There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.
– SuperTramp, Logical
The story broke this week that activist Shaun King, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, is white. That’s a story. That’s a breaking story. Why? Because King identified himself as biracial and the evidence is mounting that he is not. He’s just white. Plain old white. Did he know he was white all along? Or did he really think he was (and is) black? King said by the time he went to high school he identified himself simply as black, not biracial. His mom is white; there is no doubt of that but even though King’s family members say he is white, born to his mom and the white man named in his birth certificate, King claims his real father was an unknown black man with whom his mother had an affair. Confused yet?
Sounds familiar to another story from A few months ago. Remember Rachel Dolezal the president of a chapter of the NAACP who identified herself as black even though both her parents are white? She said there was no proof her parents were her parents because there was no medical witness to her birth (which was in a teepee) and her birth certificate wasn’t filed for 7 weeks. She claimed she grew up seeing herself as black and drew pictures of herself with dark skin and curly black hair. But in 2002 she sued the black college she was attending for discriminating against her because she was white. Confusing.
Besides the Shaun King and Rachel Dolezal stories there is Elizabeth Warren who called herself a Native American, and proud of her Native American heritage but has no Native Americans in her family lineage. And then the great big story of the year of Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner who changed his-her physical identity to match his-her internal identity of a woman. Very confusing.
Identity is not optional. We cannot live without one. Not knowing who you are is the worst kind of psychosis. It is so bad that truly crazy people will take on any identity rather than be identity-less; they’ll call themselves a rabbit, or take to calling themselves Jesus Christ. I found this quote from Rachel Dolezal to be very appropriate:
“Overall, my life has been one of survival, and the decisions that I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive.”
True. Very true. But not necessarily in the way Rachel thinks. She puts identity in that category of things that get things for us. Identity is actually the thing that we must get or we have nothing at all. The trouble with the identity stories we’ve read about lately is just this: the people seeking to use identity to accomplish something – social justice, career advancement, emotional integrity – have all missed a crucial and eventually devastating fact. If you create your own identity then you must maintain it. This is real identity confusion. This is a real problem. This isn’t to belittle the problem of having identities we don’t like. That’s a problem too. If you feel like being white is better than being black or that being a woman is better than being a man or that being an Indian is better than being white – if you really believe that – it presents a huge problem. It’s whey people take on not just racial identities but also social and emotional identities. People become the hero, the success story, the doctor, the lover. All of them have the same fatal flaw; self maintenance. It gets exhausting maintaining a self generated identity. And when someone questions our self generated identity, we have no choice but to defend it. We have to; it’s a matter of survival.
Surely though, all of us must recognize that it isn’t a breaking news story that will ultimately expose our lesser identities. We will have to pass out of this life at some point. Then who will we be? All our carefully produced images will melt away and we will be in the presence of Eternity; in the presence of The Identity. That experience will either be terrifyingly confusing or comforting depending on how we have oriented our lesser identities in the here and now. The gospel is the only system of thought that tells people they can have a given identity now that will last forever. It says God wants to give that to anyone willing to accept it. The Christian term “repentance” is really nothing more than giving up lesser identities for the true identity of the God who created us. The world could use more people who are not using systems, money, or other people to create temporary identities; who are humbled by an identity they did not earn, but emboldened by the riches of an identity that cannot be taken away. SuperTramp said please tell me who I am – that is why Jesus came; to tell you who you are, and it isn’t a slave to God’s law but as a son for God’s glory and for your identification – and there will never be a breaking news story when that identity is exposed as a lie. We can rest in it.