Encounters with God: Humanizing experiences amidst questions of faith and identity

Encounters with God: Humanizing experiences amidst questions of faith and identity

Credit: Lynne Zehr

Andy Brubacher Kaethler

Andy Brubacher Kaethler, assistant professor of Christian formation and culture at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, gave this reflection at Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart on Sept. 18, 2016.

From the time I was a young boy, growing up in Muslim Bangladesh and animist Ghana, I had questions about faith and identity — much more intense and burning questions than boys my age back in Canada appeared to have. I had questions about why Muslims appeared to take prayer more seriously than Christians, and why Africans saw spirits everywhere in the natural world. My peers wondered why the Dukes of Hazzard displaced Wonder Woman on the Sunday afternoon TV lineup, and when the Toronto Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup again (some questions are eternal). I wasn’t sure what it meant to be Canadian, in part because Canadian nationalism is relatively low-key, and in part because I wasn’t particularly interested in being like the other kids around me, if that’s what it meant to be Canadian.

Moving to the U.S. 14 years ago renewed questions about faith and identity for me. By contrast to my experience in Canada, especially in those early post-9/11, Iraq War and war in Afghanistan years, Americans were more vocal about nationalism and religion, and frequently mashed the two together. I found it difficult to attend events such as school sports where the national anthem was played or the Pledge of Allegiance recited. I spent lots of pre-game time in the bathroom or hallways to avoid having to stand and worship the flag. On numerous occasions after conversations with neighbors I’d walk away thinking, “Did they really just say that?” My ambiguity about what it means to be Christian and Canadian was only intensified by our neighbors’ account of what it means to be Christian and American.

A few recent experiences have brought the tensions I feel around faith and identity to the fore again. This current election cycle seems to have brought out the worst of what it means to be both Christian and patriotic. I was very disappointed when Bethany Christian Schools (Goshen, Indiana) decided a year ago to play the national anthem at certain sporting events. Bethany’s decision to ask its community to stand and worship the flag at sectionals, for the sake of home-field advantage, revenue and publicity, stands in contrast to San Francisco 49er’s Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem as an act of vulnerability, self-denial and sacrifice in order to align himself with the vulnerable in this country.

On Friday, Sept. 16, I became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. The year-long process of applying, attending an immigration interview, and attending an Oath Ceremony intensified tensions I feel between faith and national identity. Because I was not willing to commit to bear arms to protect this country and I was not willing to swear oaths — something all applicants agree to by signing their application form — I needed to think through again what it means to be a Christian and a pacifist, and to provide documentation to support my position in order to explain why I was submitting an application unsigned.

My daughter, Hannah, joined me at the naturalization ceremony. The ceremony was one part uncritical civil religion — with all the patriotic rites one would anticipate at such an event; one part dehumanizing bureaucracy — with long lines and documents to be submitted and distributed; and one part chaos — with individuals from at least 28 different countries being naturalized, each with varying capacities for English and different cultural understandings of what “organized process” looks like.

I encountered God at this event in the chaos, actually, which I found rather humanizing in contrast with the dehumanizing, homogenizing impulses of nationalist and bureaucratic systems. While more than 90 percent of those with ceremonial roles were filled by Americans of European descent (e.g., 44 of 45 Purduettes were white; one African American student was at the back of the choir), 92 of 99 people being naturalized were not of European descent.

I sat beside two young Burmese women with bright head coverings, who yattered away for most of the ceremony in their native language, barely stopping their conversation for the national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance. The individuals from Nigeria and Ghana, by contrast, were extremely attentive to what the judge and long stream of speakers had to say, and they recited the pledge with great volume and enthusiasm.

The woman who gave the main address, a Purdue University professor, herself added a humanizing element to the ceremony. She admitted she did not say the Pledge of Allegiance herself sometimes, when she felt the country was not taking care of its citizens justly, or treating others in the world justly, or treating the earth justly.

This ceremony reminded me to notice and rejoice in humanizing moments — God moments — especially when they come in times and places that challenge my easy stereotypes: to notice when my neighbors who think differently than me do kind things for others; to affirm the way Bethany, as a school, has walked with one of their families following the student’s death; to commend athletes who take a social stance, even if it puts their career at risk …

When we find our faith and our identity with God, we are better able to see the unfolding of the kingdom of shalom and participate in God’s reconciling work.