Who are you?

Recently our Sunday gospel recounted the story of Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)  It is a question we should each be able to answer in a way that reflects the impact and meaning that Jesus has in our life. Thomas’s answer, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) is a great answer, but perhaps just a summary. What are the details? Can you combine your answer with the admonition of 1 Peter 3:15 (Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope)?

I wonder if there is also an “always be ready” moment to think about who people say that you are? Hopefully your thoughts on the matter are close to the answer others would give…but, these days, I wonder. We live in a world in which our political affiliations are increasingly the lens by which we see and are seen.

It has been a year since the bitter elections of 2020. Politics has always been rough and tumble, but these days it is different. Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neill could not have been further apart on the political spectrum, but they were friends. They could engage in fiery rhetoric, but then laugh about it later. Since the days of Newt Gingrich’s house leadership, those days are but a distant memory. There are few “hands across the aisle.” And in the ratched-up world of sound bits and social media, we are beginning to reflect that divide – and across that divide identities are being formed or at least perceived. The rise of the Tea Party was just one instance of the divide; the increasing move of the Democrat party to the left/progressive policy positions is a mirror in many ways. Sectarian partisanship rendered Congress almost seemingly incapable of performing its constitutional duties. When did transportation policy become ideological? Even that is viewed as a zero-sum, identity-based competition in which winning, not forging the best policies possible, is the primary goal.

The current sectarian division renders policymaking virtually impossible and nature abhors a vacuum. And so into the congressional policy leadership vacuum steps the desire for solutions (the optimist’s view) or the grabbing for power (the pessimist’s view): presidents who act beyond their constitutional power thru executive order or use the administrative rules and regulations to achieve a similar end via a politically appointed and led administrative state. Don’t assume this is simply a reference to the previous administration. It has been a growing concern of scholars and researchers for the last 30+ years. But sectarian gridlock in Congress helps create the vacuum. Down the road, poor policy and vague legislation, sectarian fueled, ends up in the Courts.

The sectarian divisions in Congress – it is hard to know if it simply reflects us or is the cause of the sectarian condition of the people. Who could have imagined we live in an age that questions the legitimacy of elections, proposes the “deep state”, blatantly and publicly abuses elected officials, and a mob invades the US Congress and state legislative assembly buildings.

In a recent article, the former House member from the Chicago area, Daniel Lipinski wrote: “But for an increasing number of Americans today, party affiliation is connected to more than policy preferences. It is a moralized social identity where members on each side view those on the other side with contempt. Americans are pushed by the culture to make a binary choice—Democrat or Republican—and then conform themselves to every belief of their party. This is not tribalism but sectarianism. It determines not only how we vote but where we live, who we marry and how we worship.”

When I listen to friends, colleagues, parishioners – when I read Catholic commentaries from Vatican prefects, local bishops, commentators, pundits and more – I see the sectarianism of the world shaping the views of what it means to be Catholic and a faithful citizen. It is commonplace for me to encounter a parishioner who asserts they are pro-life because they are anti-abortion; and yet, they are for the death penalty and doctor assisted suicide. There are parishioners who assert that abortion is the issue that trumps all others. There are parishioners that are for the poor, against the death penalty, and yet are pro-choice when it comes to abortion, birth control and doctor-assisted suicide. There are parishioners that assert there is a calculus of pro-life issues that one, reluctantly, has to engage, because there are no viable candidates who are fully pro-life. There are parishioners who want to discuss all this on the sidewalk in front of church after Mass. When I suggest that this is too important and complex a topic for the sidewalk and offer to meet in my office, I wonder if the ones who push for a one sentence answer are just seeing which of their binary categories they should slot me into.

We live in complex times that demand our participation. How are we to sort through all the flotsam and jetsam that litters the seas in which we sail? I can only offer two suggestions. Take the time to answer the question “Who do you say that I am” in a way that practically and concretely responds out of the context of your life. Then, you are better prepared to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. Then if someone asks, “who are you?” you are ready to give an answer – and I doubt it will fit into the questionnaire’s binary categories.

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