Last June was a pretty raucous time for me. I was finishing up my dissertation on the politics of scriptures. I was packing boxes to move from LA to PA. And I was doing a lot of dreaming, not just about what was coming next, but also about what I would be leaving behind.
It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that I started noticing some of the subtle significant things that I overlooked while in California.
For starters, I forgot about how common tattoos are in Southern California. On the one hand, loads of people had them, suggesting that it’s a pretty powerful way to express oneself. On the other, there wasn’t as much counter-cultural baggage that accompanied the tattooed friends in Texas.
I was also amazed at how little press immigration issues get in PA. In Southern California, I remember hearing about the latest local, state, and national developments on the daily. But I had gone months without hearing too much, even on my local NPR station.
The last story I heard in LA really left a mark on me. It was about how taxing the ID card process can be for immigrants. It was one of those stories that got me thinking about why we put so much meaning into a little sheet of paper or ink.
In August, I gave a talk about this to undergrads at my new institutional home, Elizabethtown College. To bring it into their frame of reference, I called it, “Get Carded: Documenting Identity in a Christian Nation.”
For the theory heads, I was building on the works of Benedict Anderson and Michel DeCerteau. For everybody else, I tried to get people thinking about how Christianity plays into America’s hyper-legislation of identity. That is to say, what does it say about this nation that if you want to drink, drive, vote, smoke, marry, or check out a library book, you might need some identification.
Mattie Sweet of The Etownian did a nice summary of what I was getting at.
Newton spoke about how Etown and America are both examples of what Michel de Certeau calls a “scriptural economy,” which is an argument that says what is written defines, delimits and articulates our bodies. Newton said the Bible offers many examples of writing your beliefs on your body, such as in Psalm 119:9-11 and Deuteronomy 11:18. Newton spoke of “The Scarlet Letter” and the movie “Easy A” as further examples of branding and labeling your bodies.
He said that forms of identification were very important in history as well. Christopher Columbus, for instance, made the people of Hispaniola wear metal beads. Following that, Newton discussed how slave masters branded slaves to show to whom they belonged. He explained the Moorish Science Temple of America created IDs to show they were “not children of slaves but the descendants of enlightened African American people.” They used them to show human worth.
I’d like to think I was on the same wavelength as Katy Scroggins in this great radio clip on religion and ID cards from the podcast, Things Not Seen – Religion Moments – The Right to an ID Card.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt us? Try telling that to the ICE official at a makeshift checkpoint or the potential employer that can’t stop staring at the phrase written on your wrist. In this world, words can do things to our bodies.
Given your context, what’s it take to be known the way you want to be known? What does it cost you? What does it cost others? And is it worth it?
Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.