The Problem of Identity

By J.F. Sullivan

In light of the recent Religion Nerd articles by Hussein Rashid, Tobias Wright and James Dennis LoRusso, a discussion about identity and the potential problems of identity might shed some light on many of the vexing problems and questions facing modern society – especially with regard to religion.  

The first of the Ten Commandments reads:  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”  A colleague recently used this commandment to emphasize I, and problematize and explain the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and ‘no-self’.  For this discussion, it will be more informative to look at the first two words in this commandment; I Am.

Originating in the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments were later adopted by the other scriptural monotheists of the Abrahamic traditions: Christianity and Islam.  I Am, more than simply a concept of self, imparts a sense of identity.  The concept of identity for the Hebrews, early Christians, or Muslims may have been more community oriented, with God being the primary holder of individualistic identity, but in the modern post-Enlightenment world, identity has become multiple and individual.  Where the “problem” of identity comes into play is not only its multiplicity, but its rigidity and exclusivity.  To complicate matters, each identity possesses a series of positions that the adopter must likewise subscribe to.  

Let’s look at a statement that many believe to be true: America is a Christian nation.  Embedded in this statement are two forms of identity that one could adopt, American and Christian.  If we imagine these identities as rigid and exclusive, we can already see trouble brewing.  If I am a Christian, it stands to reason, that I cannot be a Muslim or Buddhist or Wiccan.  Similarly, if I am American, I can’t also be Iraqi, Chinese or Canadian.  Already two problems should be clear.  On the one hand, if I hold these identities and I feel threatened, then I need to defend them – possibly to the death.  On the other hand, they may not be as rigid as the first appear.  In fact, I can be both Iraqi and American, and herein lays the next problem.  Can I hold multiple identities that may end up conflicting with each other?

Before we attempt to answer that question, let’s go back to the original statement America is a Christian Nation.  As I mentioned earlier, it is not only the identity that is at stake and at issue, but also the positions that those identities include.  If I am identifying as “American” I will need to stake out a position on all sorts of issues which may or may not include discussions about the intent of the Founders, what the role of America is in the world (do we export democracy, morals, values or religion), and how we run our government (taxation, socialism, education, laws).  From here we see how many issues arise simply by saying I am American.  Likewise, a declaration of I am Christian, brings a completely different set of potential identity-based problems.  First off, there is no one Christianity, but Christianities, which may pose internal problems, but let’s stick with Christian as a general term for now.  As a Christian, I will likely need to take a position on many things including homosexuality, abortion, and evolution, as well as theological issues like salvation, sin, and morality.  Just from pondering the aspects of these two identities, we might find ourselves in the middle of almost every major news story currently happening in the world.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there is another aspect of this problem, rigidity and exclusivity.  Externally we can clearly see the potential issues.  If I identify as Christian, I have to defend any threat to my Christianity (or any threat to the positions that I associate with my Christianity).  Thus, if I perceive anything pro-Muslim or pro-Hindu or pro-Wicca, I am likely to have a problem.  Therefore, how I understand my identity as a Christian informs my understanding that halal soup is somehow in support of Islam, which I have created my opponent.  Thus, if I have adopted the America is a Christian Nation statement then I likely want America to be infused with Christian values and laws and probably would not mind the Ten Commandments being firmly established in our legal system (and possibly chiseled in stone outside of the courthouse).  So, it stands to reason, if I want a nation based on Islamic values, I would also want shari’ah law as the legal foundation.  Armed with that view of the world and that concept of identity, the Campbell’s Soup issue makes perfect sense.  At the same time, the situation also occurs with “American” identity, which is why anything Islamic near ground zero, and really anything Islamic anywhere in America is seen as a problem.  From there it is easy to see how conflicting identities can cause major problems, but they can also cause internal problems as well.  If I hold multiple identities, what if they begin to conflict with each other?  What if my Christian identity begins to conflict with my American identity?  I may believe that America is subject to punishment because of its tolerance of gays (in conflict with my understanding of the Christian position on homosexuality).  This could then manifest in my explanation for Katrina or in my decision to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers who are defending that tolerance.  What if I am gay, but also a Christian and a Republican?  What if I am a Politician, but also a Capitalist and an Atheist?

Take any category of identity: Christian, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, Capitalist, Homosexual, Heterosexual, Priest, Congregant, Male, Female, Black, White, Rich, Poor, Freedom Fighter, Terrorist.  If you can imagine all of the potential positions that each of these identities come with and then imagine the external and internal conflicts that could arise from being on either side of these dichotomies (or even worse, in between any of them), you should be able to see the underlying root issue of 90-95% of the articles on Religion Nerd and in the mainstream media.  Thus, whether I feel I have to “bacon” a mosque, burn a Qur’an, speak out against Yoga, build a creation museum, blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, or fly a plane in the World Trade Center, I am always acting from a basic conflict or defense of identity.

The problem of identity is a powerful concern that must be recognized before it can even begin to be addressed.  Until we can understand the role that identity plays in many of our conflicts, we will likely be unable to address the root cause.  This may be at the heart of the Israel/Palestine debate – traditional negotiations are likely to be ineffective if they continue to broker a land deal and don’t address the issues of conflicting identities with cosmic consequences.

To begin to see the impact of identity, it might be worthwhile to revisit, halal soup, grilled cheesus, just war and the tea party and see how much influence identity categories play in both large and small conflicts just in the last few weeks on Religion Nerd.  And, while changing this way of understanding identity may take several lifetimes to reverse, there is no time like the present to start.

Recommended reading: 

  • Post-ethnic America by David Hollinger
  • Multiculturalism by Charles Taylor

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