Identity is a sticky wicket in today’s culture. Fundamental to the debate is (1) where identity comes from, (2) whether identity is inherent or ascribed, and (3) who gets to decide the validity of a given identity. I’ll be tackling these issues in turn, but let’s begin with a story.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I made our annual pilgrimage to my homeland for the Minnesota State Fair. If you have never been, this is a must for your bucket list/cheap family vacation. This is no rinky-dink state fair; it’s the sensory experience of Minnesota. The humid, yeasty aroma of hay in the livestock buildings; the crumbly-crisp texture of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, the am-I-gonna-die CLUNK of your Skyride as you bob above the sights and sounds. If you’re not convinced, let me tell you about crop art – people spend hundreds of hours creating mosaics out of grains and seeds from native cultivars. It’s amazing.
While wandering through the crowds, I was struck by the number of people wearing graphic tees printed with blunt – and in my view, defensive – statements. Here’s a selection:
If at first you don’t succeed, maybe you SUCK.
THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS.
You’re either STRAIGHT or CROOKED.
Each time I saw one, I thought to myself, This person saw this t-shirt and thought: YES, this is what I want total strangers to know about me. This is my message. I won’t get to give any nuance or context to this statement because I’m just a mobile billboard, but that’s okay. It’s just so ME. And then they got out their wallets and paid for these shirts.
I looked closely at these people and tried to discern how and why they chose these shirts. There must have been a t-shirt shortage. I gave them backstories. They have never met someone outside of their people group. I looked at their mouths stuffed with pronto pups, their heads thrown back in laughter, their backs piled with gigantic teddy bears and tried to see humanity in them. But I struggled to be at peace with these people. My mind churned and churned. WHY is their identity a defense against other people – can’t their identity be autonomous?
In the Bible, identity is also complicated. Any attempt to distill it into one tidy statement is intellectually disingenuous. God’s first identity is creator (does that mean those gifted with creation are closest in spirit to God?) His first human, Adam, is charged with animal husbandry (does this point to the sanctity of our role as stewards of the earth?) God’s second human was created from the rib of Adam (does this mean women are derivative of men?) The questions are endless, but I’m ready to tackle some answers.
I have the privilege of being a white woman from an economically advantaged background who never questioned my gender identity or sexual orientation. I’ve had it easy. But in my walk I have also had the privilege of building relationships with people who have not had it so easy. And I’ve heard how they have been written off, shamed, and even intimidated by torch-lit mobs — usually “in the name of Jesus.”
So to open the door to new thinking, I’m kicking off this series. I hope you’ll read and engage because Lord knows (literally, He knows) that your voice matters and my perspective is limited. Together let’s chase the goal: To come to a Christ-centered understanding of identity: where it comes from, whether it’s inherent/ascribed, and who decides its validity.