illustration of a shell

Between Baptism and Belonging: Living with an Identity Hidden in Christ

The year is 1994. On Easter Sunday, they stood side by side in the church choir, singing the hymns that celebrated resurrection hope. Their faith was the fruit of one of the great success stories of Western missions, and their country, Rwanda, was one of the most Christian in all of the African continent (about 85 percent). But just days after their Easter services, some of these Christians would take machetes to the bodies of those standing next to them, hacking them to death in a rampage of slaughter that lasted 100 days.

Confused Identities

Looking over the carnage of at least a half million bodies, a cardinal visiting Rwanda asked a gathering of church leaders, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?”

“Yes, it is,” one leader replied.1

As theologian and priest Emmanuel Katongole points out, Rwanda is far from unique and indeed reveals the flaccid faith too often masquerading as gospel. If we believe ourselves above such clannishness, peruse social media or news streams. Tribalism abounds. As Katongole puts it,

In Africa as in America, there are a multitude of powers and stories that try to define who we are: the colour of our skin, the nation of our birth, the history of our culture, or the characteristics of our tribe. But when I baptize someone into the church of Jesus Christ, I see that God is making a claim on their bodies. Are they still Black? Are they still White? Are they still Rwandan? Are they still American? Perhaps. But there is a real sense in which our identity gets confused (mixed up) with Christ’s identity in baptism. Who we are becomes (or at least ought to become) confused and confusing to others.2

Taken up together into the body of Christ, we must beware the creep of all other “identities.” At their best, such distinctives are meant to foster humility: they remind us of both our resources and our limitations. But these identities inevitably begin to posture themselves as little gods—consumptive, divisive, and jealous. Their allure? They promise us connection to others through mutual affirmation or association with the powerful and influential. In doing so, they tap into one of the deepest of human desires: our longing to belong.3

How do we then live as rightly “confused” Christians, able to resist the seduction of belonging that excludes others even to the point of violence? As I look for models of this, I consider “third culture kids” I have known. As they learn to live in a state of nonbelonging, they create new pathways to connection and model ways we might open our lives to the mystery of the communion of saints.

Third Culture Kids: The Blessed Burden of Nonbelonging

My husband, David, looks like a broad-shouldered white man, bald and with kind green eyes. He knows the benefits of this body, moving along in mainstream Southern California society. Though Spanish was likely his first language, he doesn’t speak with an accent. He presents as a Euro-American guy. But looks can be deceiving. Like those without a country, David moves about in the world as someone who never belongs anywhere, who often feels a slight to obvious sense of never-
belonging.

He is what is referred to as a “third culture kid,” or TCK for short. Six months after his birth in a small rural community near the panhandle of Oklahoma, he moved with his family to Colombia. David spent the next 15 years moving from country to country as my father-in-law worked for an oil drilling company. After a decade in South America, his family moved to various countries in Europe before his father took a job in Saudi Arabia. Disallowed entry there as an American high schooler, David moved back—alone—to Texas, where he finished high school in a Baptist military academy. Peppered throughout his nomadic childhood were visits to that little town in Oklahoma.

Like virtually all TCKs, David often feels like he doesn’t truly belong anywhere. Under the surface of interactions, social dynamics remind him of his separateness. Sometimes he fails to get jokes or cultural references. In ways difficult for me to grasp, he moves around in the world wondering whether or how his unusual formation keeps him on the outside.

David seldom speaks about this and capably bears the burden of negotiating TCK feelings of nonbelonging. After observing him and other TCKs over the years, it strikes me that they can serve as a model of what it means for us to have our baptism truly “take.” While others expect us to fit into preset categories, assume their positions, or claim their identities, Christians must accept and live with the awareness that we do not—cannot—so cheaply belong.

Just when we think we have found “our” people, we may be asked to barter away too much of our distinctives as Christians. For example, because I am a pacifist by theological conviction (not by personal temperament!), I have advocated against war and the militarizing of police and for criminal justice reform. In these settings, I “look” like a liberal and presumptions are made, invitations to belong are extended both overtly and covertly: agree with “our” platform, yell “our” slogans, sign “our” statements about “those” people, etc. (If I talk about sexual fidelity or character, a different group might extend the hand of belonging.) Sometimes people presume a shared experience and thus belonging by virtue of our race, nationality, political party, disability, or profession. But all identities can shift from serving our love of God, ourselves, and neighbor to wanting to orient, control, and direct us. They promise us a place in the tribe. And so, like TCKs, we must learn to live with this dis-ease, with nonbelonging, as our normal and expected state.

Yet TCKs are not only models of the “downside” of baptism into nonbelonging. Rather, they just as easily model our hope of joining in Christ, a beautiful witness to the space created when normal presumptions about how to belong are upended. TCKs are often only at home, at ease, with other TCKs (or, sometimes, with internationals or expats). On the surface, this is counterintuitive. Many believe belonging is fostered by sharing the same experience, and so we might expect TCKs to find solace among those who have had the same upbringing. For example, David should find Americans raised in South America and Europe, sprinkled with small town USA, to be “his people.” But this isn’t the case.

Instead, several of his closest friends are also TCKs but with widely divergent backgrounds. One seems an especially unlikely bond: his parents were devout Christian leaders in South India who moved from the subcontinent to Africa, with a short stint in the US, then back to India. They are not similar in their upbringings, this oil versus missionary kid, raised on four different continents and with multiple cultures between them. Yet they formed a lifelong bond. (Not coincidentally, others in their close circle included a Brit and a charismatic Irishman. Think about the “tribalism” possible in that foursome!)

These friendships are not only fueled by prayer and fellowship, but also by something I have witnessed among TCKs: they settle into a different kind of belonging when they are together. Their identities are “confused” by their upbringing, and the easy presumptive connections many of us rely upon (e.g., nationality, culture, or racial-ethnic identity) often evade them. Instead, they hold open the space between one another, a disciplined resistance to foreclosing on what this “us” will mean. As plants require space and light to thrive, so, too, a gently tended distance allows their varied experiences to be revealed, their friendships to form, and their lives to unfold in mutual regard. These companions-on-the-way sustain many TCKs as they serve a world that often does not ever see them clearly.

Like all suffering in the Christian story, nonbelonging is not merely burden, not only sorrow. The discipline of living with this experience also becomes a resource, one that allows them to imagine and broker an alternative path to peaceableness with the other. Like the prophets, TCKs’ greatest gift may be that they can guide others of us through the gauntlet of temptations to easy belonging. Formed with tissue from various cultures and peoples, TCKs often see clearly in a world tempted to tribalism: the gift but possible idolatry of one’s culture, the security of ethnicity but its shadow of exclusionary violence, the grounding of tradition but its tendency to suffocate creativity and difference, the joy of shared understanding but its willingness to sacrifice the stranger to maintain it.

The more deeply we embrace the work of Christ and the reality of our baptism, the more likely we are to, like TCKs, find ourselves adrift in a world that demands our allegiance—and others’ exclusion—as the price for belonging. We are tempted to wear our Christianity like a garment, a cloak discarded when those to whom we are actually joined—those with our politics, ideologies, racial or ethnic make-up, tradition, etc.—order our allegiance. To live as Christians means to live in the in-between of never fully belonging, because our lives are “hidden” in Christ. We are not yet clear who we are nor who we will one day be, necessarily a mystery even to ourselves.

Our Lives are Hidden with Christ: Identity TBD

In a letter singing with cosmic claims about Christ, Paul makes a provocative declaration in Colossians. Commenting about the power of baptism (Col 2:12), he says, “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3, emphasis mine). This seemingly ethereal statement has pragmatic consequences (e.g., put aside rage, lies, slander, greed, sexual immorality, etc.; see v. 5–10). He then reminds the Colossians that other characteristics (religious and ethnic ones in their case) threaten to overthrow their baptism and take center stage (Col 3:10–11). The belonging we do have is our being joined in Christ.

Any attachment to others necessarily alters our experience of the world. For example, as a mother I sometimes wish I could reverse the vulnerability of motherhood and the ways I am split open by these creatures called my children. Their presence alters my sense of the world. My journey as a mother is as yet incomplete, and I do not yet fully know what this joining will mean, who I must become to maintain and tend these bonds. Likewise, my life attached to others in Christ reshapes me, and who I will be thus remains “hidden.” How can I know “who I am” when my “I” depends on interactions over time with a diverse, global community of saints?

But in my context, many of us claim to already know “who we are.” We have an identity we have taken up, discovered, or claimed. Again, identities are meant to serve our love of God, others, and ourselves; they are not meant to sever us from the same. And although it is rather obnoxious in my context of authenticity through self-determination, Paul claims that this is at best insufficient if not deceptive. Only as I learn to link my body (including its various identifiers like US citizen, woman, Euro-American, temporarily able-bodied, etc.) with other bodies can I become who I will one day be, who I am meant to be in Christ.

This joining disturbs those other identifiers, so that how I live them out is altered. For example, when I read Scripture with teens in LA’s Central Juvenile Hall, joining them gradually unsettled me. Our journey together shook my confidence in the US justice system (certainly for the poor or marginalized), challenged my certainty in redemption, and gifted me with the ache of their stories. How do I negotiate my citizenship, class, or racial profile with their lives re-forming how these have mattered and what they might yet come to mean? Our attachment shifted my “belonging” and complicated previously easy associations. But as has been true throughout my Christian life, as these paths to connection closed, others opened—and often to people I would not have chosen from within the previous boundaries of my identity.

Perhaps you have had the disconcerting experience of no longer belonging in spaces that used to feel like home. Simultaneously, you may sense an affinity with unlikely companions from a variety of cultures, generations, or upbringings (they may even belong to other political parties). But like TCKs’ experience among one another, somehow they “get” you, even when you are not yet sure what to make of your own life.

In his reflection on the Rwandan genocide, Katongole reminds us of what happens when we refuse to join our bodies to Christ and thus to others in this disruptive communion. The waters of tribalism too often run deeper than our baptism. We long for belonging, and in our eagerness we seek the reflected glory of more competent kings than the one who broke open his body rather than crush his opponents. Like others throughout history, we too make a mockery of the evangel and reveal that our faith serves as mere window dressing on identities that control and direct our lives.

This season requires Christians to reaffirm our baptism. May we resist whatever tribalism threatens to run deeper than those waters. May we risk a “third culture kid” sort of life, bearing with the confusion of nonbelonging as God remakes us, together, in Christ.

Written By

Erin Dufault-Hunter joined Fuller’s faculty in 2006 and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics. Dr. Dufault-Hunter earned her MA from Fuller and her PhD from the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Transformative Power of Faith: A Narrative Theory of Conversion, as well as various articles and book chapters, and coedited a book on healthcare missions with Bryant Myers and Isaac Voss entitled Health, Healing, and Shalom: Frontiers and Challenges for Christian Healthcare Missions. Dufault-Hunter regularly speaks and writes on various aspects of our moral life, including sexuality, bioethics, and diversity. Her forthcoming book with Baker Academic is entitled Sex, Shame, and Salvation: How the Erotic Matters for Our Life with God.

The year is 1994. On Easter Sunday, they stood side by side in the church choir, singing the hymns that celebrated resurrection hope. Their faith was the fruit of one of the great success stories of Western missions, and their country, Rwanda, was one of the most Christian in all of the African continent (about 85 percent). But just days after their Easter services, some of these Christians would take machetes to the bodies of those standing next to them, hacking them to death in a rampage of slaughter that lasted 100 days.

Confused Identities

Looking over the carnage of at least a half million bodies, a cardinal visiting Rwanda asked a gathering of church leaders, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?”

“Yes, it is,” one leader replied.1

As theologian and priest Emmanuel Katongole points out, Rwanda is far from unique and indeed reveals the flaccid faith too often masquerading as gospel. If we believe ourselves above such clannishness, peruse social media or news streams. Tribalism abounds. As Katongole puts it,

In Africa as in America, there are a multitude of powers and stories that try to define who we are: the colour of our skin, the nation of our birth, the history of our culture, or the characteristics of our tribe. But when I baptize someone into the church of Jesus Christ, I see that God is making a claim on their bodies. Are they still Black? Are they still White? Are they still Rwandan? Are they still American? Perhaps. But there is a real sense in which our identity gets confused (mixed up) with Christ’s identity in baptism. Who we are becomes (or at least ought to become) confused and confusing to others.2

Taken up together into the body of Christ, we must beware the creep of all other “identities.” At their best, such distinctives are meant to foster humility: they remind us of both our resources and our limitations. But these identities inevitably begin to posture themselves as little gods—consumptive, divisive, and jealous. Their allure? They promise us connection to others through mutual affirmation or association with the powerful and influential. In doing so, they tap into one of the deepest of human desires: our longing to belong.3

How do we then live as rightly “confused” Christians, able to resist the seduction of belonging that excludes others even to the point of violence? As I look for models of this, I consider “third culture kids” I have known. As they learn to live in a state of nonbelonging, they create new pathways to connection and model ways we might open our lives to the mystery of the communion of saints.

Third Culture Kids: The Blessed Burden of Nonbelonging

My husband, David, looks like a broad-shouldered white man, bald and with kind green eyes. He knows the benefits of this body, moving along in mainstream Southern California society. Though Spanish was likely his first language, he doesn’t speak with an accent. He presents as a Euro-American guy. But looks can be deceiving. Like those without a country, David moves about in the world as someone who never belongs anywhere, who often feels a slight to obvious sense of never-
belonging.

He is what is referred to as a “third culture kid,” or TCK for short. Six months after his birth in a small rural community near the panhandle of Oklahoma, he moved with his family to Colombia. David spent the next 15 years moving from country to country as my father-in-law worked for an oil drilling company. After a decade in South America, his family moved to various countries in Europe before his father took a job in Saudi Arabia. Disallowed entry there as an American high schooler, David moved back—alone—to Texas, where he finished high school in a Baptist military academy. Peppered throughout his nomadic childhood were visits to that little town in Oklahoma.

Like virtually all TCKs, David often feels like he doesn’t truly belong anywhere. Under the surface of interactions, social dynamics remind him of his separateness. Sometimes he fails to get jokes or cultural references. In ways difficult for me to grasp, he moves around in the world wondering whether or how his unusual formation keeps him on the outside.

David seldom speaks about this and capably bears the burden of negotiating TCK feelings of nonbelonging. After observing him and other TCKs over the years, it strikes me that they can serve as a model of what it means for us to have our baptism truly “take.” While others expect us to fit into preset categories, assume their positions, or claim their identities, Christians must accept and live with the awareness that we do not—cannot—so cheaply belong.

Just when we think we have found “our” people, we may be asked to barter away too much of our distinctives as Christians. For example, because I am a pacifist by theological conviction (not by personal temperament!), I have advocated against war and the militarizing of police and for criminal justice reform. In these settings, I “look” like a liberal and presumptions are made, invitations to belong are extended both overtly and covertly: agree with “our” platform, yell “our” slogans, sign “our” statements about “those” people, etc. (If I talk about sexual fidelity or character, a different group might extend the hand of belonging.) Sometimes people presume a shared experience and thus belonging by virtue of our race, nationality, political party, disability, or profession. But all identities can shift from serving our love of God, ourselves, and neighbor to wanting to orient, control, and direct us. They promise us a place in the tribe. And so, like TCKs, we must learn to live with this dis-ease, with nonbelonging, as our normal and expected state.

Yet TCKs are not only models of the “downside” of baptism into nonbelonging. Rather, they just as easily model our hope of joining in Christ, a beautiful witness to the space created when normal presumptions about how to belong are upended. TCKs are often only at home, at ease, with other TCKs (or, sometimes, with internationals or expats). On the surface, this is counterintuitive. Many believe belonging is fostered by sharing the same experience, and so we might expect TCKs to find solace among those who have had the same upbringing. For example, David should find Americans raised in South America and Europe, sprinkled with small town USA, to be “his people.” But this isn’t the case.

Instead, several of his closest friends are also TCKs but with widely divergent backgrounds. One seems an especially unlikely bond: his parents were devout Christian leaders in South India who moved from the subcontinent to Africa, with a short stint in the US, then back to India. They are not similar in their upbringings, this oil versus missionary kid, raised on four different continents and with multiple cultures between them. Yet they formed a lifelong bond. (Not coincidentally, others in their close circle included a Brit and a charismatic Irishman. Think about the “tribalism” possible in that foursome!)

These friendships are not only fueled by prayer and fellowship, but also by something I have witnessed among TCKs: they settle into a different kind of belonging when they are together. Their identities are “confused” by their upbringing, and the easy presumptive connections many of us rely upon (e.g., nationality, culture, or racial-ethnic identity) often evade them. Instead, they hold open the space between one another, a disciplined resistance to foreclosing on what this “us” will mean. As plants require space and light to thrive, so, too, a gently tended distance allows their varied experiences to be revealed, their friendships to form, and their lives to unfold in mutual regard. These companions-on-the-way sustain many TCKs as they serve a world that often does not ever see them clearly.

Like all suffering in the Christian story, nonbelonging is not merely burden, not only sorrow. The discipline of living with this experience also becomes a resource, one that allows them to imagine and broker an alternative path to peaceableness with the other. Like the prophets, TCKs’ greatest gift may be that they can guide others of us through the gauntlet of temptations to easy belonging. Formed with tissue from various cultures and peoples, TCKs often see clearly in a world tempted to tribalism: the gift but possible idolatry of one’s culture, the security of ethnicity but its shadow of exclusionary violence, the grounding of tradition but its tendency to suffocate creativity and difference, the joy of shared understanding but its willingness to sacrifice the stranger to maintain it.

The more deeply we embrace the work of Christ and the reality of our baptism, the more likely we are to, like TCKs, find ourselves adrift in a world that demands our allegiance—and others’ exclusion—as the price for belonging. We are tempted to wear our Christianity like a garment, a cloak discarded when those to whom we are actually joined—those with our politics, ideologies, racial or ethnic make-up, tradition, etc.—order our allegiance. To live as Christians means to live in the in-between of never fully belonging, because our lives are “hidden” in Christ. We are not yet clear who we are nor who we will one day be, necessarily a mystery even to ourselves.

Our Lives are Hidden with Christ: Identity TBD

In a letter singing with cosmic claims about Christ, Paul makes a provocative declaration in Colossians. Commenting about the power of baptism (Col 2:12), he says, “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3, emphasis mine). This seemingly ethereal statement has pragmatic consequences (e.g., put aside rage, lies, slander, greed, sexual immorality, etc.; see v. 5–10). He then reminds the Colossians that other characteristics (religious and ethnic ones in their case) threaten to overthrow their baptism and take center stage (Col 3:10–11). The belonging we do have is our being joined in Christ.

Any attachment to others necessarily alters our experience of the world. For example, as a mother I sometimes wish I could reverse the vulnerability of motherhood and the ways I am split open by these creatures called my children. Their presence alters my sense of the world. My journey as a mother is as yet incomplete, and I do not yet fully know what this joining will mean, who I must become to maintain and tend these bonds. Likewise, my life attached to others in Christ reshapes me, and who I will be thus remains “hidden.” How can I know “who I am” when my “I” depends on interactions over time with a diverse, global community of saints?

But in my context, many of us claim to already know “who we are.” We have an identity we have taken up, discovered, or claimed. Again, identities are meant to serve our love of God, others, and ourselves; they are not meant to sever us from the same. And although it is rather obnoxious in my context of authenticity through self-determination, Paul claims that this is at best insufficient if not deceptive. Only as I learn to link my body (including its various identifiers like US citizen, woman, Euro-American, temporarily able-bodied, etc.) with other bodies can I become who I will one day be, who I am meant to be in Christ.

This joining disturbs those other identifiers, so that how I live them out is altered. For example, when I read Scripture with teens in LA’s Central Juvenile Hall, joining them gradually unsettled me. Our journey together shook my confidence in the US justice system (certainly for the poor or marginalized), challenged my certainty in redemption, and gifted me with the ache of their stories. How do I negotiate my citizenship, class, or racial profile with their lives re-forming how these have mattered and what they might yet come to mean? Our attachment shifted my “belonging” and complicated previously easy associations. But as has been true throughout my Christian life, as these paths to connection closed, others opened—and often to people I would not have chosen from within the previous boundaries of my identity.

Perhaps you have had the disconcerting experience of no longer belonging in spaces that used to feel like home. Simultaneously, you may sense an affinity with unlikely companions from a variety of cultures, generations, or upbringings (they may even belong to other political parties). But like TCKs’ experience among one another, somehow they “get” you, even when you are not yet sure what to make of your own life.

In his reflection on the Rwandan genocide, Katongole reminds us of what happens when we refuse to join our bodies to Christ and thus to others in this disruptive communion. The waters of tribalism too often run deeper than our baptism. We long for belonging, and in our eagerness we seek the reflected glory of more competent kings than the one who broke open his body rather than crush his opponents. Like others throughout history, we too make a mockery of the evangel and reveal that our faith serves as mere window dressing on identities that control and direct our lives.

This season requires Christians to reaffirm our baptism. May we resist whatever tribalism threatens to run deeper than those waters. May we risk a “third culture kid” sort of life, bearing with the confusion of nonbelonging as God remakes us, together, in Christ.

Erin Dufault-Hunter

Erin Dufault-Hunter joined Fuller’s faculty in 2006 and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics. Dr. Dufault-Hunter earned her MA from Fuller and her PhD from the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Transformative Power of Faith: A Narrative Theory of Conversion, as well as various articles and book chapters, and coedited a book on healthcare missions with Bryant Myers and Isaac Voss entitled Health, Healing, and Shalom: Frontiers and Challenges for Christian Healthcare Missions. Dufault-Hunter regularly speaks and writes on various aspects of our moral life, including sexuality, bioethics, and diversity. Her forthcoming book with Baker Academic is entitled Sex, Shame, and Salvation: How the Erotic Matters for Our Life with God.

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