The central question of humanity has always been ‘who?’.
The ‘what’ and ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘where’ and ‘when’ are important, but ‘who’ is the one that has captured our imaginations. When we look in the mirror, who do we see?
Ask any group of people to introduce themselves and you can expect a list of job titles, marital status, paternity and qualifications. And these are of course part of the answer to ‘who am I?’. But they can’t be the whole answer, can they?
‘Who am I?’ is the question that strikes at the heart because it peels open the layers of our identity, stripping away one by one the jobs and roles we have acquired and inhabited and hidden behind, and as they are removed we become ever more fearful that the centre, our core, will be hollow and empty.
I’ve heard many people talk about the past few months of lockdown presenting an opportunity to consider their identity. What matters most to me? What do I want to spend my time doing? Who is important to me? What do I spend my money on?
The question of identity is at the centre of the teachings of Jesus. His key question, asked again and again, is ‘who are you?’. It’s not a question with an unknown answer for him. It’s a presentation of a choice. A choice to be who we are meant to be. To be fully ourselves.
Freire names it as ‘humanisation’ in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Humanisation is the process of liberating ourselves from all that oppresses us to become fully ourselves. But to realise that potential he argues that we must see the world as it really is. We need to identify all the structures and levers that are used to maintain the oppression of the people (and he included the oppressor as those who are also oppressed, stuck in their part of the system).
One of the biggest problems he identifies is that when given the chance to ‘advance’ people often simply take on the behaviours of the ‘boss’, sometimes in an even harsher form. They don’t change the system they have complained about and suffered under, they reinforce it.
Real freedom, Freire agues, is moving beyond that into something bigger.
I love the cover image. A wedge with a pencil strapped to it, almost worn down to the end. That pencil has been busy learning, exploring, uncovering and naming. And with each mark it makes the user pushes the wedge further in, and the cracks open up, and all that covers up the reality of our true identity is prized open.
So often our faith is a one time decision. A badge we wear rather than our core identity.
What difference does it make that you believe? How are you changed? How is the world transformed through you?
Jesus encourages his followers in each of the Gospels to learn, to explore and to own our understandings. To become who we are created to be.
We can be quick to settle for a simple explanation or to allow someone else to do our thinking for us. Freire would argue that in offloading our faith we’ve added a further layer to our own oppression. Jesus might say that we are like sheep without a shepherd.
So, who are you? Really?
When you peel back the layers of identity, what’s at the core?