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Competence, Identity, Honor, Dignity

At the morning Service of Prayer at 8:00AM every weekday, I read the daily lectionary. These scripture selections complement the Sunday lectionary passages that I preach from. Monday through Wednesday look back to the previous Sunday, and Thursday through Saturday look forward to the next Sunday. One of the passages that came up was Romans 3:21-31 talking, like Paul does, about righteousness, the law, faith, grace, and salvation. This got me thinking about some other things: Erik and Joan Erikson's model for psycho-social development, and the difference between honor culture and dignity culture. I know, that seems like kind of a stretch--barely tangential at best--but bear with me for a sec.

According to the Eriksons, late elementary is an age in human development when kids are working on industry vs. inferiority. They learn to do things that they haven't been able to learn before. They do these things and look to their peers and adults around them for approval. They try to figure out what kinds of activities please them and what kinds of activities they're good at. Their play time starts to take on a character of industry. If they receive no approval, they may start to feel inferior. If they get through this tension well, then they will have developed a feeling of competence.

In teenage years, kids are working out their own identity. The tension is officially listed as "identity vs. role confusion." This is the psycho-social theory where we get the term identity crisis. If they get through this tension well, then they will have developed a feeling of loyalty to those things that are part of their identity. In the Eriksons' theory, we carry with us each thing that we did not resolve well, so the term "identity crisis" can apply to any aged person, but the place where we first start working on it is in our teenage years.

Now it seems to me that these ideas are also being worked out in the Romans passage. The law is the measure of our competence. Are you a good person among the people of God? Have you done well the things prescribed by the law? Similarly, I think that faith and grace are more part of who we are than what we do, so they belong more to the concepts of identity than competence. This passage of Romans says that God presented Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, "to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to demonstrate at the present time his own righteousness, so that he is righteous, and he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus." That phrase, "the one who has the faith of Jesus" is a statement of identity, not of competence.

The Eriksons were talking about each individual developing in the context of their society. This theory belongs more to psychology than sociology. Still there is always an overlap, or more precisely a continuum. Individuals thought about by the Eriksons were not isolated, but individuals in the context of groups: family, schoolmates, the larger society. Sociologists come at it from the other side and are more concerned with the larger society and groups than with individuals.

In the concept of honor culture, people are required to follow strict mores. If someone thinks someone else is not following those mores and calls them on it, then their honor is challenged. One of the common aspects of honor culture is that you are expected to defend your honor, possibly with violence (think about how the barroom brawl gets started in Western TV shows--someone has impugned someone else's honor, requiring a throwing of the first punch). This seems to me to be related to that competence crisis and to the law. The difference is that in an honor culture society enforces its expectations, whereas in the religion of ancient Israel, people are accountable to God under the Torah law.

An alternative to honor culture is dignity culture. Dignity culture emphasizes--perhaps over-emphasizes--the value of each individual. It assumes each person is capable of restraint, and so does not emphasize violence as a means of resolving disputes. One person might insult another, but the insult is simply dismissed: they're entitled to their opinion, but I'm confident in my own identity. The idea that my identity is not dependent on someone else and that they are entitled to their own identity makes me associate the dignity culture with the Eriksons' identity development stage.

One thing the gospel is about is changing our identity. To be fair, even in the Old Testament, calls for repentance and turning back to God are also a kind of changing of identity. Still, the issue in the theology of Paul seems to be individually about changing from being someone who has to work at the competence of living according to the law to being someone who identifies with the values of Christ: love one another; treat each other with dignity; don't hold each other accountable to some strict mores of honor; don't take the insults of others seriously because you have the dignity of being loved by God.

There's one last trap here. It's tempting to end this article with a moral imperative to take on the identity of "one who has the faith of Jesus Christ." The temptation is to make this a new law, a new more. The temptation is to look down on people who don't have the faith of Jesus Christ.  The temptation is to expect people to try too hard; to work at it like that would miss the point. It would be making faith itself a new work. When we take on as part of our identity the values of Jesus, we not only take on our own dignity; we hold dear the dignity of everyone--even those who seem to be breaking other mores we think we value. This is where it also seems to me like Paul is calling for a change of culture: the old way was the law, and the new way is faith and grace. We should be showing grace to each other, not just receiving grace for ourselves. Our identity is not just someone who holds the same values as Jesus. We ARE the body of Christ. We take on the identity of Christ. We present Christ's grace to people we meet like Jesus would. We have dignity, but we don't care about OUR dignity; we care about the other and give dignity to the other. THAT's our identity.




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