Identity, personal narratives and the church

It was recently reported that a study had found that Middle Class people are frequently identifying as Working Class. One comment piece in The Times (paywall) stated:

According to a study published this week in the journal Sociology, “47 per cent of those in ‘middle-class’ professional and managerial occupations identify as working class”. What’s more, 24 per cent of people doing middle-class jobs whose parents also did middle-class jobs identified as working class too.

It was particularly interesting to see how it was reported across the different newspapers. The Times argued that this is the new tactic of the elites to claim social superiority, insisting that they are where they are by merit alone. The Telegraph (paywall) saw it as the result of attacks on the middle classes and that they should cease being ashamed and reclaim their down-trodden middle class identity. The Guardian simply asked why so many felt the need to claim to be working class when they weren’t? Apparently they didn’t think to ask any of their staff, who are precisely the sort of middle class people in the business of pretending they are totes working class. Nor, I am guessing, did they reach into their back catalogue to dig out the reams of identitarian articles they publish advancing the victim/victimiser/saviour paradigm.

The Times article states:

On the basis of 175 interviews with people of various class backgrounds, the study’s authors theorise that by manipulating the stories of their class origins (often by reaching back to tales of less-privileged grandparents) respondents were justifying their social success as “legitimate” in the context of a supposedly meritocratic society that rewards talent regardless of background.

I think perhaps my favourite quote came from the Guardian:

Take Ella, an actor who was conscious that her claim to a working-class identity might be undermined by her middle-class accent (“I consider my background to be a working-class one even though I don’t sound like that”). She also tried to play down her private schooling (“one of the small ones, quite cheap”). 

One result of this – playing up heritage stretching back to grandparents and great grandparents rather than actual upbringing – is that it leads to the view that their current position in existing middle class occupations was more meritorious than anything to do with privilege. Several reports noted that those who took this view, ‘increasingly feel they deserve the disproportionate rewards they receive’ (The Guardian). That, of course, has the rather unpleasant kick back that those from (actual) working class backgrounds who have not risen to the same positions are somehow deserving of their lot. Maybe they just didn’t work hard enough.

But much of this is driven by the victim/victimiser/saviour paradigm. Few wish to be cast as middle class oppressors of the less fortunate, rising to position from the privileged position of middle class upbringing. Everybody wants to feel that they have earned their position. It is that same sinful part of us that wants to insist we can earn favour with God if we are just good enough. Identity politics once encouraged people to pretend they were posher than they really were. Now, the narrative is one of privilege vs those who have battled against the odds to get to where they are. The same sinful inclination to insist that we are better than others still drives the whole project, but the particular narratives that allow us to show ourselves better change over time.

This same temptation certainly exists within the church. For those of us working in deprived communities, it can be easy to play up the deprivation to show everybody else that we have really done something special. For those of us in less deprived places, we can play up the reality of working class areas near to us and the way we are reaching them, no matter how successfully. In an attempt to contextualise, we can all be tempted to play up or down our own backgrounds too. This is particularly tempting for people like me, who sit somewhere in the blurry class border and can play up different things as it suits. The rules of the game in the church may change, but the sinful desires that still drive those us playing are the same. In the game of spiritual top trumps, we are as prone to one-upmanship and making more of ourselves as the world seems to be. How we measure it might change, and the ‘great things’ we have supposedly done might differ depending on our context, but let’s not pretend, as we are wont to do, that we don’t all end up embroiled in it from time to time.

But just as sinful as some of that is, let’s not pretend that there isn’t an identitarianism of our own – a particularly Christian approach to identity – that doesn’t fuel some of this. Many people have found themselves in churches and forced to conform, not so much to biblical standards, as cultural ones purporting to be biblical. For years, we had our own Christian equivalent of people pretending to be middle class when they weren’t in the way they dressed and spoke so they could fit into church. To get on in the church meant to take the lead from the dominant culture. We are now beginning – and we really are only beginning – to see more people becoming aware of this issue and wanting to address it. Given how the church so often apes the culture, I imagine that before long we will soon be hearing lot of stories of how people from the dominant culture have also struggled in churches too lest anybody think they might have simply settled into a church and just got on fine – after all, we wouldn’t want people thinking that!

As ever, the ultimate answer to these questions of identity – however real they might be for some of us; however overstated they are for other of us – is to turn our eyes away from whatever identity we are creating for ourselves and instead focus on the one Jesus has given to us. Whether we are part of the dominant culture or not, whether we have settled into church culture easily or not, whatever class, ethnic or national background we have come from, our primary identity must surely be in Christ. That isn’t to say those other things don’t matter, or aren’t important, it is just to say they should not be primary. It is only by looking away from ourselves to Jesus, and then from him to our brothers and sisters with whom he has brought us into fellowship, will we ever be able to move away from divisive identitarianism and attempts at one-upmanship and instead begin to function properly as a body of believer for whom Jesus died equally.