When I was 14, we moved from Chetwynd, a small town in northern British Columbia (BC), to the big city of Vancouver, BC. As an Adventist teacher’s kid, this wasn’t particularly new. By the age of eight, I’d moved four times, covering the breadth of the country. But this time the loss was greater. Six years in Chetwynd made it the closest thing I had to a hometown. I did not want to move; but I didn’t have a choice.
Transitioning to a new culture might have been easier, but my parents aren’t third culture kids like me. While my dad moved from Newfoundland as a boy, he and my mom had both grown up in downtown Toronto. Stability was an assumption; saying goodbye wasn’t something you learned when you never moved.
So, after the move, my brother and I spent the first few months “screaming”—criticizing and attacking everything about our new home. Chetwynd was in every way superior to the place we now found ourselves and we were going to make sure everyone knew it. The city was terrible. The culture was bankrupt. The people we met were stupid for valuing it. Surprisingly, they didn’t hold this against us. Eventually we made friends and learned to live in the new place. While I still dislike cities—Vancouver in particular—I’ve learned and I’ve grown.
Lately, I’ve recognized that the reason I reacted so badly when I moved to Vancouver was out of fear. I’d lost my home, I was afraid I would lose my history and my identity. In order to protect it, I attacked everything that was different. I valorized my own culture as superior; I attacked people who were different from me because I was insecure in my own identity and afraid of losing myself.
In the book Third Culture Kids (TCKs), authors David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken note “three common reactions [of] TCKs as they try to sort out their identity issues,” especially when there are no visible markers of difference: chameleons, screamers and wallflowers. The first attempt to erase difference and blend in, the second base their identity on their differences and the third simply don’t engage for fear of being different (57). This relates to the recent Association of Adventist Forums/Spectrum conference: “A Third Way.”
In his opening presentation, Brian McLaren outlined two common approaches when engaging people who do not share our beliefs: strong-hostile (screamers) and weak-benign (chameleons). He then explained that we need a third way in order to move beyond these unhelpful ways of interacting and negotiating our faith identity. These two approaches are both grounded in a significant amount of fear and insecurity about (losing) our own identity and our “Christian witness.” (McLaren never addressed the issue of wallflowers—those who simply refuse interfaith engagement for fear of being different.)
Approaching someone from a different (faith) culture is difficult and scary. For fear of offending, we may choose to simply hide our differences or even act as if there aren’t any (chameleons). Unfortunately, we lose our identity in doing so. As Pollock and Van Reken explain, “those around them may notice how the [chameleon]’s behavior changes in various circumstances and begin to wonder if they can trust anything the [chameleon] does or says. It looks to them as if he or she has no real convictions about much of anything.” (101) Interestingly, our fear of being different can make people afraid to trust us. Brian shared that his Muslim friends often appreciate the honesty of conservative Christians because it makes conversation about differences possible.
Conversely, for fear of losing our identity, we may refuse to adapt (screamers). Like I did in Vancouver, we can yell about how right and good we are and how wrong and foolish everyone else is. Naturally, this offensive approach also makes people afraid of us. As Pollock and Van Reken explain:
a ‘different from’ identity has a certain arrogance attached to it. [Screamers] often use it to put other people down as a way to set themselves apart or boost their sense of self-worth. ‘I don’t care if you don’t accept me, because you could never understand me anyway.’ [Screamers] chalk up any rejection they feel or interpersonal problems they have to being different, rather than taking a look to see if they themselves might have added to this particular problem. (110)
This approach seems to be particularly common in online forums, including Spectrum.
While both approaches are fairly instinctive responses to difference and loss, neither is particularly healthy over the long term. Both are grounded in fear and insecurity, rather than love.
Another way of phrasing the conference theme is “how can we relate to people with different beliefs in love rather than fear?” Saturday morning, at the conference, William Johnsson lamented how fear has come to be such a large part of American life, especially since 9/11. He lamented that Americans (and Canadians) have surrendered our identities to our fears. As Ryan Bell pointed out Sunday morning, there are no easy solutions—interfaith engagement doesn’t erase fear, it confronts it. Samir Selmanovic put it beautifully in his story of Adventists dancing awkwardly at his wedding—they tried, even though they were silly and clumsy doing it, because they wanted to demonstrate their love. Loving like this is not easy or safe or comfortable or without fear—but it is necessary, in spite of the risk, in spite of the fear, in spite of the discomfort. Just ask Christ.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as the Spectrum blog has posted reports from the conference, there has been no shortage of “screaming” (and/or rock throwing) about it, particularly by those who were unable or unwilling to attend. I have noticed two central questions of the same sort. First: “won’t we lose our identity if we engage the other?” This question has been phrased particularly in terms of postmodernism (as the end of identity) and/or Brian McLaren’s theology (as arguing for an absence of identity). While I have written extensively expressing disagreement with these arguments, I identify with the implicit fear and insecurity—”I am afraid of losing my identity.” The second question is: “how can we talk to those (Muslim) people? They might hurt us.” I empathize—but remember, other people are afraid of us. Fear must not be the foundation of our actions.
As followers of Christ, we are called to love, not to fear or make afraid. Fear is not what motivated Christ in becoming human. While he never surrendered his character or identity as God, he underwent infinite loss and change to be with us. He was hurt and wounded by friends and enemies alike. Only insofar as we love like Christ loved, in spite of risk, in spite of fear, in spite of difference, can we hope to move beyond violence and war, to live together and to live like Christ.
So, let me say that I am afraid, too. These discussions are difficult and frightening. I have been hurt. I recognize your fear and pray I have not made any of you afraid to speak. But I challenge us all, especially on the Spectrum blog: Act out of love, not fear. Speak out of love, not fear. Open yourself, risk yourself, be brave as Christ was. It is not easy. I cannot recount all the wounds I have suffered throughout my life. Life isn’t safe. “Screaming” about our differences and fears or hiding from them doesn’t make the world safer. It simply makes us more afraid.
David Barrett is co-producer of the Storying Life podcast, and recently completed an MA in English with a concentration in Cultural, Social and Political Thought.
Image: The Scream by Edvard Munch