Stories shape identity. We come to know ourselves through the stories we build to explain our lives to others and ourselves. Each of our life stories comes in multiple versions, for as anyone who has attempted an autobiography will discover the way we currently construct our story is not the only way we can tell it. Each version depends on what is remembered and what is forgotten, what is included and what is left out.
Our identity is also shaped by the external stories of our ethnic, racial, and cultural identity histories. These lay claim to us. For instance, our culture has a powerful secular materialist story that has the most powerful claim over us. This is the story of the autonomous individual imbued by nature with gifts of intelligence and guile, who by the sweat of his or her own brow carves out a life of self-sufficiency and material success. Modern materialist culture assumes that to be successful all we need is the determination to be self-made people. Note how social capital (societal infrastructure) is normally left out of such a story.
All of this raises questions:
- Who do we tell ourselves we are?
- Given that each of has more than one way of telling our story, which is the principal story that lays claim to us?
A short chemistry lesson
Salt can’t lose its salinity unless the chemical bond between sodium and chlorine is broken. As one of the most stable of compounds, only an electric charge is able to loosen the NaCl molecule. Thus when salt is dissolved in water it enjoys a greater volume as it is released from crystal form, but it remains essentially salt in all its savory-ness.
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ tell his disciples: you are the salt of the earth. Describing someone as the salt of the earth creates an identity. This person is wholesome, true, and above all else effective and fruitful.
More troubling are Jesus’ words: but if salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything and is thrown out and trampled under foot. Does Jesus not understand that salt can’t lose its savor?
Jesus would have observed how salt was collected from saltpans. When dried out the substance in which the salt was embedded still contains a lot of impurities. While salt as sodium chloride can’t be dissolved away it can be leached out. Heavy rain would leach the sodium chloride out of surface layers of the saltpans leaving the residue of impurities that are essentially tasteless. Like fine sand, it was good only as material to loosely gravel a pathway where it would be trampled underfoot.
Jesus has a habit of taking ordinary things to create stories of the spiritual life. So he takes salt – something crucially important in everyday life as a savory for food, a preservative of meat, a fixing for dying cloth, as a staple commodity in commercial transaction – Roman soldiers were often paid in salt in lieu of coin. The leaching of salt from the surface of the saltpan becomes an evocative metaphor for a loss of spiritual fruitfulness. While still looking like salt, without taste the residue is good for nothing. In terms of human behavior, it’s not difficult to see where Jesus is going with this.
Through our stories, we identify ourselves. Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth. Maybe we can’t lose our saltiness but like the saltpans after heavy rain, our saltiness can be leached out of us – diluted by the prevailing personal and cultural stories that claim us.
Many of us espouse storylines that promote independence and self-sufficiency as a primary value shaping our view of ourselves and of others. Most of us easily fall under the spell of storylines that shape our view of the world as a place of competitive scarcity. As a nation, we increasingly give allegiance to the storylines that make us fearful of the stranger and thereby more tolerant of simple, authoritarian solutions to complex multilayered problems. Many of us now seem to believe that the story of commercial business success and its competitive values of the unfettered self-interest are the primary attributes for good government. When we place ourselves at the center of our stories we easily forget that means justify ends not ends justify means, forgetting that justice cannot be achieved through oppressive measures.
Saltiness in action
If the gospel story has a claim on us what kind of transformation does it open us to? Isaiah 58 offers some guidance on what preserved saltiness in action looks like.Isaiah confronts the people of Israel’s collective image of themselves as faithful in worshiping God. They believe they are faithful. They complain that God does not see of their faithfulness, nor note their scrupulous observances. God retorts: Look, you can bow your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes all you want but you serve your own interest on the fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. In other words, ritual observances without the saltiness of social action will not attract God’s attention. Israel’s true worship has become diluted by self-interest.
Competing storylines, each laying claim over us, like the spring rains upon the saltpans dilute our saltiness, washing away the effectiveness of the gospel message, the good news story that opens us to a larger, deeper and clearer vision of our role in society.
Isaiah declares God’s call to fight injustice. Isaiah understands injustice to be a systemic evil that privileges:
- the few over the many,
- the rich over the poor,
- the advantaged over the disadvantaged,
- the insider over the outsider.
Religious observance without the saltiness of a social conscience is self-serving and connives with oppression.
Undoubtedly the gospel is a hard message to follow because it confronts us again and again with our own easy conformity to storylines that insulate us to the social evil in which our blindness makes us complicit. The gospel challenges us to understand that our own self-interests are best served when we are concerned for the interests of others.
In this highly complex world of ours, each of us feels powerless to effect change beyond traditional personal acts of charity. To use the biblical metaphor, individually we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. Yet until we ask why the hungry have no food and the naked are unclothed, why the stranger is forced to leave her home, we change little. Hélder Câmara, who as archbishop of Recefe from 1964 – 1985 opined: When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.
Note, it is to a whole people Isaiah speaks. Jesus speaks to the community of his disciples. The you addressed by both Isaiah and Jesus is the collective you. Worship is always communal. Worship bears fruit in communal action. In worship, God addresses us as a community so that community becomes the vehicle for saltiness in action. Communal action is always social in nature.
Jesus said you are the salt of the earth but beware of losing your savor. To preserve our saltiness from personal and cultural dilution we must first get our storylines straight and recognize that if we are followers of Jesus, the primary storyline that has a claim on us is the storyline of the gospel, the good news; this good news story calls us to
think global and to act local.