The modern world that most people reluctantly enjoy living in is one marked by a great controversy about identity. Race, gender, class, and all the other items of human self-identification are in the forefront of public conversation because people recognize that who I am is the most important question one must answer. It defines human beings in their most fundamental features.
On either side of the political aisle, entire ideologies are built around the identities – real or constructed – of the ideologue. These are designed to vindicate and justify not only ourselves but also our actions. Some of the most strident debates that animate our public discourse come down to controversy about identity. One group is pitted against another. Identity often carries with it conflict, especially amongst various tribes that perceive one another as antagonists. In this way, identity is something that is always lived out in public and before others.
Usually questions of identity circle the issue of power as the crucial matter. Who has power? Who has the right to exercise it? Is it exercised judiciously and responsibly? Power, of course, is always a matter of freedom, and the issue with freedom is that it can be used to further empower or to oppress and subjugate. By taking up a personal brand, a person plots what sort of life they will lead, what their story will be like, and how they will use their individual agency.
To slight someone’s identity is to attack them on a profound level. It is an attack on what makes them who they are in the deepest sense. Therefore, we defend our identities – self-chosen or not – with a great measure of zeal. Identity is jealously guarded because we are naturally self-protective.
Inasmuch as questions of identity are focused on forging cohesive groups within society, identity is often a matter of making space for the individual. One’s identity is an issue of personal pride. It is the place in which we find meaning, and therefore a measure of comfort. To be identified as an individual is to make our relation to the world somehow intelligible.
The distinctive thing about life in the world is that identity is always an active sort of thing. It is connected to agency. It’s crafted either through the effort to give definition to some reality, or it is chosen in an act of the will. I “self-identify” as such and such (it could be anything), and therefore who I really am is embodied precisely in that decision about myself. Even if someone argues they are born with an identity that they cannot change, what really matters is claiming the identity and encouraging others to celebrate it.
This fixation on identity has initiated a subtle shift in the politics of societies like our own. Founded on a notion of abstract rights within a “social contract” committed to principled tolerance, societies like ours have shifted toward identity – not abstract rights – as the benchmark of liberty. Freedom is not only to act as you please, but to have no one question the way in which you shape your own existence.
Social commentary aside, the centrality of identity to common political life raises an interesting theological question to which Christians need an answer. The great trouble with modernity’s fixation on how we mark ourselves out from others is that it is always framed in terms of the human’s activity. Even unalterable identifiers like race must still be appropriated and activated. One must become “class conscious,” for example.
The point here is not to pick out what types of people are “good” and which ones are “bad,” but to question the enterprise of self-identification altogether. According to the gospel, people are not finally defined by the choices they make, even about themselves. People are not defined by which other human beings they’re connected with. The only one that matters is the Lord who identifies himself with us in his suffering on the cross for our sins.
Usually, we identify with those who bear some similarity to us. But the righteous Christ makes himself the associate of sinners – those who are least like him.
Talk of finding one’s “identity in Christ” abounds in the usual Christian conversation. But too often, the emphasis is placed on our finding this identity instead of on the one who confers it as a gift. Christ is not just another identity we need to discover and practice. Rather, he is the one who has come and discovered us. Like the treasure buried in the field, God is the one who sells all he has – his own Son – for our sake so that he can purchase us for himself (Matt. 13:44). The wealth of the Father in the form of his righteous Son is donated for our sake in the poverty and desolation of the cross.
Discipleship, as it’s often portrayed, is merely an elaborate plan to make the Christian faith just one more way in which humans actively identify themselves to the world. God has redeemed us, and now our job is to craft the right response. Unfortunately, this usually becomes little more than an advertisement of our own righteousness. Since Christian discipleship is in the way of the cross, not much about it should actually appear to be all that holy. It is filled with suffering, trial, and finally death. Though it’s been tried, making death and self-denial into a personal brand doesn’t have much popular appeal.
The good news, however, is that the identity the baptized person has in Christ is actually outside the system of self-definition. It means that what fundamentally and truly matters about me is not what I do, but what has been done for me. Discipleship isn’t a virtue or habit that is honed through practice. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the one who has made it his mission to forgive sinners, raise the dead, comfort the troubled, and exorcise the demons that haunt us.
If this is all true of me, it removes the burdensome responsibility for cultivating the best version of myself where I can find real meaning, happiness, and recognition in life. For a culture so enamored with crafting the best personal brand, falling in with the right tribe, and fitting in with the most righteous people, the gift of passive identity in the gospel comes as strangely good news. The gospel means that the tireless pursuit of the right way to frame myself isn’t finally what matters in the end. All my efforts to make the right associations by putting out the hard work aren’t what make me who I am in the truest sense. The gift of God in Christ, therefore, means true and complete rest in the identity bestowed by the Lord himself.