“I don’t know what you are.” This is a comment said to me a few years ago. The gentleman was referring to my ethnicity. I’m not sure why it mattered enough for him to make the comment, but apparently it did. He seemed to want to categorize me and wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. The fact that I have multiple ethnicities contributing to my DNA and my appearance caused him some consternation. I didn’t seem to fit into his paradigm which, I suspect, was rooted in his own self-categorization.
I sensed no animus in him, just a lack of clarity. In all honesty, though, I was initially stunned by the comment because I’ve always viewed myself as…well, as me. I imagine the brown-skinned British woman who was recently asked by an extended member of the royal family, “Where are you from?” felt something similar to what I experienced that day.
Many years ago, my dad and I would argue from time-to-time (nothing heated) about the value of identity categories and individual and group desires to self-categorize and to impose identity categories on others. I saw significant value in staking out an identity whereas he was adamant that doing so was self-limiting and amounted to collusion, albeit unintentional, with those who insisted on maintaining separation by categorization. Given the environment in which he was born and raised (the Jim Crow south), I had to respect his point-of-view; and, with increasing age, I have largely come around to his way of thinking, particularly when I am reminded that Christ broke down that wall of separation among Jew and Gentile, to name just two.
I’ll leave it to you to imagine what some of those categories might have been when dad and I were having these discussions in the 70s and 80s. Now that it is 2023, it seems to me that there has been an explosion of emphasis on identity categories: ethnic identity, racial identity, gender identity, political identity, religious identity, and irreligious identity along with various accompanying terms to further clarify or muddy, depending on your perspective (e.g. cis, non-binary, biracial, multi-racial, right-wing, far right-wing, left-wing, far left-wing, evangelical, mainline, conservative, liberal, libertarian and so on). It’s increasingly difficult to know what people want you to think they are.
These categories have become a component of many personal bona fides, a Latin term that refers to the evidence that legitimizes a person. People have often used family connections, academic accomplishments, professional accomplishments, titles, memberships in prestigious organizations and societies; their zip code, and even the church they attend, along with some of the aforementioned identifiers to legitimize (justify) themselves, and sometimes that justification is in opposition to others. Most of these categories are, generally, “nice-to-haves” and many people have worked hard to attain their honorifics…but like other forms of worldly wealth, they are temporary. I say again, they are temporary and are to be appreciated and enjoyed but never idolized.
Increasingly, I am drawn to the bona fides of Paul the Apostle in which he referred to himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1). The fact that he began these letters with this phrase tells me that this is what he wanted people to see him as. “What are you? A servant of Christ Jesus.” That’s it, Paul was a servant. That is how he wanted to be known because his identity was bound to the One he served…and, lest we forget, Paul had a resumé!
“You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him” (Philippians 3:4-9, The Message).
We all have yardsticks against which we (and perhaps others) measure our value, our claim to fame, so to speak. We each have opportunities to shape what is real about us, what is seen in us, and what is shared by us. And of those yardsticks, which are temporary and which are eternal? What are you and what do you aspire to be?
There will always be those who can’t quite figure out what we are. Occasionally, that becomes an open door to make a statement, perhaps like the one made by Paul. As for me, well, I like what Joshua said,
“…As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15, NIV). That’s it; nothing more needs to be added.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2023. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted.