Our Common Identity


"There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity ... is at best a euphemism ... Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us." -- Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree

In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon distinguishes between vertical identities, those aspects we share with our parents (our race, religion, family traditions, language, genetic heritage, etc.), and horizontal identities that we hold in common with people who are not our family.

These horizontal connections include cultures that may be difficult for parents to understand and may leave them feeling like outsiders. For instance, a deaf person who is attached to sign language and deaf culture often feels more at home with other deaf people than one's own hearing parents. In one instance, a deaf activist Solomon interviewed "was struck by how many ... deaf people ... had no real relationships with their parents because there had never been fluent communication at home."

The horizontal identities that Solomon investigates include deafness, dwarfs, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disability, child prodigies, crime, transgendered and gay identities. Although members of each group share certain experiences with their families, often their primary horizontal identity may be very difficult for their families to understand.

For a large proportion of the people at my church, faith lies at the very heart of our identity. Our understanding of who we are is based on our experience as God's children sharing the Eucharistic table. Each week, we send visitors to sick and homebound people presenting the communion kit saying, "We are all one body because we share one bread, one cup." Led by Jesus, we form our interpretation of the world through a Christian identity that deeply values tradition and an openness to the changing modern world.

Over the years, straight, gay, lesbian and transgendered people as singles, couples and children, the temporarily able-bodied and people with severe disabilities, have come and gone. I think our effort to abide in Christ helps us to understand and love each other. It has not always been easy, but the national church provides us with resources that help us to nurture each other's spiritual gifts.

I sometimes wonder if it makes much difference that for some of us, our Christian identity is a vertical identity shared with parents, and for others of us, it is a horizontal identity, an aspect of personality that may even put us at odds with our family of origin. Perhaps the people who inherited their faith have a fluency that we can learn from in the same way that we benefit from the freshness with which our newest members approach religious life.

It could be that some Christian denominations and even religions have special gifts for cultivating identity either horizontally or vertically. In our case we rely on both roots and wings. Part of our identity is the shared recognition that we can learn from other religious traditions, that not everyone has to share our experience of Jesus to be fully alive.

We thank God for inhabiting a world of various horizontal identities, but we also hope that people will come to share one horizontal identity universally. We pray that one day the human dignity of every person will be respected regardless of how that person may have been born and despite what that person may have done. We pray for a day when there is less hatred and distrust among people with different identities.