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Faith Matters

Dr Richard Clarke: Working out our Christian identity

Christian disciples are challenged to treat others with dignity and respect, regardless of who and what they are, what they think or what they do, says Archbishop Richard Clarke

The care of refugees, such as those fleeing north Africa in flimsy boats in the hope of sanctuary in Europe, is a "supremely practical matter", says Archbishop Richard Clarke.

MANY of the extraordinary changes on the world scene over the past year might reasonably be seen as revolving ultimately around a single conception, that of identity.

What is our basic identity? Is it local or global, is it national or supra-national, is it a particular social, ethnic or religious culture, or does it extend further?

In the phrase of Stephan Shakespeare, coined some years ago, is it to be drawbridge up or drawbridge down?

Massive difficulties arise when there is a serious clash between differing perceptions of fundamental identity, when each side in the discussion seeks to demean, threaten or even destroy the other, and we have indeed seen many examples of this over recent months, and in many places, near and far.

But we would be naïve to imagine that the need for identity is not a basic human instinct.

Social psychologists would assure us that we are all hard-wired to require and to defend a particular identity for ourselves, and to be instinctively and resolutely loyal to those we can identify as 'like us' in respect of this identity.

What then can easily follow from this, however, is a willingness to replace any obedience to truth with whatever risible nonsense will reinforce our prejudices as we seek to demonise the 'otherness' of those we see as different from us, and hence is highly dangerous.

One is reminded of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British and allied forces in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. He recommended such an approach as "drawing nourishment from the sins of the enemy".

"If there are no sins, invent them," he said. "The aim is to make the enemy so great a monster that he forfeits the rights of a human being."

The casual arrival of such a tactic - totally unblushingly - into public discourse in the society of today, in the supposed interests of maintaining one's own cherished identity, has polluted the moral foundations of society itself.

As Christian disciples, we recognise that we do indeed have a basic identity that we must share with all others, that of being made by God in His image and likeness.

This means that others - all others - must be treated with a complete dignity and with an utter respect, regardless of who and what they are, what they think or what they do.

There are of course other identities of which we must be aware - identities of culture, of religious affiliation, of ethnicity, of sexuality, of nationality - but these cannot be allowed to deface our essential fundamental identity of being loved equally by God.

But we are called to find another identity within our Christian calling.

This comes through strongly in the Gospels where Christ calls us to find a true identity, not only with those who are like us, or with those whom we find it easy to like or admire, but with those who most need our love and our care.

Hence, the Good Samaritan finds an identity with someone who would avoid and despise him in any other circumstance but who now needs his help.

The 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel is a stern reminder that we find identity with Christ in those to whom we hold out our hand in unselfconscious care: those who are homeless, regardless of why they are homeless; those who are in prison, regardless of whether they are guilty of some crime or not; or those who are without the means to have decent clothes or any clothes at all, regardless of whether or not it was fecklessness, dishonesty or addictions that put them into that situation.

The identity that we must have and truly believe we have is with those who need us, and therefore we must hold to such an identity willingly and ungrudgingly.

Perhaps the most obvious area in which we should be able to see this is in relation to the refugee crisis that is sweeping the world at present, and which has become a focus for many people's complaint that 'their identity' is somehow being threatened by immigration.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that, worldwide, there are almost 60 million forcibly displaced people; over 45 million men, women and children are being helped or protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and over half of all refugees are under 18 years old.

But, as we consider the European aspects of the refugee crisis, we need first to understand that nearly 90 per cent of all known refugees are being cared for, not here in Europe, but in the developing world, those countries that can least afford any influx of impoverished newcomers.

This is a supremely practical matter. We need to be ready to protect, in every way we can and in every part of this island, those refugees and asylum seekers who are already here in Ireland, but who are now being treated with indifference, or with suspicion, hostility and even violence.

But if we can see how xenophobia and a more generalised fear of the otherness of those who seem unlike us may be an outcome for those who are insecure in their own identity, we also need to understand how there are other more hidden but equally dangerous aspects to that human insecurity.

There are many around us today, in every age group and every social class, who are not at ease with themselves and who cannot find their true identity.

One of the terrible outcomes of this is in the terrifying incidence of domestic abuse and violence in Ireland today.

Inevitably victims are more often female than male but this is not the entire picture. What is immensely disturbing is that the incidence of reported violence is so high - and we know that it cuts across all social classes and all socio-economic groups - that we must therefore assume that it is present within every community.

It is under our noses, perhaps even in our own families. People who suffer in this way must be encouraged to seek help. When people cannot come to terms with themselves and their real identity, or cannot be at ease with what they are, then the most terrible things can happen.

One of the possibilities that we are investigating in Armagh Diocese is how parish churches can be designated as 'safe places' for those who are suffering domestic abuse.

For many people, in every part of this island, the Church does not have a reputation as being a place of safety, far from it. Surely we can work together to reverse this notion of what we are.

  • Dr Richard Clarke is the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh. This is abridged from his presidential address at the Church's annual General Synod, which met last week in Limerick.
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