The fluidity of self-identification has been at the forefront of the cultural conversation over the past month. Rachel Dolezal, former head of a local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., and prominent advocate for the black community, has come under fire for identifying as African-American when, in fact, she was born to Caucasian parents. Despite charges of deception and cultural appropriation, Dolezal has continued to claim, “I identify as black.” A few weeks before the Dolezal story broke, former Olympian Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer that he was in the process of transitioning from male to female; he subsequently identified himself as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. What determines an individual’s identity? Is it socially, personally or biologically constructed?
Christians would offer another answer. From Genesis to the letters of Paul, Scripture teaches that we have been created in the image of God, have fallen away from Him and are reclaimed as His children through the work of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are creatures born with a burden of brokenness that is inescapable absent the mercy and grace of the Father. We are bound in our inability to find self-worth with a horizontal gaze. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it this way: "Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him."
The desire to be named is inherent and God-given in all of us. We are all fundamentally dissatisfied with who we are as individuals and are desperate to assign meaning and worth to our lives. In our attempts to create meaning, we often look to our immediate environments. For many, this includes the environments of race and gender that we find most personally resounding. It seems apparent that our biology would have something to say about these areas of our identity; however, in the present playing field, there exists a permeating fluidity in how we assign meaning to who we say we are.
None of us are exempt from a deep dissatisfaction with who we are, which often results in the pursuit of identity outside of who Christ says we are.
The stories of Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are not completely analogous. Yet we can extract a valuable truth made evident by both narratives. None of us are exempt from a deep dissatisfaction with who we are, which often results in the pursuit of identity outside of who Christ says we are. We are born with this need to be named because God personally desires to give us His name. When we consider the recent controversies over race and gender, we are not obligated to wage war with the discomfort we may feel over Dolezal and Jenner’s decisions. Rather, we are equipped to understand, intimately, the uniquely human struggle we all share. When we begin here, we are able to properly grasp how the Gospel can speak to each of our own identity pursuits and how we can find true identity in Christ.
Whether those pursuits are in our jobs, our families, our gender, our racial affiliation or in our religious record, we are all in need of new names. The only source of an adequate, satisfying, peace-giving and comprehensively life-changing name is found in the person of Christ. His name is freely given to us as a more deeply satisfying identity. We no longer have to scratch the dry earth for hope and self-worth. We are given ultimate worth in our Savior, a worth that quiets the dissonance of self-dissatisfaction that is systemic in us all.