The Culture Wars’ lies about identity:
“We each find our own identities by looking within ourselves and trusting our feelings.”
“Our political identities define us and are core to who we are.”
“Choosing not to take on a political identity is choosing to be ineffective and inconsequential.”
What does “identity” even mean?
Wikipedia defines identity as “the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance, and/or expressions that characterize a person.” Psychology Today describes identity as “the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self.” Identity includes concepts of life experiences, worldview, and ideology. In essence, identity becomes not only a lens through which I see and understand the world around me, but also includes the operating system I use to navigate it. When our current culture thinks and talks about identity, then, it seems to be referring first and foremost to how I see myself and, perhaps in some cases, to how others might see me.
Who gets to determine my identity?
But where does our identity come from? Who gets to tell us who we are? How do we “find” our identity? Some say our family does this…that our parents or grandparents or ancestors have much to say about who we are or who we should be. This, of course, adds some puzzle pieces to the question…both good ones and bad ones; both helpful and some not so helpful.
Some of us tend to find our identity in our work or our accomplishments, or perhaps in things we have NOT accomplished. Others find our identity in choices we have made, both good and bad. Some find identity in core pain or wounds we have endured or survived.
Culture warriors (as we have defined them here) often define themselves based upon particular social causes or ideals, or (more likely) in terms of what or whom they oppose. They are, after all, fighting a war.
Our culture has some prevailing ideas about where we should find our identity. It encourages us to identify with “whatever feels right to us.” The culture says, “never let anyone else tell you who you are.” It encourages us to “have the courage to be yourself.”
But how valid are any of those ideas? Is my identity a matter of what others think or say? Is it a matter of my accomplishments? My family? My mistakes? Is it a matter of my own feelings?
I am who my Creator says I am
For Christ followers, identity is about who God says we are. Scripture begins the search for my identity at a place completely separate and apart from me…it begins with God. He knows every detail of my past, including all my thoughts and feelings, even those long since forgotten by me. He sees me and pursues me and knows everything about my present. And He knows every detail of my future, including all my thoughts and dreams.
John Calvin said: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” If David, the writer of Psalm 139 which is all about identity, had gotten his identity from his family he would never have been anything other than a shepherd. Had he depended on his feelings, he may never have been more than a poet or songwriter. If he had depended upon his life experiences, he may never have been anything more than a soldier. If he had been defined by his mistakes or poor choices, he would have been merely a murderer, an adulterer or a rapist (depending on your interpretation). But history reveals David as perhaps the greatest king Israel ever knew…because that is who God created him to be.
And so it is with God’s children. Contrary to the culture wars’ lies about identity, we are whom God says we are.
Culture War Identities in Jesus’ Time
Jesus was a rabbi. He was a spiritual leader who had a handful of followers who did life with him and sought to learn from him and to grow to be like him. That is the very definition of rabbi. But in his culture, any rabbi of any influence at all took on a cultural identity with one of several groups. At Jesus’ time, there were four group identities from which a rabbi could choose: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Like our current political climate, there simply was little or no place for an “independent.” The expectations of the culture all operated against it.
At Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the most popular. They were mostly middle class, followed the Mosaic law (the Torah) as well as all the oral traditions (the Mishnah). To them, Roman authority was a necessary evil and was tolerable as long as they (the Jewish people) could continue to practice their beliefs. The Sadducees were the second largest group. They were priests who were wealthy, aristocratic and often Hellenistic. These priests followed ONLY the law and were NOT fans of the Mishnah. They dominated the ruling council and they received plenty of Roman support. The Essenes were rigid followers of the Torah and were all about anti-corruption. Indeed, many were dissidents from the ruling council. They lived lives of isolation in the wilderness, making copies of the Torah. The Zealots were extremists, formed as a militant group around the time of Jesus’ birth. They were common in Jesus’ hometown area of Galilee and were anti-Rome, anti-slavery, and anti-taxes. They practiced acts of terrorism against Rome.
Jesus, the Independent
Interestingly, people in Jesus’ time often accused him of being a part of each of these groups at one time or another. But others also often saw him as being the enemy of each of these groups at one time or another. In other words, people were constantly trying to categorize him into one or another of these groups, because that is what humans do…we categorize people. That kind of “group identity” makes it easy for us to know how we feel about people. That way, we don’t have to do any of the hard work of actually knowing somebody before we talk (or post or tweet) about them. Indeed, some of Jesus’ own followers were often frustrated with him for NOT aligning into one or more of these groups. The pressure was constant to find an identity this way. And that pressure exists for all of us today as well.
But Jesus refused. He did not find his identity from any of these groups. His identity was throughly and completely in relation to his Father in heaven. He never bothered comparing himself to anyone in these groups. He established his own identity through his relation to God the Father. And he taught his followers to do likewise.
The Corresponding Truths
So, in contrast to the culture wars’ lies about identity listed at the top of this post, here are the corresponding truths for Christ followers:
We find our identity from the only one who can tell us who we are, our Creator; not from our ideological groups and especially not from our own feelings.
To the extent we even have them, our political identities are among the shallowest of our defining characteristics.
In our current climate, choosing a political identity (publicly) probably means having little spiritual influence at all with about one half the country.
…just a few things to ponder.