. I think few African Americans could change their name to Biff McCraken and claim to be a white person without far more serious consequences than just ridicule.
Ah back to the Bible
The Bible is great antidote to this mess. We Christians constantly remind ourselves that we are children born not of natural descent, nor of the human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:13). Jesus got in trouble; Paul got in trouble; Peter got in trouble. The trouble came when they preached constructivism over essentialism. Essentialism saysthat it is not natural for Jews to associate with sinners. Essentialism says it is not natural for Jews to invite Gentilesfully into fellowship. Essentialism says that Jewish disciples of Jesus and Gentile Christians eating together are just gross.
The Bible is a dangerous book
God sees neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female (Gal 3). What then is there that is essential to us except that we are loved by God? I might seem to give humans too much authority, while placing God’s authority in the back seat. But, how free are we really to redefine ourselves as people of faith who have histories and bloodlines? I am not idealizing a reductive color or gender blindness where we can’t acknowledge our racial and gender bias, but what if we obsessed less about what we are, and more about whose we are. Obsessed about being, as Paul oft repeated, “In Christ”? That obsession might actually improve the texture and value of the world we live in. It might just might bless the people we encounter.
I feel like some of my most treasured experiences are not “essential” to me. I have had experiences like zip lining with the rednecks and vatos at Cecil’s swimming hole east of Houston; dancing at a Nigerian wedding reception; reading my bad poetry at an Alpha Phi Alpha poetry slam; being an actor -the clueless white guy – at my college’s India night theater production; sitting in meditation with a Japanese Zen Master; riding the light rail and talking to homeless men on the way to the medical center; hanging with the golfing set on bingo night at the club; learning how to line dance at a gay cowboy bar in OKC; and helping a transgender person express their identity (for the first time in pubic) at a Kroger in Friendswood, TX (we bought a six pack of Dr. Pepper.) These don’t define me, but they definitely add to the texture of my life and a sense that life is far bigger than me.
On a personal front, the only thing essential about me is Jesus – not my gender, race, education, kids, wife, upbringing, culture, or shocking good looks. If I seek him, seek his promises and let his spirit drive the bus, then I cannot go wrong. Jesus had no taste in picking the right people to hang out with. He enjoys you and me, which is surely a sign of bad judgment. Texture and love is what it’s about.
Life is way too rich to insist that people or an experience fit in a box where only “I know” the shape the box should be. If I met my twenty year old self today, I would barely recognize him as me. I wonder if we are merely a collection of experiences that we falsely take as the truth, the whole truth, so help us God. The totality of the truth, however, is about a God who is infinite. It is about a God whose love has no boundary. By God’s very nature, there is so much more for us to discover in relationship with God. In the Bible, the promise of a loving relationship was made for us at the beginning of creation in Genesis, made again through prophets and people of God in the Old Testament, reupped in Jesus, and is still going on today.
The promises are far bigger than the place where we were born, how smart we are, or how much we can quote scripture. If you think you have the eagle’s eye view on truth, read the last few chapters of Job and that should disabuse you of how global your stake on the truth is. God is in charge of the truth. The Bible is the most complete picture of God’s promises, but even it is a mirror reflecting darkly. A book inspired by the Holy Spirit, but still made and read by sinners. It is necessarily incomplete without the Holy Spirit bringing life to the text.
Thank God that we have not seen the fullness of God, because if this is as good as it gets, we are to be pitied for our hope. But Easter is almost here, so my hope is that He risen and will raise us up. Foolish - maybe. Necessary - absolutely.