“Hey, look at my eyes!” The girl pressed her fingers to the corners of her eyelids and slanted them upwards, then downwards, then upwards again. “Haha!” She started chanting in a sing-song manner, “Ching-chong, ching-chong!”
We were at summer camp and eating ice cream at a picnic table. I was barely 12 and joined her happily, as did our friends. When she saw that I joined, she dropped her hands and laughed even louder, slamming the table and saying, “You look so funny!”
I didn’t get it. Wasn’t that the point? I thought we all looked funny. But I could tell from her inflection that I was the one who looked particularly funny.
“I mean,” the girl continued. “Aren’t you actually Chinese?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m half Irish and half Puerto-Rican.”
“Girl, you are straight up Chinese.” She pressed her fingers to her eyelids again. “Hey, look at me!”
I told the girl to stop. “I’m not Chinese,” I said.
In response, the girl changed the words of her chant to, “China girl! China girl! China girl! China girl!”
My face grew hot. “I’m Irish and Puerto-Rican,” I said. “Irish and PUERTO-RICAN.” But the girl continued, and others joined her. I soon found myself surrounded by a group of hostile peers, all of whom were chanting, “China girl! China girl!” and refusing to listen.
I got up from the table and walked away, the sound of their laughter following me as I walked.
Identity is a sensitive topic. The above story is a mess of identity conflict, starting with the fact that simply being Chinese was a joke to these girls. Not only was my own identity ignored, but the “Chinese” identity itself was turned into an insult that could be hurled at me for laughs.
On the other hand, the above story is just as likely to get eye rolls as it is to generate discussion. In fact, it’s rather in vogue to criticize or even mock identity these days. Yes, identity is a sensitive topic, but to be honest, people are tired of it. People have been tired of it.
My Facebook feed frequently displays a variety of posts ranging from simple criticism to outright ridicule of topics related to identity. Virtually every major media outlet has commented on the role and/or failure of identity politics in the recent election cycle, and articles from the liberal NPR to the more conservative Federalist have been less than sympathetic. There seems to be a growing sense that concepts surrounding “identity” have gone too far. Many believe that we’ve created a culture where everyone is an oppressed minority in some way, shape, or form. And it’s getting old.
With this in mind, the following are four suggestions for Christians to consider as they grapple with our culture’s divided rhetoric surrounding identity. Obviously the list is not complete. Instead, it’s meant as a place to start — a springboard for further discussion. So please contribute your own ideas.
As Christians it is essential that we find a better path forward than what the polarization of our culture would otherwise allow. We must find a way to engage this topic while remaining faithful to the Gospel. Hopefully this post contributes to that end.
1. Acknowledge identity as one of the most basic and fundamental questions about life.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” – Gen. 1:27
Identity is so important that the Bible addresses it in the very first chapter of Genesis. Human beings are the imago dei, the image of God. Every single person who has ever walked the earth is a living, breathing picture of eternal deity. That means that when you get to know a person — and that means really get to know the real who of who they are — you’re learning about God. At the core of our identity is a reflection of the divine. And that is spectacular.
So identity is a confusing mess. And rightly so. In a world confused about God, it should be no surprise that people are confused about themselves. When the human soul looks up to the heavens and says, “Who are you, God?” the very next question is likely to be, “And who am I?” The two go hand in hand. The search for personal identity is nothing more than a search for God. And neither quest is easy.
So when people find identity in race or sexuality or political affiliation or any number of various things, it is the product of a world without God that is searching for truth. It’s the sort of thing we would expect from normal people trying to answer the greatest questions about life. And these questions ought to be asked.
For the Christian, this means that theories surrounding identity should be expected. If anything, they exist on a playing field designed for the Christian in the first place. Much of the rhetoric would have us believe that theories surrounding identity are simply an assault upon conservative values. But that is hardly the case! If we dismiss the topic as the product of whiny liberalism, then we dismiss a set of ideas that are practically begging for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Far from being a threat, questions related to identity are the perfect place for the Gospel to grow.
Our culture is asking, “Who am I?” and Jesus is saying, “Let me tell you.” Let’s embrace that process.
2. Seek to understand the serious issues at stake
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Gal. 3:28
When it comes to identity, the most common complaint that I hear from Christians usually involves their exasperation with rampant liberalism on college campuses. Protests over Halloween costumes, or insensitive language, or patriarchy, or heterosexism, or this, or that — it gets tiresome for people. Not gonna lie, I get tired of it too.
But in our eagerness to reject the more childish aspects of identity, we must not disregard the more serious topics underneath. People are hurting, and the root cause is often how they are “defined” by society. I was never born with some innate understanding that I was “Hispanic.” I was told. And then I discovered what this meant as I interacted with the world, with people, and with society at large.
Is “Hispanic” who I am? Well yes and no. I can at once say that I “am” Hispanic while simultaneously knowing that “Hispanic” is an artificial construct created by the government in the 1970s. So I am Hispanic. But Hispanic is not who I am.
Yet billions of people across the world are nevertheless defined by a single aspect of their humanity, whether it be skin color, disability, gender, or whatever. An “illegal immigrant” is a complex human being with a story to be told that is so much deeper than immigration. But in the eyes of society, “illegal” is the single defining attribute that determines everything about their present and their future. No human being is “illegal.” And yet “illegal” is what they are.
For those who don’t relate, identity may be nothing more than a socio-political idea. But for millions of people in America, the consequences of identity are not just theoretical. And it’s critical for the Christian to be sensitive to this reality.
So let’s seek to understand the serious issues at stake. Let’s be sensitive to the lives of other people.
3. Recognize that Christians don’t have all the answers
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” – 1 John 3:2
I am Hispanic, a woman of mixed heritage, and the third-generation child of Irish and Puerto-Rican immigrants. My identity bears all the privileges of “whiteness” and the “oppression” of racism, the colonizing invader and the African slave. My Indian mothers were dragged from their homes so that my European fathers could rape them. One set of my grandparents found opportunity and prosperity on the shores of America. The other found ghettos and factories.
All of these things came together to give birth to me. I am not any of these things, yet they are nevertheless a part of who I am. They are a part of my “identity.”
But wait…aren’t I a Christian? Shouldn’t my only source of identity be Christ?
Well, yes. But this idea is so wonderfully abstract that it somehow manages to encompass everything about me while simultaneously saying absolutely nothing about who I actually am. Such is the nature of abstract thought. You can say something without saying anything. It’s a great party trick.
Shall I eschew identifying as “Puerto-Rican” or “Irish” or “third-generation” simply because I must find my identity in Christ alone? Of course not. In fact, it is because of Christ that I am able to embrace these aspects of myself without ever being defined by them. Christ doesn’t erase the things that make me who I am. He makes sense out of them instead. Like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. He takes each piece and puts it where it belongs, and bit by bit we come to see ourselves for who we really are. Out of the various conflicting identities waging war within my soul, Christ puts them all together and makes a me out of them. Notice he doesn’t take them away.
As the writer declares in 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” God knows who we are when the puzzle is done, but we don’t. We aren’t complete, and herein lies the tension. Yes, I am Irish, but who I am is not Irish. This is me and yet it isn’t me. I am this thing, but I am not only this thing. Christ takes this identity and puts it where it belongs with the rest of who I am. But I don’t fully know who that is. Not yet.
Through Christ, we are becoming more and more like the person we were always meant to be, but not even the Christian knows what that is. The phrase, “Find your identity in Christ” is at once an answer and no answer at all. This realization should humble us and cause us to reflect. There’s a reason why the Bible talks about giving us a “new” name when we enter the afterlife. Who we think we are is incomplete. Our name right now is not enough.
So let’s recognize that people are asking difficult questions, and we don’t have all the answers. We’re not supposed to have the answers.
4. “Identify” with the “identities” of other people
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” – 1 Cor. 9:22
As a foreigner in South Korea, I am reminded of my “outsider” status on a daily basis. I can’t even say hello in Korean without my students dying of laughter. But one thing for which I am constantly grateful is the number of Korean people who make themselves “American” for my sake. Most of the time I don’t even know it’s happening.
For example, for the longest time I was calling a Korean acquaintance by her first name. That’s what she told me to do. Later, however, my Korean language tutor explained that this woman was “Americanizing” herself to make me feel more comfortable! Respect for elders is a crucial part of Korean culture, and my acquaintance was older than me by several years. Knowing this, a Korean my age would never use her name. Instead, they would use a respectful title such as Seonsaengnim or a relational term such as Eunni. But instead of expecting this, she catered to my cultural norms. She made herself more “American” in order to relate to me.
How humbling that a person would make themselves more like me in order to become my friend.
But for the Christian, this ought to be par for the course. Even our own Savior let go of his divine power to identify with us. Is it too much to ask that we do the same? Surely not. As Christians, we are called to reflect the mystery of the Gospel to a fallen world. Part of this mystery is that God became a living, breathing human being — not in pretense but in reality. Imagine the pastor of a megachurch doing prison ministry by giving up his leadership and actually becoming a prisoner himself! The idea sounds ridiculous, but that is what Christ has done.
Obviously, I’m not saying we should all go out and get arrested. What I am saying is that Christians are called to live out this grand story on a smaller scale in the communities around us. We are called to identify with the world because that’s what our Savior has already done. There’s a reason why Paul could say things like, “To the Jews I became a Jew” (1 Cor. 9:20) while simultaneously saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek,” (Gal. 3:28). In the eyes of God, Paul was not a “Jew,” and yet Paul chose to be a Jew as way to incarnate the risen Christ to his fellow man.
And we can do this too.
Some Final Thoughts
As a person of mixed racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, I’ve quite literally been mistaken for every racial category on the U.S. census — a well-meaning cashier even complimented my English once! It’s something I’ve resisted my entire life. But recently, I’ve begun to realize that this confusion is part of being human. We are all a mix of various and often conflicting identities. Apart from Christ, we are left to assemble the pieces ourselves. The message of the Gospel speaks to that condition. Christ is saying to each of us, Let me do it for you.
So instead of rejecting identity as inherently anti-Christian, let’s instead think Christianly about it. Let’s recognize that questions surrounding identity are some of the most important questions a person could ask, and let’s seek to understand the identities of the people we meet. We don’t have all the answers. Instead, as children of God, let’s identify with the people of this world and thus embody the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the communities we serve.