One thing I have to say though, is that it reminds me of that old Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime.” You probably don’t know that group from the 70’s and 80’s – David Byrne was the front man? But they had this video, where David Byrne would make this mocking self-parodied motion while singing: “you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here…” And all the lyrics of the song continued to self-reflect on the question of, who the “I” is, and do we really know ourselves? Is that who we want to be?
In our culture, we see ourselves as autonomous individuals. Independent and self-determined, born to be somebody unique. In the Ancient Near East, it was not assumed to be like that. Individuals saw themselves reflected in the identity of the whole society they belonged to, a collective that was led by a royal leader. And that leader, in turn, was a personification of each individual in the whole culture.
In our culture, we usually identify ourselves first by our jobs. I am a teacher, I am a house-husband, I am a fire-fighter, I am an entrepreneur, I am student.
In our culture, we specialize and compartmentalize, and religion is separate from politics, which is separate from the economy, which is separate from government. Just as individuals are autonomous, our institutions and professions are distinct, each having its own particular internal language, and they are as competitive as they are inter-related. In the ancient world, there was no separation. In Jesus’ culture, for example, the religious leaders were also the political leaders, who also were the economic decision-makers. And in Roman society, the Emperor was the political top dog and also the object of religious obedience, as reflected in the phrase printed on their coins and monuments, Caesar, “Son of God.”
Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
This week, Chicago was ground zero for the role of Unions in the whole country, as it was last year in Wisconsin. CPS vs. CTU! I wore red all week. But, not to be partisan and declare sides, as much as to support a more nuanced agenda for our Chicago Public Schools, as defined and lifted up by those who work day in and day out with students, the CTU. Class size is hugely important. Having the basics for a conducive learning environment, having teacher evaluations that work, are all really important. Not just for the same ones again this year, in some of the schools, but for all, in every school. If you’ve been in some neighborhood schools where teaching is hard and half the class doesn’t graduate, you know how important this is. You can’t hold up one specialized school doing extra exciting things as an example, and imply that other neighborhood schools, with far less resources, and starting in a whole different place, with a whole different history, can suddenly follow, simply by deciding they should or want to. You may ask yourself: “How can you call that kind of school system, fair?”
For me, it’s my faith that calls me to get out on the streets and demand better, and so I was delighted when Arise Chicago emailed me to join other religious leaders to gather at Mayor Emmanuel’s office at City Hall this past Friday. But, just as I was preparing my wardrobe, clergy collar and red stole, to hop the Blue Line “on my way” to downtown, I got an urgent email, “Religious Leaders event cancelled” because of the main CTU action in Logan Square, at the exact same time. Well, as much as I had wanted to meet Rahm – and I’m sure he was just dying to meet me! – how could I argue with walking just a couple blocks right down the street I lived on, right in my neighborhood!
As teachers and students and parents marched from 3 different schools in the hood and converged on Logan Square around the IL centennial column, I too, on the way, merged with them, in my red jacket, one of the crowd… unknown- but recognized, stranger- yet participant, no one – save my Tai Chi instructor I ran into – knew who I was- but I was accepted as one of them, a follower of the movement “on the way” to a more just school system for all. I clapped whenever everyone else clapped. I cheered whenever everyone else cheered. I marched in the same direction around the Logan Square monument with the rest of the gathering, tall and small, Latina and Asian, African-American and white. Not because I wanted to feel like a cog in the machine, but because I felt it was important to align my interests in the direction where I think justice and hope for a better future, are on the way, to.
Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
Our contracts with each other are important. We all follow someone, something, and living in the same “commons,” we contract with them, whether formally, like CPS & CTU writing a detailed contract right now, or informally, implied. It’s not a question of individual rights, vs., sharing our collective gifts, one or the other. The only question is, will we hold each other accountable? Jesus’ questions to the disciples were, on the one hand, about his identity, his inner life, but also about his direction, “on the way” to where he was going, his public life. We all make a contract with somebody. And so, You may say to yourself, who should I follow and contract with? Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who will people say that I am?
As the “people” were saying about him, Jesus does have similarities to John the Baptist, Elijah, and the bold speaking prophets before him. But when Peter identifies Jesus as “Messiah,” this was going all in! Naming him the anointed one, was to boot the elephant right out of the room, and begin to polish his crown as a human king, and to sharpen his sword, as general and commander of a misplaced sacred army. So Jesus begins to teach them about his self-identity as Messiah, as he understood himself to be. “I am” the Son of the Human One, the Son of Man, like the savior in the book of Daniel – where that phrase comes from – one who reigns over the whole world, but subverts the way of the sword through suffering and dying a self-giving death, in order to awaken, all the people, at least, all the people who have eyes to see.
All the faith traditions recognize, that coming to terms with suffering and death, is key to human freedom. The prophet Muhammad said, you must “Die before you die.” The Sufi mystic Rumi said, “Lose your life, if you seek eternity.” Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Peter’s response, to rebuke Jesus, that he had it all wrong, echoes our resistance, and our own internal anguish: You may say to yourself, “Why does this have to be?”
In our culture, the individualistic world view is crumbling and falling apart. But it does not mean we simply go back to a perceived golden age, whether Camelot or some biblical utopia. But instead, the dynamics of our identity as individual and group, as inner person and public person, must certainly be redrawn for our time, and the direction we are “on the way” to.
Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Answering these questions will include following leaders willing to suffer for the sake of the truth, not as loners, but as gatherers, leaders right on our street corners, including those with vision for the long term, vision for an abundant life for all. We may be wearing red and all chanting the same slogan, but not as pawns or cogs in the machine. We gather together as similarly clear-thinking, concerned citizens and believers, “on the way” to the peace and justice we recognize in the Son of the Human One.
You may ask yourself, who do people say that I am? Who do I follow?