Monday, May 21, 2012

Freedom From a One-Dimensional Identity

I see myself as a walking paradox.  There are many manifestations of the human condition that I find repugnant, yet that I also find present in me.  Some would say that this makes me conflicted at best, hypocritical and self-loathing at worst.  Yet and still, I know I’m not alone, as many similarly struggle with this paradox.  While society is uncomfortable with the tension, the Bible tells us it is common.

As a follower of Jesus, knowing that I am being conformed to the image of Someone greater than myself empowers me to have peace with this tension.  This external conformation is what differentiates my struggle from other attempts, such as Confucianism’s ‘yin yang,’ to reconcile this dichotomy.

Biblically speaking, the current human condition is not the way it was originally created.  We have all fallen from our lofty state of original humanity.  This “Fall” profoundly affected every aspect of what we are, including the way we perceive ourselves and others.  In other words, what we regard today as “normal” humanity is really abnormal, and every trait we possess fits into this category.

It is far more just to see ourselves in the light of how human beings were originally created, before we deviated from God’s plan.  The Bible offers us a unique and profound truth: that we were created “in the image of God,” and though this image has been damaged, it still remains. If we accept this, it puts us all on equal footing, having missed the mark of full humanity.

If I remain rooted in biblical wisdom, I understand that no single dimension of my identity is capable of containing my total humanity.  For example, my Blackness is not completely ontological; it cannot fully account for my full being or existence.  Like every other aspect of myself, if I accept the biblical paradigm of Creation and Fall, then I must accept that my Blackness, too, is in some ways flawed – as is the case with Whiteness, Brown-ness, or whatever the ethnic distinction.  Therefore, attempting to define myself only in terms of my Blackness would be an exercise in self-dehumanization; it is only one facet of who I am.  The same applies to every other aspect of who we think we are, valid or not.

In my dealings with other human beings, my devotion to God calls me to affirm our commonality as God's image bearers.  There must be room to disagree within the range of our identities, fallen though they are, while avoiding the traps of xenophobia, Christo-phobia, homophobia, etc.  For this reason, I am compelled to respect and cherish the humanity of all people, whether I agree with their lifestyles or not.  However, I reserve the right to respectfully disagree, as they reserve the right to do so with me.  All fall short of full humanity because of the flaws we share, and all stand in need of God’s grace – whether we acknowledge Him or not.

What then is the biblical difference between my Blackness, and other dimensions of my identity as I understand them to be?  If I accept the biblical paradigm of Creation and Fall, then I must also accept the Bible’s paradigm of Redemption.

I gladly submit myself to the lordship of Jesus Christ, knowing that my ultimate identity is found in the One in whose image I was created.  My culture is a gift that grows out of that, that defines me specifically for a purpose, to see and express the world and God through my unique lens as a Black woman. Since my Blackness is worth redeeming, then let it be redeemed.

Because the Bible promises me that my culture is worthy of redemption, then I submit it willingly to God for His purposes, no matter how greatly I feel it defines me.  He can create more beauty with it redeemed than I can keeping it to myself. I humbly challenge others to do the same with the varying aspects of their perceived identities, be they based on 'nationality,' 'political ideology,' 'denominational loyalty,' 'philosophy,' 'religion', etc.  The American Constitution affords me the freedom to persuade others to seek their full identity in Christ, just as others claim the right to persuade me to seek my identity in their system of belief.

Too many today give away their full ontological identity to flawed and limited systems and spheres. If we continue attempting to fully define ourselves with a one-dimensional aspect of our fallen humanity, then we lock ourselves into abnormality and lose sight of the fullness of who we are intended to be.

Karen Angela Ellis holds a Master of Fine.Art from the Yale University School of Drama and a Master of Art in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary.  She is both performing artist and educator, happily married to Carl Ellis, Jr.  Follow Karen on Twitter @KarAngEllis, where she tweets about theology, life, culture and the arts.


  1. Yes, I agree whole heartily in what you have written and find it most refreshing. I have counted my Blackness and all other identities as "trash" for the sake of knowing Christ. It that I am free from the labeling and restrictions of the world and rest in my identity as a daughter of the Most High God.

    1. Thanks for checking us out, Sherry - we appreciate your comment. I sense you're taking a Pauline approach here. I would add to this that our Blackness is not 'trash' in and of itself; indeed, our valid lesser identities are of great worth. They are 'rubbish' only in comparison to who we are fully in Christ. One of the great values of these lesser identities is their ability to be redeemed to the glory of God. Carl and I are working on a post that will talk about the value of culture presently, as well as the redemption and glorification of it in the age to come. We hope you'll check it out. -KE

  2. Thanks Karen!

    You say, "If I remain rooted in biblical wisdom, I understand that no single dimension of my identity is capable of containing my total humanity. For example, my Blackness is not ontological; it cannot fully account for my being or existence."

    What specific biblical wisdom opened this door of discovery?

    1. Thanks for writing, Jay. My post is based on both text (see hyperlinks) and life's observation. Our valid identities may be many single components, but we are never only one of them. Some of those identities are more ultimate than others, and only One is supreme. Culture in and of itself is neither holy nor profane, but once submitted to Christ, it's redeemable by God in this life and the next. I celebrate my Blackness for the richness that it is, but I don't expect it to be what it isn't - the same can be said for all aspects of our valid identities. For even greater reasons, I celebrate my identity in Christ for its perfect richness and the fullness of ontological definition it provides, in the way that my Blackness - or any other human identity - cannot.

  3. A redefining of my ontological perception is/was needed for me. Sister your post here was spot on and clearly articulates the struggle (I believe) that many black males endure-what does it mean to be black and Christian? You have answered that question in superb fashion.