When I joined the Noviciate, all my fellows Novices came from the North, so as I came from Norfolk and our Novice Guardian from Suffolk, there was a certain amount of Northern/Eastern banter going around. One of the Sisters picked this up, saying at Community Tea one day ‘Sr Elizabeth and Rachel come from the same place’. It got an immediate answer from both of us – ‘we don’t!’. I’m from Norfolk and she’s from Suffolk. I have a ‘proper’ suspicion of all things Suffolk, although I’ve never asked if Sr Elizabeth has an equal suspicion of all things Norfolk.
It is common to identify ourselves over against others. Norfolk is obviously better than Suffolk, if only for the rather dubious reason that I was born and brought up here. How much do we base our identity on being better/different from other people/places or whatever? Anglicans must be better than free church, or Catholics than Protestants or vice versa. Hopefully, nowadays no one would consciously think like that – although I suspect there are categories which people would adhere to. It has a lot to do with our ‘tribal’ identity as well. Who we belong to is part of how we identify ourselves; that’s perfectly normal, but it can become a problem if that sense of identity needs to take priority over the ways other people identify themselves.
To go back to the Norfolk/Suffolk example: I think (I hope) that no one would seriously say that Suffolk is a lesser place merely because it’s not Norfolk, whatever kind of friendly rivalry may go on. But say there is: that because I was born in Norfolk, I must be a better person than ‘all those over there’ who were born in Suffolk (sorry, Sr Elizabeth!). That my sense of identity is bound up with the fact that I’m a Norfolk person. [To be honest, it is – it’s part of who I am. But not in the sense that it makes me better than others, or that Norfolk must be a nicer/better place than elsewhere]. I therefore automatically put myself above all those who are Suffolk born; I prioritise places and items from Norfolk and downgrade those from Suffolk; maybe even going as far as to refuse to talk to people who live in Suffolk, or ban items made in Suffolk from being sold in Norfolk. Do you see the dangers? Obviously, most of us don’t go that far. The other danger is that in over-identifying with something, I refuse to see or acknowledge its’ bad points (yes, even Norfolk has its down side! Don’t ask me what it is …). We get over-defensive if they are pointed out, and those less admirable parts get pushed to one side or ignored. Before I moved to Ditchingham, I was aware of an inner resistance when Suffolk came up. Would I have joined CAH had it been based in Suffolk? Well, obviously I would (“dear God, I give my life to You, so long as You don’t move me to Suffolk” ??) – although I’ve always been glad that Ditchingham was on the Norfolk side of the border. Yet 20-odd years in border country, with regular trips over to Suffolk, taught me that Suffolk people are perfectly normal, and there are some lovely places in Suffolk to visit. That, in fact, my Suffolk prejudice was just that: prejudice, and something that needed letting go.
Our backgrounds, the groups we belong to, the work we do and the places we live in do naturally create our sense of our own identity; that’s normal. It’s perfectly acceptable to be loyal to that, to celebrate it (as we do regularly on ‘Norfolk Day’), as well as to promoting them, such as supporting local businesses. But if we place that sense of identity over against the identity of others, that’s when problems start. A friendly rivalry, or a loyalty to where you were brought up becomes a bias, a way of saying ‘that must be no good because it’s not where I am’. Sr Elizabeth must be a lesser person than me because she was born in that dubious place called Suffolk – which, as those of you who know her will confirm, is simply not true. Yet if I do think that Suffolk is not as good as Norfolk, I am missing out on all the wonderful places and people that can be found there.
These are only examples to get us thinking about ways in which we might promote our own identity at the expense of others, which there are myriad ways of doing. We will all have our own, and it may be worth pondering what they are. Yet our ultimate identity is fixed in God, in whose sight we are precious, who rejoices in our differences. Who created us, loves us and longs for us to see that we all belong in the heart of the Trinity. If we can catch just a glimmer of that, maybe we can learn to rejoice in our differing identities, acknowledging that we are all precious, being sorry for those times when we have used who we say as ‘us’ to ignore/cast out/bully those who are not ‘us’. Bearing in mind it is often easier to see other people doing this than see how we ourselves do. Remember to take the plank out of your own eye, before removing the speck from someone else’s eye. (See Matthew 7:1-5).