Identity — something everyone has yet not everyone can clearly define. There are so many different types of identities that are surging upwards within the past three years: sexual identity, cultural identity, gender identity, and last but not least, religious identity. All these different identities push important questions to the forefront. Has identity become a murky and ill-defined notion? Is “embracing your identity” more important now than ever? What does the topic of identity have to do with us as youth? In this series, we’ll break down various identities, what they mean to this generation, and how they fit within the context of being a Christian.
First, let’s define what identity means in a literary context: Webster’s dictionary defines “identity” as “ the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish or identify a person or thing.” “Identity” in a psychological context is, “the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity) or group (particular social category or social group).” Fancy right? No, I’m not a psychologist and neither am I a linguistic wizard, but these definitions will prove useful as we dive into deeper layers of identity.
Let’s start with:
I was raised in a mixed bag of sorts when it came to culture — a child from two different worlds (nothing as dramatic as the Superman/Clark Kent range, but you catch my drift). My father was Dominican, and my mother was Honduran, two cultures that couldn’t be more divergent — different dialects of Spanish, different ways of cooking food, relaying information, etc. These cultural differences played a role in creating my identity, but they also came with a catch-22, a flip side that every child of immigrant parents must deal with. You see, the honest truth is that all children of immigrant parents are raised with two halves — the half that experiences and acts out all the cultural intricacies of your parents’ culture within the safety of your home (seen in your diet, speaking patterns, habits, etc.) and the half that lives out the realities of the country where you were raised.
Even if you don’t have immigrant parents and your family has lived generations within the fabric of American culture, your way of seeing the world has been affected by your culture, especially if you’re a minority. This reality creates a huge impact within our identities; where we are born, the environment we are raised in, where are parents come from, etc all play a role in what we create and add on into our identity. Culture is a huge part of who we are as people because it affects every facet of our lives. Our ideologies, our biases, & worldview are shaped by the culture which we are raised in so how exactly does this affect the way we see God?
Remember I mentioned I came from two different worlds? Well, interestingly enough, that cultural divide was never felt religiously. My parents focused on giving us a home church that shared our cultural background, but they also went out of their way to expose us to many different church cultures: African American churches, Asian churches, Haitian churches. The older we got, the less we placed a cultural tag on church and the more we saw church as simply that…church. I often wonder why we make culture a primary structure when it comes to how we approach God. Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand your culture will always play a huge role in who you are and how you worship, praise, and go about Church, but does it need to become a dividing line?
In the first part, we read that identity included “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish or identify a person or thing” Our identity, within this generation, has been hard to define. Many of us have been, are, and at times can be insecure about who we are, and we try desperately to find something we can mark and define as who we are. It’s liberating to find something you can be secure in despite your insecurities, that at the end of the day, I may be confused about many things, but one thing I can hang my hat on is where I came from. So what? What’s wrong with being proud of where you came from? Nothing, in truth, but if that’s the most defining characteristic of who you are, without any space to learn or express things differently from what you know, then it is a problem, especially in a religious context. Example? Let’s look no further than the Israelite Nation.
When Jesus came to earth, the Israelite nation had completely deviated from its evangelical role and had become an isolationist nation within their spiritual context. It was an “us vs them” mentality. They were so proud of their lineage and connection to Abraham and Moses that they completely missed their original calling. The focus shifted from a spiritual one to a cultural one. The sacrificial rites were no longer those of hope and preparation of what was to come but a cultural version of “going through the motions.” When Jesus returned, he was met with expectations that he return the Israelites to their cultural inheritance as opposed to their spiritual inheritance. He broke those barriers, and His disciples went the extra mile after His death to go to most of the then-known world to do the same.
Culture has created so many dividing lines within the structure of our society that we have inadvertently allowed it to seep into our pews as well. Maybe what God is waiting for isn’t a people who are insecurely secure in where they’re from in worship but where they’re going to worship, because if what defines us as a church and as a people is more where we are from than who we are serving, then our identity will always be in question.