Where Is Your Identity? Continuing to Define Culture


“You know, Mostar is a divided city,” said the man at the auto parts store, called “Bosniak Auto Parts”.

“I know. I didn’t come here yesterday,” I said. After living here for 4 months, I’d heard this line maybe a hundred times before. But then, something occurred to me: “Bosniak” is the name of one of the two people groups in the city. The Bosniaks are Muslim, and they reside on the east side of the city. However, this store, seemingly named for the Bosniaks, is deep in the west side of town, where the Catholic Croats make their homes.

“I was wondering,” I started,” why is this store called ‘Bosniak’? This is the west side.”

“Because it’s named for the surname of the man who owns the store,” said the man. “His name is Bosniak, but he’s a Croat. Now, I’m a Muslim, but I live on the west side, and work for a Croat, named Bosniak.”

He paused and smiled, then continued:

“But I’m not a believer. I’m an Atheist.”

While this conversation is fascinating, it is not outside the bounds of normal, for Mostar. Mostar is a place where identity is often obvious, worn on one’s sleeve, for all to see. It is determined prior to one’s birth, and everyone knows — or is told — where they stand. Compared to the United States, there is very little soul searching in relation to one’s public identity. With a few exceptions, one is either on one side or the other — there is no in between.

Whose are you?

The most important thing about us is our identity. I believe that if we look at our culture, it is easy to see where our identity lies. And while we may claim with our words that we identify with various things, what we say with our actions shows much more clearly where our identities and allegiances lie.

When we speak of identity, we are primarily speaking of that which we value. Our identity determines our values — if we identify with someone, then we will value them and the things that are important to them. If we identify ourselves as part of a family, then we will value their safety and happiness. If by our actions we make people doubt that we care for the safety and happiness of our family, then it is logical to assume that family is not important to us. 

There is a related verse from Christian Scripture that to me has always been particularly profound: 

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

I have always seen these verses as representing an important theme that runs throughout Scripture, and that is that the identity of the believer, as described in Scripture, is not only “spiritual”, something meant only to govern an hour of devotion on Sunday morning. Rather, this identity is meant to envelope our entire lives, countering all the customs, traditions, and obligations that make up the culture with which we identify. This identity described in Scripture is indeed counter-cultural, and it is meant to grab the life of every believer and turn it upside down. 

So what does that mean?

In an adult world, filled with adult decisions, the culture with which we identify determines how we make many of these decisions. In Mostar, it determines where one looks for a house, where one goes to school, the people with whom one associates. It determines how one votes, and the people to whom one looks for leadership. In many ways, it’s not much different from our culture in the United States. 

I am saying that the identity — the culture — of the Bible demands that we change the way in which we make all of those decisions. In America, where our comfort and economic stability determines how we decide many of these things, comfort and finances are the things we must sacrifice if we are to be truly identified with this new culture. 

If we care nothing about redeeming the problems that plague our people, then we will continue to let our decisions be determined by comfort and money. But if we want to be the people we are created to be, then we must pause, and we must change course, taking on those burdens and struggles which are not comfortable, and which cost a great deal of money. 

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