My undergraduate thesis was an attempt to tie together my majors, international relations and social psychology. I looked at identity (as a social psychological concept) among members of non-state actors (a popular category in IR). Specifically, my research focused on the levels of loyalty among Lebanese members of Hezbollah.
The point of the research was to make a statement about how people act when their various identities conflict.
What I mean by conflicting loyalties is this: In addition to being a member of Hezbollah, a man may also have national allegiance to Lebanon, loyalty to his family and tribe, loyalty to his sect of Islam and to the larger religion. He will also have self-interests, professional interests, loyalty to certain brands and football clubs, inherent loyalties based on his gender and ethnicity, etc., etc., etc. Each of these categories – these labels – comprises a portion of his identity.
What happens when one piece of his identity conflicts with another?
What is the man to do, for instance, when his Hezbollah higher-ups make demands of him that contradict the commands of his country? What recourse does he have when he feels his religious beliefs conflict with his personal convictions? What choice does he make when he faces division between his family and his professional obligations?
As you can imagine, these are real-life dilemmas and they can badly hurt one’s psyche. Cognitive dissonance – the problem of trying to maintain at least two mutually exclusive beliefs or positions at the same time – runs rampant.
You may know the feeling.
Your boss tells you to do one thing, your wife another. Your friend asks something of you that goes against a deeply held belief. Your country imposes a law by which your church cannot abide.
Which piece of your identity will win out?
I was able to draw a few conclusions from what I discovered was a far-too-broad foray into mostly theoretical research (the hazards of interdisciplinary study!), but one of the most interesting things I found was the way our decisions are not consistent. Our levels of loyalty fluctuate based on a variety of factors: case, cost, risk, timing, suspected outcome, peer pressure, etc.
We will try our hardest to hold onto each fragment of our identity, even when they oppose each other. And the only way to do it is to occasionally betray one piece of our identity to appease another.
Everyone faces these dilemmas. We are all forced to compartmentalize our identities in hopes of keeping them from engaging in too fierce a round of bumper cars. Christians are no different.
In fact, Christians in a secular world have a particularly hard time aligning all of their identities because the commands, expectations, and principles of the Bible and the traditions of the faithful are not without friction when they rub up against those of the culture, the government, friends and jobs, and other societal norms.
When we really stop to think about it, it’s amazing how much cognitive dissonance we’d have if we prioritized our identities – ordered our loyalties – and stuck perfectly to that roadmap. This is probably why we don’t stop to think about it much, because we can’t handle the mental gymnastics, the either-ors, the meddling gray areas of life.
We also rarely stop to consider these dilemmas in part because we’re not aware they exist. We have done a good job letting our loyalties overlap, our identities blend. This is not in itself bad; it only becomes bad when we corrupt one piece of us to accommodate another lesser piece, when we elevate one part of our identity at the expense of another.
To frame it plainly, how often do we let cultural expectations pollute our faith? How often do we let the demands of the office or social group compromise our responsibilities to the family?
This line of thinking is in danger of oversimplification. After all, it is not as though we must forever be choosing one or the other, church or state, work or spouse, soccer or football. Not at all. We are granted a great tapestry of identities, and many of these are blessings, adding to both our uniqueness as individual persons and our relational-ness as members of the group.
But let’s not be so casual in dividing our loyalties based on circumstances. Let’s not be Christians on Sunday, employees nine-to-five on weekdays, and friends on Friday nights.
I’m reading “The Challenge of Jesus” by N.T. Wright, and early in the book he talks about how we need to better assess what our allegiance to Jesus means in practice.
It is not enough to say one’s prayers in private, maintain high personal morality and then go to work to rebuild the tower of Babel (p. 11).
Basically, Wright (who is writing these words to Christian professors in particular, but it still translates) suggests we ought to let Christ be the lens through which all our other loyalties are interpreted.
The substance and structure of the different aspects of our world need to be interrogated in the light of the unique achievement of Jesus and of our commission to be for the world what he was for the Israel of his day.
It is okay, even necessary, to hold many loyalties. Sometimes they will compete. We are always juggling multiple identities at once. Some identities we are juggling all the time. The trick is prioritizing those identities and their corresponding loyalties, and knowing when to stick to that plan.
God must come first not only when it is expected or when it is convenient, but also — perhaps especially — when our jobs, friends, families, interests, genes, culture, and even our own desire would prefer to raise up a tower in its own unholy name.