Summer has already come, and with that a polite question to me: ‘Father, are you going home for your holiday?’ My answer is invariably the same: ‘No, I’m not, because I am at home here.’ It isn’t a courteous phrase or a sort of PR stunt. In my six years long stay here in Scotland I’ve always felt that, and never been homesick. For some of my compatriots my attitude is unforgivingly unacceptable, and for a few of them it’s purely a betrayal. I can understand that, as Poles had to defend their national identity for two centuries, until Poland became sovereign in the 1990s. And it’s not uniquely specific to the Poles. A few years ago a local man gently but staunchly asked me not to call him ‘British’, because he was ‘Scottish’.
Recently local councils of the Western and Northern Isles demanded greater power of self-governance after the independence referendum next year, regardless its outcome. Previously in the Shetlands they had pondered on remaining in the UK should Scotland become independent. Another idea could be that of joining Norway due to that country’s influence on the islands. Politics aside it shows that the islanders’ identity is rather more complicated than straightforward. Frankly this is not surprising. Since our ancestors left Africa millions of years ago, we – as humankind – have been permanently on the move. I don’t mean just in a geographical sense, but mainly as a mental and cultural ever changing process. For centuries individual identity was suppressed to a certain extent by the tribal one in order to keep a local community together. The luxury of expressing personal individuality was reserved to a handful of people powerful and independent enough to afford it.
Modern democracy, which is a pretty new thing, unintentionally released individuality from the bonds of social and cultural conventions. People started discovering that their own preferences in many aspects of life were the ultimate criteria of choice. Seemingly people stopped worrying about their family or neighbours’ opinions, following just their own beliefs and gut-feelings. And that’s great! And then we realise that we still define ourselves in conjunction with others. That’s normal. Despite all the social changes of the last century one thing hasn’t changed at all: we are still social animals, and we still desperately need other people to live happy lives.
In today’s gospel Jesus seems to have a problem with his own identity, because he asks his disciples: ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ The question seems to come from the same curiosity that makes some of us to google our own names, or to find out public perception of us. Jesus’ disciples quickly and eagerly report what they have heard, quoting some examples. But then Jesus asks another question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ This question shows that Jesus doesn’t have an identity crisis. This question provokes his disciples to think about their personal relationship to Jesus. It was easy to pass on the public perception of him, but it’s not easy to define their own personal opinion; because that opinion describes each one of them. Jesus’ position is a reference point for the disciples. Subsequently their future decisions will reflect this particular event; one of them will betray Jesus for money, while others put their lives in his name.
Every day, but today in particular, Jesus asks each one of us the same question: ‘Who do you think I am?’ And each one of us must give his or her personal answer.