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Understanding spiritual identity essential for effective social action, lecturer emphasizes

Mary E. Klassen

April 9, 2013

The stories a congregation or denomination tells about itself--even when they are not factual--shape its identity, church historian Quinton Dixie, Ph.D., demonstrated as he presented the annual Theological Lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, March 27 and 28.

In his first two lectures, Dixie reflected how individuals, congregations and denominations establish their identities through their stories and the rules they establish. He ended the series with a challenge to strive for a clearer understanding of one’s own spiritual identity when working in areas of reconciliation and social action.

Dixie recounted how Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City tells a story of its origins that is not factual. In spite of this, the story helped the congregation establish its identity as a strong, independent African American congregation, one of the earliest in the U.S.

“A community’s moral reasoning may be seen most clearly in the stories it chooses to remember and recall,” Dixie said. The stories a community claims for itself make statements about its norms and tell others what it believes, all with the goal of working toward its vision.

The shaping of religious identity is complex, Dixie explained. Boundaries created by religious categories do not adequately explain who a person or a community is, but boundaries still mean something. The meaning is always changing, but the more we know about religious groups, “the more we understand the richly nuanced history of people.”

The third lecture included this call for understanding oneself and others as Dixie enumerated steps for effective social action, steps he said can reenergize and re-invigorate social movements with Christian emphasis. In this session, he drew on the writings of Howard Thurman, a theologian and educator who was instrumental in shaping the vision of nonviolence in the US civil rights movement.

First, do not “allow to flourish in our own hearts what we don’t permit in others,” Dixie quoted from Thurman. Then he added, “We have to be aware of our own blind spots.”

Next we must recognize that people on both sides of a conflict are our brothers and sisters. When we too quickly choose a side in a conflict, “we lose any moral authority with the other side to try to bring about a peaceful resolution. We often forget that the whole goal of the resolution is to help both parties see the interconnectedness.”

When that doesn’t work, some method of shock helps people see the moral issue. Thurman believed there may even come a point where martyrdom is necessary, Dixie explained. He cited the example of how publicity of brutal treatment of African Americans in the civil rights movement affected large numbers of people who were not directly involved.

According to Dixie, Thurman believed that these phases require serious, deliberate spiritual work. We must remember that Jesus Christ is with us, “participates with us; does not leave us alone in the midst of this.”

Also, “we have to always surround ourselves with people on a similar journey. But at the same time not become so insular that we forget the purpose of the inward walk is to take those spiritual resources and then go out into the world.”

Dixie is associate professor and ethnic and cultural studies program director at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He holds a doctoral degree in modern and American church history from Union Theological Seminary. With Peter Eisenstadt he wrote Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Beacon Press, 2011) and with Juan Williams wrote This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience (William Morrow, 2003).

Listen to Dr. Dixie's lectures on AMBS's iTunes U channel.