Identity

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At Jesus’ baptism, His identity is affirmed as the beloved Son of God (Matt 3:17). Following this, Jesus enters into the wilderness and the devil tempts Him saying, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matt 4:3, emphasis added). Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, comments astutely on this sequence of events writing, “if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.” Particularly at the intersection of faith and sexuality, the question of one’s identity becomes a quandary.

Christians often encounter significant tension when it comes to defining their sexual identity. Some Christians prefer the term “same-sex attracted,” viewing this as a way to emphasize the centrality of their identity in Christ. On the other hand, some Christians advocate that using the term “gay” is essential in order to help dismantle hurtful stereotypes like that of the promiscuous “gay lifestyle.”  Of course, this can become even more nuanced. For example, is “gay” being used as an adjective or a noun? Since identity is so complex, it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. In this article, Matthew Lee Anderson urges, “let’s reconsider not just the language of ‘sexual identity’ but that of ‘identity’ altogether.” Reconsidering what it means to identify as a Christian will provide an essential foundation for discussing sexual identity.

In the Bible, Jesus’ disciples never called themselves Christians. Rather, this was a term that outsiders assigned to them based on evidence that indicated they were followers of Christ. Unfortunately, few today have earned the name “Christian” in that sense. Today Christians are known more by what they stand against than what they stand for. Being a “Christian” has become an identity of negation. When someone is handed a pink slip at work, a friend might try to console them by saying that as a Christian, their identity isn’t in a job, it’s in Christ. When someone goes through a bad breakup, they may be reminded that their identity isn’t in being a good boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s in Christ. However, Matthew Lee Anderson suggests that “it seems we should get to our ‘identity in Christ’ by a road other than negation.” For example, he recommends that Christians should embrace their identity as children of God because this denotes “a social role […] that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!).” As children of God, how then should Christians think about their sexual identity?

The first thing I like to point out is the fact that sexual identity is a social construction. As Jenell Williams Paris writes in The End of Sexual Identity, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity.” This is not to say that a person’s sexual identity is not real or legitimate. Sexual identity can be beneficial in that it may enable people to find a place where they belong. Sometimes though, a sexual identity label is less than helpful when it causes people to put an individual in a particular box and define them only by that box. The box becomes the focus and no matter how liberating it may be, a cage is still a cage. A person should not be defined only by their sexuality. Jenell Williams Paris’ solution to this is to become “unlabeled,” which is not exactly a solution at all (for a more complete discussion of this, see my previous blog post). How can someone balance their own self-perception with the way that others perceive them? Again, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.

I’ll end with this reminder from Tyler Edwards: “when things we do or abstain from doing become the defining characteristics of who we are, we lose the greater identity of ‘whose’ we are.” Let’s not forget that most importantly, Christians are the beloved children of God.

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My Thoughts on Steve Chalke’s Announcement

Steve ChalkeSteve Chalke, a prominent evangelical pastor in the UK recently made an announcement endorsing committed monogamous same-sex relationships and marriage. The article discussing his perspective can be found here. After both reading this article and watching Steve’s video, here are my thoughts:

As a Christian, I too believe it is imperative that we live out the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion. The Church, which should be radically inclusive, has excluded LGBT people and left them vulnerable and isolated. It is good to remorsefully take responsibility for this and take steps to right our wrongs. I also agree that the Church should have addressed its attitude and actions toward the LGBT community a long time ago, and it is unfortunate that this important topic has been avoided up until now, when it is nearly impossible to separate what are already complex issues from the overlap with what is happening in the political arena.

There must be a place for LGBT people in the church. However, I believe that the “real question facing the Church” is not “the nature of inclusion” but rather “how can the Church best love the LGBT community?” In order for churches to decide how they will move forward, an atmosphere of “generous spaciousness” would be most helpful. Unfortunately, churches are usually denied the collective space in which it is safe to wrestle and ask questions. We must find a way to extend the same space we allow ourselves when grappling with difficult topics to the larger church community.

In direct response to the question regarding the application of the same principle to women, slavery, and committed gay relationships: the problem is that although these three categories seem to be analogous, there is very little evidence pointing to a scriptural trajectory for gay people that is similar to the trajectories scripture provides for slaves and women. This is explained well in the book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William J. Webb.

I agree that God “beckons each one of us out of isolation into the joy of faithful relationship,” but these are not always romantic/sexual relationships. For example, the Church community acts as a source of platonic intimacy and connection for those with the gift of celibacy. It is not solely the church’s refusal to grant same-sex marriages that drives those in the LGBT community to loneliness, secrecy, fear and deceit but rather the historical hostility of the Church and the lack of a safe environment.

In the sentence including the phrase, “when we blame them for who they are…” there is an assumption that one’s sexual orientation equals one’s identity. While this is a reality within the LGBT community, as Christians we believe that our identity is in Christ and all other identifiers are secondary to that core identity. This distinction is key because it has significant implications as we continue to grow and revise our theology.

Even though we are far from a consensus, conversations like these give me hope that we are moving in the right direction. Progress, however one defines it, can only occur if churches are willing (or greatly pressured as the case may be) to engage in the discussion. I pray that the LGBT community will not be deterred from encountering the extravagant love of Christ.

The Danger of the Single Story

chimamandanew-colour-lst036235In 2009, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED talk in which she shared several examples illustrating the danger of “the single story.” She explains that, “The single story creates stereotypes, [and] the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” When people are informed by only a single story, misunderstandings and inaccurate perceptions often result. Adichie expanded on the problem of the single story saying that, “it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” In order to prevent prejudice that arises from stereotypes based on partial truths, it is important for there to be a balance of stories.

Although Adichie’s talk centered on issues of race (watch the TED talk for the full story), the LGBT community is also a group about which only a single story is being told. Although LGBT characters are becoming more represented in the media, many have criticized the stereotypical portrayal of LGBT individuals. Despite the increasing diversity among LGBT characters, the primary focus is still on their sexuality, and this is the focus of the single story that is being communicated about this community. They are pigeon-holed by this single aspect of their identity.

In an interview, musician Jennifer Knapp commented that the conversations regarding the intersectionality of faith and sexuality are valuable, but she considers the situation to be a catch-22. She has noticed that “All we do is talk about it and then people get the idea of the stereotypes; that that’s all people are and that’s all they’re made of.” By focusing so much on the sexuality component of an LGBT person’s identity, Knapp contends that, “I’m missing a core part of your experience and who you are. What do you like to read? Who are you inspired by? What’s your family like? Tell me about where you grew up.” If people asked these questions of LGBT individuals, the resulting conversations would lead to a beneficial balance of stories depicting a fuller and more accurate picture of those who make up the LGBT community. 

Freedom in Femininity

“Excuse me, Sir,” interjected the airport employee who tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face her and she paused abruptly. A befuddled expression spread across her face. My hair was short and my casual clothes fit loosely, so her mistaking me for a guy was understandable. I smiled knowingly and she proceeded with her instructions. Although I kept it well concealed, this incident (and several others like it) set off an unexpectedly strong negative reaction in me. Despite the fact that I am not very feminine, I am comfortable being female, and this incident revealed just how important I feel it is to be identified as such. But why was it so upsetting to be mistaken for a guy? It was more than the unease of being assigned a label that did not align with my own self-identity. Being misidentified by gender was much more unsettling than if she had merely guessed my occupation incorrectly. Both are aspects of my identity, but gender carries such weight. Does it carry too much weight? Even in infancy, one’s gender is of utmost importance, and most parents go to great lengths to ensure that their baby’s gender is correctly identified. Why is that so important to us?

Most people hardly consider the pervasive impact that their core gender identity has on them because they are easily able to conform to society’s gender role expectations. However, this does not come naturally to me. I didn’t question my tomboy tendencies when I was a kid – I played football at recess and went back-to-school shopping in the boy’s department. Fortunately, girls are allowed to be tomboys. Unfortunately though, it’s assumed that we’ll grow out of this stage. When I didn’t grow out of it, the notion of gender and its cultural construction began to linger at the forefront of my mind. Through socialization, I learned the unwritten rules and the degree to which society demands conformity. As a result, I have lost the childlike confidence that once allowed me the privilege of considering my appearance to be inconsequential. Social conditioning engrains gender so deeply within our identity. In what ways is this beneficial? How might it be detrimental?

There are ample voices, both subtle and overt, telling me who I should be. Brené Brown advises that one must “Let go of who you think you should be so you can be who you are.” To a certain extent, I agree with this, so I do my best to ignore the belligerent voices (or at least filter them). I remind myself that it is my character that matters and that I am the same person whether I am wearing jeans or a skirt. My appearance has no bearing on my identity, but the two still seem to be inextricably linked. To what extent is identity tied to appearance? Ultimately, my identity is in Christ, so I want to learn to see myself the way God sees me. When I do, I will be free from the confines of criticism. I will be free to step into who I was created to be.