“The Gospel of Christ is a shattering disturbance, an assault which brings everything into question” Karl Barth, __The Epistle to the Romans__, 225.
“We are under grace, and we are ourselves the objective of its attack” Karl Barth, 216.
“May God never relieve us of this questioning! May God enclose us with questions on every side! May God defend us from any answer which is not itself a question! May God bar every exit and cut us off from all simplifications!” Karl Barth, 254.
“Broken men, we dare to use unbroken language. We must not forget that we are speaking in parables and after the manner of men [Rom 6:18]” Karl Barth, 221.
A major theme in the Commentary on Romans is that grace produces something in us beyond our possession. Grace is the dissolution of our selves, of every human possibility, even and especially the most religious and pious of human endeavors. But the “new self” is not the object of empirical observation; it is not equivalent to a certain mystical experience or ethical standpoint. The person that I was has died in Christ. I now live in Christ, or Christ lives in me. Yet this new person that I am eludes my own understanding. I know who I am…by faith. But faith is faith in the unseen. Therefore, the life I live now is one that is beyond my own understanding. We live by faith, not by sight.
In discussion about the future of Rwanda, I frequently hear two ways of “moving beyond” Tutsi and Hutu differences. The first option places our hope in a new national identity: a person is neither Hutu nor Tutsi, one is simply Rwandan. The other option eschews the language of national identity in favor of religious identity: one is not Hutu, Tutsi, or Rwandan, one is Christian. The problem with these attempts are numerous. First, everyone still knows who is Tutsi and who is Hutu and everyone knows that these distinctions continue to carry weight: one cannot speak of of one’s place in or after the genocide without recourse to these identities. Secondly, one cannot dissolve and restructure identity by changing the words. Thirdly, the national option still operates on a structure of inclusion/exclusion and cannot cope with hybrid or unclear national identity (e.g., what about Tutsis who were born to Rwandan parents outside of Rwanda and only came to Rwanda 5 years ago, and thus after the genocide?). Fourthly, the religious option also generally follows a pattern of exclusion (what about Rwandan Muslims, a small group of people but one that generally didn’t participate in the genocide). Fifthly, and more problematically, the religious option fails to question how Tutsi and Hutu were constructed as racial identities as part of the process of Christianizing Rwanda. While it may be true that colonial missionaries and later Rwandan priests converted people to “the church” instead of to “Jesus,” one can say that about every Christian failing and thus it is a fairly unhelpful thing to say. Further, every preceding generation that creates a “Christian” culture has been reminded by the following generation just how worldly that “Christian” identity was. Finally, both the religious and the national responses presuppose that the only way forward is to construct a new form of identity. They are both committed to providing a new story through which I (we) can clearly articulate my (our) sense of myself (ourselves).
It is on this final point that I find Barth confusing, but helpful. To be helpful Barth has to be confusing, for he is trying to undermine our attempts to use Christianity to disclose the truth of who we are. Barth is struggling to make us uneasy about who we are. The Gospel shatters our sense of ourselves, as Americans or Rwandans, men or women, Hutu or Tutsi. It is a shattering disturbance of who we are as Christians! No identity, whether national, racial, ethnic, communal, local, individual, gender, sexual or religious (including Christian!) can withstand the judgment of Jesus. All forms of identity are brought into Jesus’ body and there, in his body, brought to death. All forms of identity now live in–and only in–Jesus’ body. They have all been questioned and judged.
But what comes after? A new, superior, and holy form of identity? By no means! The same ones, only, not the same. We are who we are…but also not. We are dead to those old forms, yet, still living in them, or perhaps, Christ is now living in them through us. It’s hard to say. We are undoubtedly new creations, dead to sin, alive in Christ, filled with the Spirit. Yet, this new “I” seems distinct from my conscious self. Who, then, am I?
The key, I am beginning to suspect, for sorting through the problem of identity in post-genocidal Rwanda is the same as sorting through the problem of identity in the late-modern or post-modern global era. The question is not about creating a new self or new national (religious, racial, etc) identity. The question is about how to live without one.
But that is still too easy. The struggle is how to live with various, competing, and ambiguous identities without making these ambiguous forms operate as new solid or self-possessed forms (e.g., hybridity or ambiguity as the new “authentic” cultural form). We cannot place our hope in a new national or even religious identity for Rwanda, or for the U.S.A. We cannot do so because we know that any idea of ourselves that we can articulate, grasp, and represent is a merely human form of life. If so–if the “new” form of identity stands as one human possibility related to others–then it must fall under the judgment of Christ.
Nevertheless, we cannot abandon this process. We are committed to speaking the truth about ourselves. Those who profess faith in Jesus must bring every aspect of who they are–gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, weight, etc–to Jesus and let Jesus have his way with it. The end result is not a brand new, “untainted” or “pure” form of existence–it is a relative human form, reworked, altered, and now much more questionable and unclear than before! We never know who we are but must always receive who we are again, anew, from God. Who are we, then? May God enclose us with this question on every side!
*I don’t think this is the clearest post. My basic point is that one cannot erase Hutu or Tutsi identity anymore than I can cease being a white guy. Nevertheless, in Jesus, I find my whiteness drawn into question, not in a way that makes me more confident (that my being is the “universal” mode of human existence or that my being is a perfectly fine particular mode of being) but that makes me less confident, more uneasy (who do I identify with and why? whose lives help me understand my own life, and why them?). It is not that this tentative form of existence is now the new, superior form. However, being enclosed with questions on every side reminds us that we are always asking and answering these questions as humans, as God’s finite and broken creatures. It opens us up to more pragmatic answers to questions about identity–we can only give limited, partial, stuttering answers to the question, and only in response to particular questions in particular spaces asked for particular reasons and in hopes of a particular result. We never know if we got it right but place all of our confidence in God’s judgment and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.*