Identity and Relationship in Arab-American Culture – ELCA Grand Canyon Synod

In his February 6 Daily Meditation on 1 Corinthians 12, the Reverend Richard Rohr writes, “Humanity constantly faces the problem of unity and diversity. We are not very good at understanding it. We usually choose our small groups, because we don’t know how to belong to a bigger group. It takes too much letting go.

He notes that Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ “is not easy for Westerners to understand, because we are deeply trained in cultural individualism. So much so that we don’t even recognize our lack. It seems impossible that anyone with open eyes and ears could fail to recognize the pervasive individualism in our country. For many, the synonym of “it’s a free country” is “you can’t tell me what to do”.

One of the advantages of belonging to a large group with internal diversity like the ELCA is to see varied cultures within a group whose constituent culture we share. During Arab-American Heritage Month, I’d like to discuss an element of Arab-Middle Eastern culture that might help elucidate another way of being in a group, a way of “letting go.”

For most of my life, the common translation of the Transfiguration story in Mark included a voice saying, “This is my Beloved Son.” In more recent translations we hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” These two versions may look about the same, but they are not. In the first, “beloved” is an adjective describing the son; in the second “beloved” is a name for the Son, an identification by kinship.

Almost anyone who grew up in an Arabic-speaking family — even someone who didn’t speak Arabic — knows the Arabic (and Aramaic) word for “beloved.” It’s a word we hear dozens of times a day when parents and grandparents call us and our siblings: habibi/habibti. “Ya habibi, tha,” they might say. “Oh, my Beloved, come here.” Although it sounds stilted in translation, it seems entirely appropriate in context. Above all, it constitutes the replacement of a name by a relation.

For many of us represented by colored groups in the Church, our personal cultures insist that everyone’s identity is, at least in part, directed towards others. We shape identities based on our family and our community. In the case of those of Arab and Middle Eastern descent, it feels like we are nothing without family and community to help define us.

The internal relations of Arab families reflect this cultural reality. Imagine, for example, a young Arab man named Ibrahim and his wife Mariam who have their first child, a son, whom they name Yusuf. As soon as Yusuf is born he will be called Ibn Ibrahim, “the son of Ibrahim”, but his parents will also take on new names. They will now be called Abu Yusuf“Yusuf’s father,” Hmm Yusuf, Yusuf’s mother” by friends and family.

I have heard non-Arabs denigrate this custom: “Why should I give up my identity just because I became a parent? But that’s really the crux. This approach is not to give up one’s identity but to expand it in terms of relationships. In Arab culture, one does not define oneself in isolation but in connection, in relationships. And it’s a lesson those of Arab-American descent can share with the Church: we cannot fully be who we are meant to be if we remain isolated individuals.

In his prayer at the Last Supper in John 17, Jesus describes how he envisions the ideal relationship with us: “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also be in us…so that they may be one as we are one. Here, I believe, is the heart of Jesus’ prayer and its most complex and mysterious part. When Jesus suggests that his disciples can be a as he and his Father are one, he takes us directly to the mystery of the Trinity. Unlike other Western monotheistic religions, Christianity alone posits the person of God as built on relationship, a unity without uniformity. As he prays that we may be one as Jesus and his Father are one, he envisions a future in which his followers derive their identity in part from their unified but not uniform relationships with others.

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