In mathematics, an Identity is an equation that is valid for all its variables. For a Human, the definition is similar; a quick lookup in Dictionary.com shows that most of the definitions of the word Identity tend to assume “Oneness”. Here are two of the examples: (1) “the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another” and (2) “the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time.”
I first started thinking consciously about Identity when I was taking classes in Youth Ministry with Dean Borgman, and he asked us to read David Elkind’s book, “All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis,” which describes a disease of Identity known as the Patchwork Self. This is a condition that happens to teens, and any age group, when they are under great stress without guides and proper relationships (helping relationships) that encourage wholeness of self. This wholeness is inclusive of one’s value system and how one acts in the world according to those values. The Patchwork Self is one who never created one homogenous set of values, and thus, acts according to whatever is the norm in the group that they are in. An example would be a businessman who extorts money from a company with fellow co-workers, then chastizes children for stealing at the grocery store, stands up straight and acts wholesome at church or when the preist/pastor is present, and then goes home and talks dirty with his neighborhood friends. It does not have to be so stark, however, and one may simply take different stands on an issue. It is somewhat well known that many who voted for McCain in the 2008 election would not admit it when in the company of the jubilant voters for Barak Obama.
So why is this a problem? Why is it bad that people act differently with different groups? Isn’t that just part of getting along? Though I do feel that it is sometimes right to suppress your opinion sometimes for politeness or for the sake of timing on some less important issues. I’m not talking about what brand of soda you like, or what type of frosting should be on the cake. There are more important issues, dealing with war, abortion, governance, etc., that require us to dig deep into our value system, and make decisions appropriately. Otherwise no action in our world would be possible, and we’d all be living in caves.
One image of this that really got my attention was in the movie Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise as a man who is charged by a secret party to assasinate Hitler. To set the scene’s context, a plan was made, that when the assassination attempt occurred, a communications officer at the bunker where Hitler was governing from, would rip out the wires at that bunker’s communications hub. Simultaneously, the opposition party would take power in Berlin, use reserve armies to arrest the SS under the guise that they attempted to kill Hitler and take over, and then notices would be sent out that there was a new government in charge, and ultimately peace would be negotiated with the allies and the war would end. Unfortunately, there was a kink in the plan. When the plan took effect there was a communications center, where women would type out messages, give them to an officer, who would review them and send them through another channel to their intended destination. At first, they relayed the message (that was false) that Hitler was dead, and began relaying all the information for the new government. Eventually, however, Hitler restored communications in his bunker, and begins sending messages that the new government is a coupe that needs to be arrested immediately. Here – two simultaneous messages are given to the communications center, and the officer in charge decides at first to be neutral. All messages for both sides are to be sent. This sets the stage for the reserve army to receive to arrest warrants, for leaders of opposing sides. The reserve army Officer in charge sets off to make the arrests, but is perplexed by the contradictions. The contradiction is broken when Hitler himself talks to the reserve officer on the phone, and the voice is recognized.
Then the communications hub, still has a decision to make because they were asked to relay that Hitler is not dead, and that the new government is to be arrested and brought alive to Hitler. Here is the dilemma. Orders are going out for arrests on both sides. It is utter chaos. At this point, if Hitler is really alive, there is a moral decision to be made. Either you are devoted to Hitler and you are with the current government (that is killing people and perpetuating an unjust war), or you are the opposition’s node and a revolution is to be the communication’s master. Here is the drama, the decision, and neutrality is no longer an option. This is where having an identity is so important. You cannot serve both sides and expect to be trusted when one of the sides wins out. Either way, if you are neutral, you lose. And how is one supposed to be trusted, if a simple decision cannot be made? Leadership wanes, and action becomes impossible in such confusion. It causes stress until the moment that a decision is made. According to the values that are within you (or lack thereof) you must make a decision. What decision would you have made?
Unfortunately, Hitler’s brand was too strong, and the communications Officer decided to support Hitler. Extremely unfortunate, because they were the turning point in the struggle. Once messages for the Opposition had been stopped, they had no control. The brain was disconnected from the body. Had the communications officer chosen the resistance, Hitler’s message could not have gotten out as quickly, and the Opposition would have had a good chance of wresting control. WWII Germany’s legacy may have been different and fewer men and women would have died in the long run (at least according to the movie).
Having a unified identity is critical, especially in moments when decision is necessary. Those who have not made their mind up about an ideal for themselves, and how the world should work, are not capable of doing anything above and beyond. Greatness for the greater good is not possible without those who are willing to stand on principles of Human Dignity, which are given by our Creator. But a whole generation of people do not want to take a stand on who they are and what makes them tick! Perhaps we’ve domesticated our lives so greatly that many of us never have to make a stand, and nominal statements without any salt are sufficient for conversations at the water coolers. But what kind of life is that? Can we be allowed to ruffle each others feathers a bit to get our friends thinking from time to time? And how will that play out, when real times of hardship hit? Despite our opulence, in America and in the rest of the world, there are still great injustices being performed. Some people have made up their identities on Racist and Classist ideologies. Sexual slavery persists and women around the globe are paying a huge price. They are not allowed to have their own identities. Genocidal pushes in parts of Africa have sent hundreds of thousands to the grave before their time, and all across the globe, education is denied as a form of control. What makes us immune from these problems? And with the plague of suicide in our modern world, what is going on? If the next generation of people are unable to decide what a “Good Society” is, warfare in our own culture is possible. Bitterness, and an inability to lead others in worthwhile pursuits will become chronic. Already, we see in the school, church, and workplace shootings, that somehow people are rotting from the inside out and unable to determine what is good from what is evil. If we are a culture are not able to determine what is good about ourselves (self-worth), and understand a common set of ideals that all people can live by, then we will see the dark side of pluralism made up by society dismantling individuals (those who love Anarchy do not truly understand its logical consequences).
So what is a good identity? One worth systematizing individual, which can manifest itself in society growth, rather than decay when compiled in community? There are bound to be some cultural variances on what that would be, and how it would be communicated, but there are some precepts that all human societies must live out in order to grow with health and vigor. The first five books of the Old Testament are foundational, and the interpretation and revelation of Jesus Christ in the Gospels bring alive the rights humans have as Children of God bearing God’s Image in the world – Stewards of God’s creation. There is set an ideal, that we often don’t live up to, and that many have tried to put aside because practically, being like God seems like an impossible pursuit (and it is). But the pursuit of perfection itself, and holding up the ideal despite our imperfections is not hypocrisy if we acknowledge our faults and continue to keep getting back up. Let us look to perfection to match ourselves up to it. In the Psalms, Asaph wrote, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth.” There is a standard that is the embodiment of what is good. If our identity is sound in a high standard, rather than our own practical pleasure, we become more disciplined, and in the direction of good, we become more good. Never quite there, but getting closer. That is the best building block for a good society.
The problem is, that so many have not decided who they are, or have decided that their identity involves running away from perfection and taking whatever they can while this life lasts. That is a formula for defeat, maybe not now, but certainly at some point in time. Paul in his letter to the Romans encourages us to get beyond our failures as people and as cultures:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect,”
And soon in the scriptures he gives us an ethical code to live by forged out of his own life:
“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him drink; for in so doing you will heap coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12)
Whatever background you are coming from, these words are good. Meditate on them for some time, and begin to think through the question, “Who am I?” and “What makes me who I am?” If chaos ensues, begin to work it through – take some time. Sometimes there are patches on us that we didn’t know were there. The point is to discover, and find the Oneness that the definition of Identity entails. And when you’re well along that trail, perhaps you can help a few others start that road. And have fun doing it.