"You look Russian," our missionary friend Cindy assured me as we climbed up the stairs from a Metro station near Red Square. "Just don't smile." It was 1993—still the early years of the fall of communism—and we were headed to two different protest rallies on opposite sides of Red Square. We had heard news about the two events on the same day that Russia's Parliament was trying to remove the president and go back to the way things were.
One was a pro-communist rally; the other a pro-democracy rally. All this on my first trip to Moscow. For someone who apsired in some ways to journalism, this was a dream come true. Some missionaries were afraid and were staying huddled in their apartments. We, perhaps stupidly, wanted to run right to the rallies where the news was, where history was happening.
Okay, I look Russian and I won't smile, I told myself as we arrived at the pro-communist rally first. I thought about the woman on the tram earlier in our trip who started talking to me in Russian. As long as I stayed mute, I could be mistaken for a Russian citizen.
The first rally was eerily silent. Protestors were mainly pensioners in dark winter coats and Russian hats. No one talked or milled about. The red and gold hammer and sickle flag was carried by more than one protestor. Men wore military medals on their coats. There weren't thousands of people, but they were all standing as if in formation, facing a lone man who was shouting his anti-deomcracry speech through a portable speaker.
We walked behind the protestors without a word, on our way to the other rally. We reached a street where we saw a row of Russian soldiers on horseback, Moscow police, police cars and whole bank of ambulances. They were primed for violence.
"Oh, look," Cindy said, "Lorraine's jacket is the exact color of the new Russian flag." The blue color was not welcome in this all-red rally where people were angry and longing for a return to the past. And Cindy was right--the blue of my jacket was the exact shade of blue on the new flag.
So would those people think I was Russian, but the wrong kind of Russian?
Thank you very much, Cindy. I just wanted to get safely by the pro-Soviet soldiers and the armed police. Why do you think I wasn't smiling or talking. Fine with me if you mistake me for a Russian citizen and not an American.
We crossed Red Square, quiet and pensive. When we finally reached the pro-democracy rally, nothing could have been more different. For starters, the crowd was huge and milled about, talking and laughing. No people in formation or angry speeches screamed. There were children with their parents, students and all people of all ages. Ice cream vendors were selling ice cream. Street musicians were playing music. Jugglers. It was like a carnival. I breathed a sigh of relief that I could smile and talk again, and shake off my mistaken identity.
I felt free to be myself.
And I think in some ways, the same feeling was true at that time for a lot of other people coming out of the spell of the Soviet Union. They weren't Communists anymore. They weren't Soviet. Some could whisper a confession of identity, like the dear friend who travelled with us and whispered that her mother was a Jew, something she could not openly admit for years. I hugged her because we shared that same heritage with our mothers. Finally, she could admit who she was. But more important than that bond was the most important bond: we were both followers of Jesus Christ.
It's a little bittersweet to look back at this point with all that's happening with Russia and Ukraine and America and the rest of the world.
The danger with mistaken identities is believing that they are the real deal. We can even fall for it ourselves. We can define ourselves by our politics, the bloggers we follow or don't follow, our successes or failures. It's so easy to let those little bits define us—our genetics, our politics, our careers, skin color, gender, academic studies, bank accounts, the cars we drive; there are so many ways for us to create mistaken identities. Those things are not who we really are.
Think about the Apostle Peter on what was probably the worse night of his life—his denial of Jesus. Try as he might, there was no mistaken identity for Peter as he huddled around the fire. A servant girl and two other people knew that Peter had been with Jesus.
Being with Jesus is what defined Peter, even at his lowest point, even when, scared, he denied it. And it is what needs to define us as children of God at our lowest or highest points. Let's work at letting people see us for who we really are, and let's be who we are—children of the living God, which is the very best identity that any of us could aspire to.