Who am I? This is probably one of the most complex questions we could ask ourselves. The answer takes many factors into account.
Someone might say, “I am an Arab girl,” or “a German player,” or “a New York police officer.” Arab girl is a very general description and provides limited information about the person’s context. She could be a Muslim princess in Dubai, a Christian Egyptian, or a Syrian refugee girl. The German player could be a Nigerian of the Yoruba ethnicity whose parents were from Togo. He may be a naturalized German soccer player with two citizenships now. The New York police officer could further identify himself as an atheist, who just conducted a DNA test and found out that he has Dutch, Native American, Black African, Irish, and Mongolian heritage.
As we can see, our identity could be described by many different aspects: citizenship, biology, geography, religion, culture, and profession, to name a few.
Aspects of Identity
The ways in which we are identified by governments and communities are, in most cases, beyond our choices. In terms of both biological traits and social structures, our identity is influenced and formed before we are even born. As we grow older, opportunities to consolidate our identity increase. Education and social influences play a major role in what we choose to incorporate into our identities.
Depending on where we live and how much freedom we have, we can challenge certain assumptions and make some hard choices that may change our identity. These may include changing our religion, political affiliation, and even nationality. Some of these choices can be the result of difficult circumstances. For example, a persecuted religious refugee may decide to change his or her national identity because of the cruel treatment received in their own home country.
Some aspects of our social and cultural identity are better understood when we take a step back and draw comparisons with other cultures. I was born in Brazil, but became aware of some profound facets of my Brazilian cultural heritage only when I left my country and was able to see my identity from a different perspective. Interacting with Germans and Latinos (of Portuguese and Spanish backgrounds) outside of Brazil allowed me to understand my Germanic and Latin cultural traits more clearly.
After living outside our native countries for a long time, we may experience an identity crisis. The crisis develops as we adopt some aspects of the new culture in addition to our own culture. At times there may be a clash of values. Many of these values are not about right and wrong, but are simply different ways of doing things. For example, someone from a culture that has a more nuanced communication style may think people from a direct orientation culture rude when they speak directly. As our values are challenged, so is our identity.
Grounded in Creation
Those who believe in the Bible as a revelation of God’s plan of salvation for the planet and for them as individuals see their identity primarily as children of God (cf. Gen. 1:26, 27; Rom. 8:16). Scripture teaches that humans were created by God to grow in knowledge and happiness. When we accept this biblical truth, it changes the understanding of our own identity. We realize that while we are citizens of a certain place or belong to a certain people group, our fundamental identity is rooted in the grand biblical narrative of the history of humanity and what God has done and will do to restore everything to perfection. We understand that there is a moral code of conduct and an ideal for how we should live and treat one another.
The Bible’s grand narrative includes the concept of the new kingdom that Jesus came to establish, based on love, justice, respect, and freedom. Even when it comes to our freedom, we understand that in the choices we make, God’s ideals and His law, as revealed in the Bible, set the standard of conduct for how we should live. We choose God’s standard because He knows what is best for us even when it contradicts our own preferences and inclinations. We trust the promise that God is giving us a new dimension of identity, through Jesus, that transcends and guides all other understandings of our own identity. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26, NIV).
How Things Can Go Wrong
A right understanding of identity should lead people to love and respect others. Unfortunately, terrible things happen when people stereotype and discriminate based on identity differences. This happens with respect to race, skin color, and religious and political affiliations. It seems humanity will always find a reason to discriminate. That is because discrimination is based on the evil nature of all humans. People of all cultural backgrounds have done terrible things against their own neighbors and against foreigners.
When I was growing up and learning about certain aspects of people’s identity, I first understood racism as a kind of discrimination between people of different skin colors. I witnessed it in my home country. When, at the age of 21, I went to Africa as a volunteer, I discovered at least as much, if not more, discrimination between certain tribes as the discrimination between those of differing skin colors in my own country. I was shocked! How could it be?
Later, to my horror, the world was faced with the sad reality of the genocide in Rwanda. In one of the smallest countries in the world, about 100 miles long, two main ethnic groups collided. The result was that more than 800,000 people were killed.1 At that time the population of the country was about 7 million.2 That would mean at least 11 percent of the population was killed. A study conducted by Yale University estimates that up to 14 percent of the population died during the genocide.3
To put this into perspective, applying the Yale percentage estimate to the population of the United States, we would have the staggering number of 46 million people killed in less than a year. In South Africa today, that would be 8.4 million people, and in South Korea it would be more than 7 million people. People can do terrible things to one another when they accept a distorted view of human identity. As I mentioned, this has happened and continues to happen everywhere.
Rooted in Christ
Enter Jesus. He broke all barriers by loving and mingling with all people. During His time on earth the Jews so discriminated against their Samaritan neighbors that a Jew would not talk to a Samaritan. In direct rebuke, Jesus illustrated a true neighbor by telling the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. He pointed to the discriminated Samaritan as the example of kindness and love when even the religious leaders failed in their duty.
In the book The Desire of Ages Ellen White beautifully describes the way Jesus treated the Samaritans: “Jesus had begun to break down the partition wall between Jew and Gentile, and to preach salvation to the world. Though He was a Jew, He mingled freely with the Samaritans, setting at nought the Pharisaic customs of His nation. In face of their prejudices He accepted the hospitality of this despised people. He slept under their roofs, ate with them at their tables—partaking of the food prepared and served by their hands—taught in their streets, and treated them with the utmost kindness and courtesy.”4
It is perfectly normal to have a national or community identity. We don’t live in isolation. We are part of groups that hold similar cultural and social identities. The problem is when we misuse or mistreat those who may differ from us. Our identity must never lead us to compromise our Christian values. Jesus never broke the law. In fact, He lifted the standard, showing that you can break the law in your heart by hating others (Matt. 5:21, 22, NIV).
Our identity has been tainted and distorted from God’s original plan. But there is hope. Not in following what we think our identity should be, but by trusting the One who made us.
To keep a machine running well, we need to follow the creator’s manual for the best use of it. If we say, Now it is mine and I’m free to adjust and care for it the way I want, we may have serious problems. Would you like to fly on an airline owned by someone who disregards the manual and maintains the planes according to their own desires? I think you get my point. The principle is the same. Our Creator knows what is best for us. He also knows that an enemy has damaged His original creation. Fortunately we can choose to be repaired. He wants to re-create and imprint a new identity in us. Hating hearts will become loving hearts.“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7, NIV).
Now the question “Who am I?” is no longer complex if we listen to the Creator. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12, 13, NIV). We are all children of God.
A new Identity? A new me? Yes! “ ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’ ” (Rev. 21:5, NIV).