On being from nowhere and the problem of belonging

Where are you from? Pretty simple, every day sort of question. For some, the answer is incredibly simple and straightforward. They were born and raised somewhere and continue to live and work in the same place. Where they are from is easy. For others, they were born and raised in one town, but have since begun to move around the country for work. Are they “from” the place they were born and raised or the place they have now settled and call home? Is Will Smith from Philadelphia or Bel-Air? And what of those people for whom things are more complicated still? They were born in a place, as we all are, but have subsequently moved throughout their childhood and continue to live the sort of nomadic existence many do these days. Are they from the place they were born, where they first went to school, where they spent their formative years, the place they’ve spent the longest or wherever they happen to lay their hat?

The politics of belonging is a complicated thing. My wife has a very simple answer to this question. She was born and raised in the same place, never so much as moving house until she went away to university for the first time. Though she has since moved around the country with me (being, as we are, married and all that), she is clear where she is from. To make matters easier still, her mother was brought up in the same village she was. So birth, upbringing and heritage all happily align. The sense of belonging is pretty clear. My wife is proudly from the Midlands and feels quite at home with village life amongst the middle class people with whom she has (largely) grown up.

My sense of belonging is less clear. My mother’s family hail from the West Country but themselves upped sticks to the North West during my mother’s childhood. Most of them have moved back to the ancestral West Country homeland, never having lost their dulcet Bristolian tones. My mother never quite made it back. My Dad is a typical baby-boomer from an undeniably working class family that grew up in inner-city Liverpool. Almost all of his family moved out decades ago. I was born in a shire county with which my family had no prior connection. Despite this, I somehow managed to begin my schooling in a less than salubrious part of Birkenhead. I then spent my formative years growing up in an Oxfordshire village but, at a point when just about all my friends (even those on council estates – yes they exist in Oxfordshire too!) lived in houses they owned, we schlepped around the area moving between rented accommodation. By the time I was 18, I had lived in 6 different homes (which, if you can’t be bothered to get a calculator, averages at a move every 3 years). Shaking this nomadic lifestyle has been difficult. I have lived in 5 different areas of the country during my marriage (averaging around a move every year and a half). All of that discounts the time I spent in another area for university (and three other houses during that time). Where I am from is not quite the easy question it is made out to be.

Then, aside from where I happen to have lived, is the politics of belonging. What group do I belong to? Am I a Southerner because of my birth or a Northerner by heritage? Am I Southern because the majority, but not all, of my formative years were in the South or a Northerner because I have spent the majority of my life in the North? Am I Northern because that’s where I first went to school or Southern because that’s where I went to secondary school? Am I Northern because down South I felt different and Northern, being raised in thoroughly Northern school of parenting, or am I Southern because up North I also feel out of place? Down South I was common, up North I am posh, in the Midlands I am just “not from round here”. Where on earth do people like me belong?

I have pretty well spent my life feeling as though I belong nowhere. When the apostle Paul said he became all things to all people, I sense I am not what he meant. In fact, I have often felt (probably unfairly) that is an incredibly easy thing to say when you have a strong identity with which you are incredibly comfortable. Paul was, after all, the most Jewish of Jews by his own admission. I on the other hand, was the least anything from anywhere – and man did I know it! I was just continually and always different. Wherever I went, I was enough like the people to potentially be from there but not quite enough like them to ever really fit in.

That I have never quite belonged anywhere means that I face nothing particularly new to me when it comes to how I am treated as a Christian.Tracey Ullman comes remarkably close to the truth of how things are nowadays in her opening sketch from the Tracey Ullman Show aired on 24/02/2017.

Christians don’t have to do anything. There is nothing particularly about us that we have necessarily done. Just the mere mention of Christianity, especially if you actually believe it, leads to this sort of reaction. Notice the scores and scores of politicians publicly paraded in the media and asked if they’re really a Christian and believe the things in the Bible. No inference needs to be made. The joke need not be inferred because the Christian simply is the joke.

Having said all of that, I suspect this is something of what the average British person feels wandering into church for the first time. When the wider culture already pictures us as weird, just for who we say we are even before we’ve done anything, what are people to expect? It’s all they’ve got to work with. We now live in a post-Christian society in which the vestiges of Christendom are still evident in parts of societal life (though are rarely consciously connected to the Christendom from which they emanate) but in which it is not unusual for people to have never been to church and to hold the de facto a priori presumption of some form of secular humanism. Walking into church for such a person probably feels kind of familiar whilst simultaneously utterly alien. The “stuff” surrounding Christianity still floats around in the cultural ether but an actual encounter with real Christians in a truly Christian setting just feels a bit weird. We might be able to fake it a bit but we kind of sense everybody knows that’s what we’re doing. It’s familiar enough to make an attempt to join in but strange enough for us to feel highly uncomfortable.

Let me say just this: I feel your pain.

The wonderful news is there is somewhere we can belong without prejudice. Our belonging is not based upon the place we were born, our class or the accent out of our mouths. It is based upon faith in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul writes this:

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)

Of the church, Paul writes this:

1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

The gospel is not a call to those who are from somewhere in particular. It is a call to all people, even those like me who are from nowhere. The emphasis in the Bible is not on where you are from, but who you are in. Our belonging is not based upon our birth or our family but upon our union by faith with Jesus Christ. This ought to work itself out in the church in a clear sense of unity. The church is not built around cultural identities and social structures – it cuts across all lines of ethnicity, nationality, culture and class and makes us one, a united body, in Jesus Christ.

The gospel is a call to all people – those from somewhere and those from nowhere – to a new type of belonging. It is a belonging based on faith in Jesus. If our belonging is truly this radical, our churches ought to manifest that unity in belonging in visible ways. We ought to reflect, not only our local communities (though we should), but the wider Christian community. If the gospel is for all people everywhere, and calls us to belong, is that Biblical belonging reflected in the makeup of our churches? For people from nowhere – people with no real identity like me – the church is one place we ought to feel we really do belong.

 

3 comments

  1. Exactly my feelings as well Steve. I had 12 years in Sidcup, Kent, then 12 in Oxford, starting in a grammar school first, where I has to endure wearing the wrong coloured blazer because my parents couldn’t afford a new one just for the summer term! That really helped me to feel I belonged! By the end of the 6th form I felt part of the area, but when I moved to Merseyside for work I found it difficult to be accepted in the local churches – wrong accent among other things. Having moved to the Midlands in my 40s has made me even more uncertain about my roots – I tell most people I’m a mongrel! On the positive side I think it helps me talk to complete strangers; on the flip side making friends in Catshill where everyone has lived here from year dot is much harder – a bit too late! I probably value the universal church more than your average Catshillian, but I see all this as God’s unique way with me, a Providence nevertheless which others have, except I rarely meet them. An interesting article, Steve.

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