If you were asked to describe who you are, what would you highlight first?
Many would start with their name, perhaps describing their family. “I’m Ryan Stanton. You might have met my brother, Brad, or my father, Ken?”
Also important to many is what people may find out when they see them. Race, gender, body type. “I’m a white man, average height, weight, with a beard that has gotten out of control in lockdown.”
Others may highlight something not visible—religion, sexual orientation, illness or some other interesting aspect of their life. “I’m a Christian, and I suffer from anxiety”.
I write this exercise to highlight what may seem obvious to some—identity is a complex beast. Numerous factors, big and small, feed into who we—and others—think we are. Some of these factors we can control—our religion or interests—while others, like our race or family, are defined by society or biology. These factors can intersect and clash in a variety of ways too complex to outline in a single article, so I won’t attempt to. The point I want to make clear is that true identity is impossible to reduce to one single thing.
Unfortunately, division along markers of identity seems more and more common these days.
We see this in numerous conflicts and debates that are currently raging in all aspects of life—political, social and personal. The rhetoric from politicians such as Donald Trump or Tony Blair which seeks to demonize adherents of Islam based on the actions of a few who claim to follow the teachings of the Qu’ran. The way supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement are stereotyped as hippie-communist-haters of their country by those who object to the movement. Those who identify as transgender are currently the subject of a campaign by the self-titled “Gender Critical” or Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists who object to this aspect of their identity and believe it to be a danger to women—something there is little research to support.
Increasingly, society—and the ways that the media discusses it—seems to force us to choose what aspect of our identity we value most and pick a side in a culture war based on it. But these issues are neither as binary, nor as disconnected as they are often portrayed to be. Not all supporters of Black Lives Matter believe in the All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) rhetoric, nor do they all necessarily believe in abolishing the polices—they may just be attempting to bring attention to the unjust disparity they see in current policing methods. Similarly, the vast majority of Muslims are not aligned with groups such as the Taliban or ISIS—groups that it should be noted are also not aligned with each other. This is especially true when one looks at the Muslim population of western nations. In the wake of a terror attack in Belgium in 2016, one mayor fought against the urge to blame all Belgium Muslims for the acts of the few terrorists. “The country’s Muslims were victims of such an attack twice over, he said: once as Belgium citizens, and once as people whose religion was used to justify the attacks.”
When we view “the other” through the lens of these identities we miss out on understanding who they truly are. The unfortunate result of this is that we merely sink deeper into our warped perspective that views those who disagree less as individual people, and more as mouthpieces for an ideology we find distasteful or disagreeable at best, and an outright threat at worst. This is the endpoint that comes from hyper-fixating on one aspect of somebody’s personal identity.
Thankfully, the Bible highlights how we can move past this.
More than the sum of our parts
The idea that the Bible, or any religious viewpoint for that matter, can help us move past this may seem absurd at first. Christianity is in many respects yet another signifier of identity, just like Buddhism, Islam or any other religion. And similar to those religions, there are some adherents who hyper-fixate on it as the sole characteristic of their identity—not to mention the rare cults which warp Christian beliefs in order to further assert control over individual identity. It is true that the Bible calls us to put Jesus Christ at the forefront of our identity. In one passage Jesus even states “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Some may read this verse and conclude that the Bible is part of the very problem I have outlined above. Indeed, many believers take this verse to mean just that—but there’s a deeper meaning here that they may be missing.
The key here is the call to “follow me”. Jesus is asking us to put His perspective before our own. Instead of looking at others, and ourselves, through the cultural lenses or identarian frames that often dominate society, we should look at people in the way that Jesus taught. So what does this look like?
Perhaps the easiest way to look at people with Jesus’ perspective is by going back to “The Golden Rule”. When asked what rule was most important by the religious teachers of the time, Jesus responded noting that we should “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30). This sentiment was one echoed elsewhere in His teachings which stated: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). First and foremost, following Jesus requires us to view others in a loving and empathetic manner, searching for connections instead of conflicts.
Also important to note is that looking at the world through Jesus’ eyes does not mean ignoring the important aspects of the identity of others. While Jesus treated others with empathy first and foremost, He was also aware of how things big and small influenced those around Him. When a poor widow gave her last two coins as offering, Jesus highlighted the importance of this act, especially in comparison to the other people in the temple who had donated more than two coins. When Mary Magdalene anointed His feet with perfume, He noted that her scandalous past—she was an alleged prostitute—changed the meaning of the act and made it more significant. When speaking to a Samaritan woman at a well he took his time to speak with her about how her cultural heritage, and her current relationships, had shaped the way she was viewed by people like his disciples. Instead of ignoring these aspects of who she was, he embraced them and used them to connect with her.
This can be seen in Jesus 12 disciples who themselves came from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives—fishermen, relgious zealots, tax collectors and more—but were all loved and welcomed by Jesus. Even Judas, who Jesus knew was to betray him, was treated with the same love and kindness as the rest of the disciples. The church is described as a body, with different people representing different parts, which do different things. This illustrates the importance of accepting diverse identities, caring for all as Jesus did. Through empathy and acceptance, we can work together and grow, both in and outside our faith circles.
One of the first things the Bible tells us about humanity is that we were made in God’s image. Instead of looking at different identities as an enemy or the other, we should embrace them for what they are: people made in the image of God’s creation who He has great love for. People who are no more or less flawed than anybody else.
Ryan Stanton is a PhD Student at the University of Sydney and an Editorial Assistant for Signs of the Times. He’s most empathetic towards others when he sees somebody in pain, and least empathetic when he is being beaten in a game.