I still remember clearly a brief conversation I had 20 years ago.
At a weekly clergy group meeting, a woman, who had just returned from a trip to Russia where she discovered some Jewish lineage in her distant forbearers, effusively declared, “I’m a white, black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian woman.”

In response, I suggested to her that this was not possible, that she had to choose.

I pointed out that being all these things at once, she could not be any one of them with any depth.

She countered that her spirit had grown too big for traditional categories of identity. I lost interest in the conversation at that point.

I was not sure what part of growing up white in a wealthy neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey, four years at Vassar College, and then 10 years as pastor of a suburban church in New York state’s Montgomery County, the 51st wealthiest county in the nation, qualified her to such an all-encompassing appreciation of the human experience.

But as I said, I had lost interest in the conversation.

Having seen a great deal more of the world in the intervening 20 years, I am even more convinced today than I was then that she was incapable of wearing such a broad identity.

You cannot be all things to all people. If you try, you quickly become very little to anyone.

One might cite the Apostle Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 9:9-13 to demonstrate the flaw in my thinking, where Paul writes, “I became as a Jew…as one under the law.”

I do not think that Paul is saying that he is (any longer) any of these things, but that he can successfully relate to and find affinities with these various types of people.

I think he is able to do so because he knows who he is in a starkly particular way and is entirely unapologetic about it.

Someone who writes, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2)” and “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13-14),” is a person with a strong sense of identity.

Paul knows who he is and what he is living for, which gives him the freedom to engage people who do not share this same identity.

He is not trying to be all things to all people. Rather, he is demonstrating the power and confidence that comes from knowing who he is in Christ and what God has called him to do.

We sometimes confuse a commitment to pluralism with neutrality, born of the desire to iron over any tension generated by conviction.

As a nation, we are committed to pluralism; it is one of the core values of our society.

Pluralism, however, does not relativize all conviction and smother all passionate commitment; it does not mean a homogenization of our beliefs.

Pluralism says that we deliberately make room for passionate commitment to highly particularized convictions and their expression in our living. Pluralism does not mean we apologize for our faith; it means we are free to practice it with vigor.

Baptists have long maintained that only in an atmosphere of freedom—where we can choose otherwise—can we authentically choose for Christian faith.

The loving father in the parable in Luke 15 knew that for his younger son to truly choose obedience and belonging, he had to be free to choose otherwise.

U.S. Baptists have worked hard to guard this freedom that is so essential to freely chosen authentic faith.

I am unapologetically Christian; more than that, I am unashamedly Baptist. Pluralism means that I can openly revel in this identity among others who are of a different tribe.

By choosing to be a Christian of the Baptist persuasion, I am choosing against a multitude of other identities. There are many things I cannot be; one identity excludes others.

A piece of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not. We cannot, with authenticity, be all things to all people.

Pluralism provides space for each of us to passionately and unapologetically declare who we are and what matters to us. It does not necessitate that we apologize for our beliefs or suppress our convictions.

When I claim my identity, I am better equipped to relate to and find affinities with those who are not quite like me.

A strong sense of identity does not cut us off from others, rather it frees us to engage and even love others who are unlike us.

The Apostle Paul knew who he was and who he was not; thus he was able to build bridges to everyone he met.

Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.

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