I'm trying to remember a man I once knew. What was his name again? It was one of those Swiss names. If you draw a blank at the concept of "one of those Swiss names," you're typical. Some nationalities 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 dated impression of chocolate, cuckoo clocks, neutrality, and Heidi. Wait a minute, forget Heidi—she was Austrian.We live in an age that 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 not much farther south and encounter Arabs, who are assigned Italians' volatile temperament but not their sweetening charm. In the public imagination, they are "dirty Arabs," unreasonable and fanatical, and potentially violent. When Back to the Future wanted bad guys to covet the professor's plutonium, it gave Arabs the role. Among North Americans, the line to sign up to portray Arabs would not be long. The question of identity is significant for Christians because we are each on a lifelong journey to find out who we really are. 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 e-mail 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. On the other hand, he felt the church was ignoring the plight of those in his condition, who struggle with strong temptations with little support and who face the possibility of lifelong 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, might not 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 key 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 colorblind, who would follow Martin Luther 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. Shelby Steele argues in A Dream Deferred that this is an agenda developed by powerful whites who keep blacks on a pedestal of holy victimhood to serve as objects 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 nonfavored.

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These assignments are not 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 the apostle 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. The apostle 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.

Related Elsewhere

There are many lists of Bible verses describing our identity in Christ online, including this game to help you memorize relevant Scriptures.Judith M. Gundry-Volf and Miroslav Volf examined "Paul and the Politics of Identity" in the July/August 1997 issue of Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture [print only]. Identity themes were also examined in Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. Christianity Today's review of the book appeared in the April 28, 1997, issue. Shelby Steele 's biography is available at Stanford's Hoover Institution.Read the transcript of a Shelby Steele interview with David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report.Steele's A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.Visit Frederica Mathewes-Green's Web site at www.frederica.com Earlier "Your World" columns by Frederica Mathewes-Green columns include:

  • Every Day Is Casual Friday (July 18, 2000)
  • Get It? (May 18, 2000)
  • Sex and Saints (Apr. 11, 2000)
  • Psalm 23 and All That (Feb. 15, 2000)
  • The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
  • The Thrill of Naughtiness, (September 6, 1999)
  • Escape from Fantasy Island, (July 12, 1999)
  • Men Need Church, Too, (May 24, 1999)
  • My Spice Girl Moment, (January 11, 1999)
  • Moms in the Crossfire, (October 26, 1998)
  • Gagging on Shiny, Happy People, (September 7, 1998)
  • Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy? (July 13, 1998)
  • I Didn't Mean to be Rude, (May 18, 1998)
  • So I'm Sorry Already, (April 6, 1998)
  • Don't Blame the Publishers! (February 9, 1998)

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Frederica Mathewes-Green
Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author of several books and has been a commentator for National Public Radio, National Review, and other media outlets. Her books include The Jesus Prayer and Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. Mathewes-Green's podcast "Frederica Here and Now" is carried on Ancient Faith Radio. Her column, "Your World," ran from 1998 to 2000.
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