[Christianity Today, September 4, 2000]
What was his name again? I’m trying to remember. It was one of those Swiss names.
If you draw a blank at the concept of “one of those Swiss names,” you’re typical. There are some nationalities that bring to mind richly detailed associations, and Swiss is not one of them. Rummaging in the corners of memory we might come up with a very dated impression of chocolate, cuckoo clocks, neutrality, and Heidi. Wait a minute, subtract Heidi — she was Austria.
We live in an age which encourages a high degree of self-consciousness about identity, and some identities are more fully costumed than others. Head south into Italy and you immediately find a complete and colorful package, so generally appealing that Italian-Americans sport bumper stickers that read “Kiss Me, I = m Italian.” (“Kiss Me, I’m Norwegian” is not as popular.) Every Italian, as we well know, is exuberant, warm-hearted, and a great cook. Even Mafia associations become, in pop entertainment, colorful and harmless. If people could sign up for the ethnic stereotype they most wanted to portray, the list of voluntary Italians would be long.
Go a little further south and encounter Arabs, who are assigned Italians’ volatile temperament, but not their sweetening charm. In the public imagination all Arabs are “dirty Arabs,” all are unreasonable and fanatic, all are potentially violent. When “Back to the Future” wanted bad guys to covet the professor’s plutonium, it naturally gave Arabs the role. The line to sign up to be Arab is not long.
The question of identity has significance for Christians because we are each on a life-long journey to find out who we really are. The task of self-knowledge is important because we are like miners trapped at the bottom of a caved-in shaft trying to tunnel through debris to the light. Jesus calls us toward himself, but sins and selfishness impede us. Our natural state is one of confusion. Prone to self-deception, we don’t readily know which elements of self to value and which to deplore. Examination of conscience is a lost art.
Cultural signals complicate this task. It’s made harder, say, for an Italian who is told that his urge to philander or burst out in rage is not just genetically unavoidable — it’s also kind of cute.
I recently received an email from a young man who said he was struggling with homosexuality. He felt caught between two poles. On the one hand, he believed that God calls homosexuals to celibacy; he opposed the notion that tempted believers should give up and give in. But on the other he felt that the church was ignoring the plight of those in his condition, who struggle with very strong temptations with little support, and who face the possibility of life-long solitude.
Isn’t there anything about the homosexual identity, he wrote, that the church could affirm? If male homosexuals, for example, have gifts of compassion, gentleness, and aesthetic ability, mightn’t the church recognize and celebrate those gifts?
The danger, I think, is in the first step — the presumption that sexual leanings constitute the core of a person’s identity. This young man may be compassionate, gentle, and artistic, and his church could use those gifts. But adopting “homosexual” as the explanatory label is not necessary, and only confuses his spiritual discernment. Yet it’s hard not to adopt such a label, when cultural chatter about it is so constant and fascination so high.
Likewise, blacks who would like to be color blind, who would follow King’s dream of judging not by skin color but by character, are almost forcibly prevented from doing so. Self-consciousness about skin color is pressed on them from every side. In “A Dream Deferred,” Shelby Steele argues that this is an agenda developed by powerful whites, who keep blacks on a pedestal of holy victimhood to serve as object of their condescension and to make themselves feel virtuous. This imposed identity is nearly impossible to evade.
The one true identity we all share is “God have mercy on me, a sinner,” but it’s hard to dwell in that simple self-understanding when the world busily assigns other traits, favored and non-favored. These assignments aren’t always logical; the world may excuse impulsive anger in Italians while reviling it in Arabs. Acquiescing in positive or negative stereotypes will only confuse us. The important thing to remember, to adapt another moment from “Back to the Future,” is “Where we’re going we won’t need labels.”
“Then we will understand even as we have been fully understood,” says St. Paul, and though our self-understanding is now murky and marked by self-deception, on that day everything will be made clear. We’ll see ourselves as we really are, and all our costumes, identities, and excuses will fall away. St. John in the Revelation says that the Lord will then give to each of us a “white stone” name, our real name, which only He has ever known.
I just hope when I get mine it’s not one of those Swiss names.