“Identity” and What the Idea is Doing to Sexuality

This may not be my most “entertaining” blog post, but I think it is important to write it.  I hope you will work with me on something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the past couple of months. I don’t think Christians have a cogent, loving response to prevailing ideology about identity, especially sexual identity. We need to find one.

In a volume dedicated to seeking a new “language of liberation,” Linda Martin and Satya Mohanty acknowledge that the critics of the old language make sense: “Theoretical critics of identity politics claim that identities are social constructions rather than natural kinds, that they are indelibly marked by the oppressive conditions that created them in the first place, and therefore should not be given so much weight or importance. They point out, with some justification, that racial categories are specious ways to categorize human beings, that gender differences are overblown, that sexuality should be thought of as a practice rather than an identity, and that disability itself is often a product of social arrangements rather than a natural kind. These and other sorts of arguments are used to suggest that identities are ideological fictions, imposed from above, and used to divide and control populations. Both political and theoretical critics claim that we should be working to eliminate the salience of identity in everyday life, not institutionalize it.” 1 I have been among those critics.

It is nice to see academic types coming back around, as they sometimes do. In this case they sound a lot like they are challenging prevailing thinking using the same basic wisdom Paul used when he pleaded with the church in Galatia to stop dividing themselves up according to the “wisdom” of their latest teachers. He said, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

Sexual scripts

I think the identity straitjackets imposed by many of society’s latest teachers have been especially damaging to how we think about our sexuality. There is a sexual “script” that gives us all a part to play. If we do not learn our lines, there are social consequences. It goes something like this:

  • One’s sexual attractions signal a naturally occurring or “intended by God” distinction between homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality (and an increasing array of definitions).
  • Discovering one’s sexual attractions is elemental to knowing who you “really are” as a person.
  • Sexual attractions are at the core of who one is as a person.
  • One’s sexual behavior is an extension of that core.
  • Behavior that matches who you “really are” sexually is crucial for your self-actualization and fulfillment.

This script is a compelling invention. Almost everyone who will read this knows it intuitively by now. But it was invented in the 20th century and may already be losing steam in the 21st. Jonathan Katz wrote about how it all got started: “Between the 1890s and the 1960s the terms heterosexual and homosexual moved into American popular culture, constructing in time a sexual solid citizen and a perverted unstable alien, a sensual insider and a lascivious outlaw, a hetero center and a homo margin, a hetero majority and a homo minority. The new, strict boundaries made the new gendered, erotic world less polymorphous. The term heterosexual manufactured a new sex-differentiated ideal of the erotically correct, a norm that worked to affirm the superiority of men over women and heterosexuals over homosexuals.” 2 Now Hilary Clinton is spreading that thinking worldwide. I’m happy for no discrimination. I’m not so happy about the thinking that created the discrimination.

Arbitrary divisions

I think Paul rejected the arbitrary divisions between persons in his day according to what we now call “identity” in favor of one basic division according to allegiance to Jesus Christ. The division between Jews and Gentiles is sorted out when they all become children of God by faithing Jesus. Economic or gender divides are relevant to our relationships, but those elements are integrated into our primary allegiance to God. We are not stuck with who we are as defined by society according to our birth place or biology, we have an “identity” that is more basic than those which is given by God and actualized by Jesus.

As far as sexuality goes, followers of Jesus have an alternative script to the prevailing oppression:

  • Sexual attraction does not signal a categorical distinction among types of persons, but is one of many human experiences.
  • Who one is as a person begins with a restored relationship with God, which is the basis for sorting out the intricacies of desire and sexual expression.
  • Attraction does not require orientation which does not demand identity. Note a similar discussion Paul has about slavery — though you might be born a slave that does not mean you are not God’s freedperson which means you should think of yourself as free and become socially free, if possible.

The sexuality script has been popularized by the media until we are swimming in a sea of sexual messages that preoccupy how we think about ourselves. To even entertain an alternative to the prevailing script is a fear-filled thing to do, since it will generally be seen as unaccepting, unhealthy, unloving and maybe even illegal. I think the prevailing sexuality script is oppressive and leads people to excessive behavior: we are tempted to artificially label ourselves and we are pushed to exaggerate our behavior in a search for self-actualization (which all-too-often leads to various forms of sexual addiction). Most detrimental, we can be deprived of a Christ-centered approach that is more generous about our present sexual condition and more likely to provide a lifelong way to sort out our behavior.

I think Christians should follow the example of Paul as we relate to people consumed by the present-day subjugation to the ideas surrounding the word “identity.” The world is likely to keep labeling people for political or social reasons and the media is likely to promote the categories and advertise to them. And people are likely to emphasize personal characteristics that they consider socially important and relatively unchangeable. As Christians, we will be labeled and we may be tempted to see our faith as just another identity in the pluralistic pot, one that gives us self-respect or dignity. We may even be tempted to trade our “religious identity” for a more compelling “sexual” one that functions according to the prevailing script.

I am going to keep meditating about this. Being one with Christ may be an identity in the world. But it can’t be reduced to that definition. My relationship with God and his people in Christ includes all my sexual attractions and informs all the ways I enjoy them or struggle with them.

A couple of references:

1 This is from Reconsidering Identity Politics. Intro is online

2 Excerpted on the PBS website.

Companion blog posts:

More Thoughts on Identity

The Language of Sexuality

5 thoughts on ““Identity” and What the Idea is Doing to Sexuality

  1. Hi Rod. Since we are fb friends I do get to read your blog fairly regularly. I appreciate much of what you have written in this post about having an identity that is about God and a relationship with God that is so much fuller and more beautiful than labels created (originally) out of discrimination. I do think your/Mohanty’s point about sexual “identity” being more essentially about practice is very interesting food for contemplation. Since it has been a few years since we’ve spoken, I’ll let you know I am also a doctoral student in religious studies, though studying gender in Islam, but as I am sure you have discovered in your own work, sometimes the most illuminating ideas of one’s own religion can be found in the writings of another’s. I think Islam, Christianity and Judaism have much to learn from each other regarding ethics/morality and its praxis.

    The most pressing question I was left with after reading this post centres on that really difficult space of putting ethics into practice. I am really grateful for your pointing out that we do not have to accept the attraction = orientation = identity. Not only for reasons that our identities and human practices do not have to originate from our “feelings”, that we as human beings connected to God have the opportunity to imagine ourselves and the world in much more nuanced and fuller ways (ways we cannot fully comprehend). But also because yours is a critique of post-modern relativism, which still leaves space for us to imagine something else.

    I think one point that you have left out in the critique on identity, which really should not be overlooked, is why/how the identities of those with orientations and practices outside hetero formed. I think it would be unscholarly of us to pretend that the current identities practiced by queer communities (LGBTQI, etc) are in large part both a product of historical discrimination and a need to find inclusion in a space where other understand/accept and welcome you. And more than the cultural products of this identity, the reason it needed to form is extremely consequential to any discourse we have about the legitimacy (or not) of identity in sexual practice. And if you replace some words in what you are saying about identity as regards sexuality, with identity as regards race – your argument, in my opinion, gets into very murky territory. In other words the identity of African Americans (race) is a fiction biologically speaking, but as an identity (formed out of discrimination) it has added much to the understanding of being human – and has also added much to understandings of being Christian. My inclination would not be to emphasize the ways in which this identity formation (among Black Christians) misses the point of inclusivity as defined by a life in Christ. To say that we should not give too much weight to the identity of Black Christians – even as the identity creates divisions – would be historically incognizant and would be, in my eyes, extremely detrimental to our future potential in reaching a Beloved Community.

    And so, here’s where I find the difficulty in what you are, well, not saying – what does the space where (and this is where I think your illustration of the slave is not ‘cluttered’ but fitting) the slave realizing he is no longer a slave (or as Art put it Christ’s slave) mean in that slave’s life in practice. Because where the act of accepting Jesus and knowing you’re life means much more than how it is defined by the world is transformative, the world will still treat you as a slave. Where abolition is still deeply embedded in the horizon (let alone equality) how should one function where their very humanity is not recognized. A woman can realize her life is/could be so much more than simply being a house-slave, but if she lives under the Taliban, and makes claims to a life outside of what is rigidly defined for her, she will likely face imprisonment or death (extreme ways of excluding certain humans from the community of others).

    So the question of the practices our Christians communities take on as regards sexuality seems extremely central to our legitimacy as voices in this dialogue. Unfortunately, in my opinion, churches and Christian communities very often state what they are about (love, inclusion, sexual ethics in line with what God wants for the world), but in practice they aren’t sure what to do, and fall back into either affirming the dominant norm where the only sacredly sanctioned orientation/practice is heterosexuality. Or simply refuse to address the specifics of the question when it comes to welcoming folks of orientations/practices other than hetero into our sacred covenants (baptism, marriage, etc).

    I think that it is very understandable that churches fall to one of these two extremes – because we all know that that topic of sexuality in the church is extremely divisive, and that putting your ethics into practice takes a lot more risks than simply talking (or not) about it. But I think Christianity needs to practice inclusion, even where the practice is divisive. This does not signal an anything goes moral relativism, but rather an experiment in truth.

    I don’t think the scriptures will be able to give us a cogent ‘response’ (as you put it) to sexuality and sexual ethics, as they are remarkably silent on the subject, especially as compared to other themes like economic redistribution. I am not sure if that is a matter of intention or historical consequence, but I do think it forces us to except that there will be a multitude of Christian (Christ-centred) ideas, and I welcome that nuance.

    I think that the question of sexual identity/orientation/practice is one about inclusion, ultimately. I am not surprised that LGBTQTI (etc!!) folks have formed these identities around sexual practices (and queer communities are themselves much more defined than just sexual practice at this point) as a way to find a welcoming space of inclusion and understanding. I think that is much more the driving force behind the formation of identities.

    What I do think is that Christian communities and churches need to lean further into the camp of including queer folks fully into their communities, not only as attendants, but as full members with the same rights sacred sacraments (baptism, marriage, communion, etc) as enjoyed by hetero folks. If this necessitates a dialogue (as I assume it would if, for example Circle began marrying same-sex couples) that discussion should be had out of the need for reaching towards the goal of ultimate love that we know in Christ Jesus. I am reminded of the story of the Caananite woman and Jesus. When Jesus went to the land of the Canaanites (his sworn enemies) and a Canaanite woman beseeched Jesus to cure her daughter’s illness (she knew of his great love). She persisted even as Jesus rebuked her (claiming he only came for the House of Israel), before realizing his mistake and affirming, “Woman great is your FAITH!” And healing her daughter. The risk of this relationship between those whose identities leant them to traditionally be enemies (Canaanite vs. Jew) or forbid them to speak (man vs. woman) actually resulted in not only the next generation being healed, but Jesus himself realizing that the message of inclusive love he preached was a need and desire of all people, not just Jews. And, most importantly, that transformative love was God’s will for the world and the purpose of Jesus’ existence. What Jesus ultimately did was a divisive act (I have not come to bring peace, but a sword), but it formed a new unity between human beings and our God for which I do not have word for my gratitude.

    The church needs a new unity when it comes to queer folks. It will require the faith of the Canaanite woman and the love of Jesus, but as both lives exemplify – God will be faithful.

    1. Well-spoken, Dr. Farah! I will not venture a sufficient reply to your attentive comment. I appreciate the compassion in it, particularly. The one thing I will venture is to question whether we should discuss the sexual orientation struggle and race struggle as something tied together all the time. They are only abstractly the same. Besides, you can see that I lean toward the idea that both race and sexual identity are fictions imposed by the domination system. Peace to you!

  2. Thanks Art. I probably shouldn’t have added that point — kind of cluttered.
    ■Attraction does not require orientation which does not demand identity. Note a similar discussion Paul has about slavery — though you might be born a slave that does not mean you are not God’s freedperson which means you should think of yourself as free and become socially free, if possible.

    I made a point about sexual orientation. A similar point Paul makes about slavery is: being found as a slave, does not mean you act like a slave, does not mean you are one as an “identity.” Identity is a matter of relating to God, not oneself or one’s condition alone. We are born again as children, we act as children/as those bought with a price, we are children of God in Christ.

    I working against what’s becoming commons sense: “I feel it, so I do it, so I am it.”

  3. I’m trying to get the point you are making about Paul’s discussion on slavery- I think that you are saying that the oppression that comes from being sexually identified socially can be likened to the oppression of being in the slave caste, and the freedom offered in Christ is true freedom for both; an added benefit would be to work towards being released from the grip of the oppressors when possible. The obverse of Paul’s discussion- on being a freedman- is also applicable: if you think that your social standing as a freedman is what makes you free, try the freedom that comes from being Christ’s slave. Similarly, if you think having a developed sexual identity is what makes you really free, try the freedom that comes from submitting that and your whole life to the care and direction of Jesus Christ.

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