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Group Identities and the Question of Boundaries

A little while ago, one of my brother’s wrote a post that mentioned how the founder and former CEO of Blackwater (now Xe) had contributed significant sums of money to a number of Conservative Christian groups like ‘Focus on the Family’.  In response, I asked if ‘Focus on the Family’ should be considered a Christian organization.
On the one hand, I was having a bit of a laugh, as ‘Focus on the Family’ is probably one of the most influential and widely known ‘Christian’ groups in North America.  On the other hand, I was being completely serious, and this had gotten me to thinking about the following questions:
What determines whether or not a person or group is ‘Christian’?  Is it the affirmation of certain propositions (as many today tend to think)?  The embodiment of certain practices (as Jesus appeared to argue)?  Both?  Neither?
More generally, what role do boundaries between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ play in the formation of group identities?  Who determines those boundaries and patrols them?  What positive function do these boundaries serve?
Finally, if a person self-identifies as belonging to a certain group, is it appropriate to contest that?
I would be curious to hear how others might respond to these questions.

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  1. These are very good questions. I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Sanctorum Communio” and he addresses these sociologically and theologically. It gets quite complex. All this to say I think I’m on your wavelength. There aren’t easy answers. In our twenty first century context the church is made up of those who a) show up and b) contribute money. What does this do to church discipline?

  2. Traveling a little South of Beersheeva (a small town with more chess grandmasters than any other in the world, which is why I wanted to go there) is a community of tofu eating/vegan/polygamous/black—‘Hebrew Israelites’ (from Chicago and Detroit via Liberia). They sort of slipped into Israel in 1969 and set up shop under Israeli radar—so to speak. Eventually, a group of American speaking Blacks in funny clothes near Israel’s nuclear facilities came to the authorities attn. They were persecuted, some deported, their leader jailed, well, you can imagine how something like this goes. They insisted they were Jewish, and persecution seemed to only reinforce their beliefs and membership. Your post brought these folks to mind, and I thought that looking at your question with a little distance from Christianity might be helpful. Israel has been struggling with whom is a Jew since 1948. Before that there didn’t seem to be a lot of folks in Europe eager to adopt Jewish identity. However, to be recognized as a Jew affords one certain rights and percs in Israel; to be (Ultra-Orthodox, perj.) Haredim also affords one ‘special’ rights over other Jews. An Arab or Muslim Israeli citizen lacks some of the rights that other Jewish Israeli’s have. Converts are another kettle of fish, there’s a plethora of (mostly) American converts who show up after asking YHWH into their hearts as their monotheistic savior and wanting onto the dole. Your question: : “…if a person self-identifies as belonging to a certain group, is it appropriate to contest that?” Let me add a couple. If a Jew, whose family has lived in Germany for 400 yrs, converts to Lutheranism, fights in WWI, marries a Prussian, denounces Judaism, sings Wagner, reads Heine, and sneers at sub-human Slavs, does he get a pass from the camps? No? What if he survives!?, makes it to Israel and then helps drive the Al-Mawasi Bedouin from their ancient traditional lands and routes and confine them to a small, sliver of the Gaza strip?; but wait, 60 yrs later children of the ‘Hebrew Israelites’ from Detroit (now living on former Al-Mawasi land) are finally granted citizenship (2007) if not status as “Jews,” join the IDF, and are part of the forces that assault Gaza and kill many innocent Palestinians, including some Al-Mawasi previously driven from their land by Niebelungen chanting, Lutheran, Jews from Hamburg. Well…all this is to say it’s a complex question, that deserves further thought. Thanks and blessings, and look fwd to your insights, Daniel.

  3. Everyone has their own rules for “Christian” and even if we consider that most boil done to what propositions one believes (aka doctrine) or how we live (practice) there is no consensus.
    Roman Catholic doctrine says that every other Christianity is defective. Of course a great many Protestants think that the RC church is defective too. Going further it seems that lots of Reformed Christians think everyone but them and their congregation is going to hell, most Christians count Mormons as outside of the faith, but Mormons themselves do not.