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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The End of Sexual Identity

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In The End of Sexual Identity, Jenell Williams Paris begins by explaining, “sexual identity categories are social constructions […] contemporary categories for sexuality weren’t present in biblical cultures or even in my own society just over a hundred years ago” (p. 8-9). As she unpacks this statement, she emphasizes that sexual identity as we understand it today was not given by God at creation. Put concisely, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity” (p. 75). Therefore, Paris has concluded that sexual identity labels are one of the “patterns of the world to which [Christians] ought not conform” (p. 16).

The result of this is that Paris has chosen to become “unlabeled” with regard to her sexual identity. She states, “I don’t want to be heterosexual. […It is] a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings” (p. 43). As much as I wish that becoming “unlabeled” was a viable alternative to sexual identity as Paris claims it could be, I know that for all intents and purposes we cannot escape these labels. To her credit, Paris does admit that her decision to become “unlabeled” is “inane” to some extent. This will neither change the fact that she is privileged nor help reduce the marginalization and discrimination of those who are sexual minorities. But perhaps it is still a worthwhile concept to entertain. If nothing else, becoming “unlabeled” is a good conversation starter and helps “introduce a pause in the rush to judgment” (p. 14). Maybe that is reason enough to refuse to label our sexuality.

Overall, Paris provides a helpful framework for reconsidering how we think about sexuality but unfortunately, her approach is limited by the fact that the framework is a decidedly Christian one. It is one thing for Paris, a self-identified straight Christian woman to claim that she is “unlabeled,” but her call for the end of sexual identity carries a vastly different significance for someone who is not straight and not a Christian. Although Paris is aware of the fact that sexual desire as a central element of human identity is new (p. 10), she does not broach the subject of why this change has taken place. In Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid speaks to the fact that an LGBT identity not only provides a sense of validation, acceptance, and belonging, the resulting subculture “shelter[s] us from the judgment and disdain of a hostile world” (p. 33). People in the LGBT community value the ability to use labels in order to name their experience and find a sense of safety among those who have similar experiences. Vaid acknowledges that “Few of us are solely gay or lesbian or bisexual; we all harbor other identities that matter to us” (p. 283) but for those in the LGBT community, becoming “unlabeled” with regard to sexual identity is almost unthinkable.

Paris’s proposition that people choose to become “unlabeled” as an alternative to sexual identity is ultimately impractical and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, in The End of Sexual Identity she has provided a helpful framework that, though limited in its scope, enables those of us engaged in this dialogue to ask better questions and have more nuanced, insightful conversations.