“Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?“ (Acts 19:15)
The quote from Acts 19 is directed at Jewish exorcists trying to perform miracles by dropping the names of Jesus and Paul. An evil spirit calls them out for their masquerade.
The mark of our first self-conscious moment is when we begin to wonder Who AM I? Masquerading as someone else might work for a while in the process of self-discovery. We try on different identities for size to see how they feel and if they fit.
These days we have more identity options than ever before and the lines between them are as blurred as the options are prolific. You aren’t just “Muslim”; you have to determine which kind of “Muslim” you are. You can’t identify simply as “Christian”. Once you get past the Protestant / Catholic / Orthodox labels you have to know if you are evangelical, conservative, charismatic, etc. You can be “white” and say you “identify as black” (a la Rachel Dolezal). It may not be enough to say you are “male” or “female”. Gender and sexual orientation join our religious preference, the habits of our particular generation and the myriad of other identifying characteristics as more of a moving target than a compass needle pointing consistently in one direction.
How do you self-identify? That’s the buzz word of the day – Self-Identify!
It goes without saying that emotional maturity is related to a growing confidence in who a person knows him or herself to be; but pressure has mounted to come by this knowledge earlier and to wear it more as an external badge of defiance than an internal source of strength. There has to be some middle ground between cultural stereotypes that oppress us on one hand, and three hundred million (plus) self-identified individuals who are at each other’s throats on the other. The obsession with self-identification is raising the politics of self-interest to new and more dangerous levels.
How much of my personal “self-identification” does everyone else need to know? Where is the boundary between the personal and the public when it comes to the expression of my self? What should be done when our politics protects certain brands of self-identity over others? And if we want to see a very blurry line, how about the line between “protected” and “entitled”?
Even the best expression of politics pits us against each other – one group of similarly self-interested people against another. In that context, self-identification is necessary for survival. We have to know which group to belong to, or what kind of group to create in order to be heard above the cacophony of all the other groups.
The thing that makes Jesus so counter-intuitive, to say nothing of counter-cultural, is that he does not ask us: Who are you? His question takes our attention off of ourselves by asking: Who do you say I am? John Kennedy tried a secular variation on that theme in his inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do for you …” – but even in the hyper optimism of the early 1960’s Kennedy’s words tended more toward a political applause line than a truth that could change hearts. Away from the politics of self-interest however, perhaps in the context of a church service within the walls of a sanctuary, maybe we can hear Jesus’ question for all the power and truth it possesses. The reality of the “kingdom of heaven” as Jesus envisioned it and proclaimed it removes the need for self-identification. Paul knew this – at least at some level – when he announced: There is no more Jew or Greek, male or female, bond or free! We are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 10:12 and Galatians 3:28.). The power and mystery of the Christian doctrine of “Incarnation” is that God self-identified … as Human! A Jew, yes; but one whose self-identification transcended every category imaginable so as to include us all.
I readily and willingly concede the need to know one’s self; but when taken to the extreme to which every segment of our society is taking it today, I’m saying it is going to take something other than a president or a congress to bring us to our individual and collective identity. I am pleading for a place – and let it be the Church of Jesus Christ – where self-identification leads not to judgment or exclusion, but rather gives way to the person of Christ who gathers us together and brings us to a God who unconditionally loves us and makes us one.