Color, Identity and Hope

Soledad O’Brien spoke at Andrews University last month (July 2013) about her journey as a woman of color, Harvard graduate, journalist, and mother. As a twin, I especially loved her story about dealing with the growing deafness of her youngest son, also a twin. The story reminded me that we all have parents and by the grace of God they started us with a sense of identity. Soledad’s parents gave her a legacy, and she is now giving a legacy, but what children do with that legac  forms an identity.

O’Brien is a documentary film producer and news anchor who gives voice to individuals who face natural disasters and personal challenges and in the process demonstrates the amazing resiliency of the human spirit. Her stories remind us that we are of one family, the 7.105 billion of us in this world, trying to survive and find our place in our big earth family, and in the process crafting an identity.

I was encouraged and challenged by her optimism and her focus on identity. Her charisma and her polished prose and her stories about her family made me appreciate my own family more and made me want to be courageous with my own development of identity and really work to give opportunity to others to develop their identity more fully. She was advocating. I want to do more advocating.

In her book, The Next Big Story, and in her talk, she discussed being a person of color in a predominantly white area on Long Island. Her dad was a “white” immigrant from Australia, a college professor, and her mother, a black immigrant from the Cuba, with many graduate degrees who raised all six children to go to and graduate from Harvard.

As she wrote and talked about her blackness I kept noticing her whiteness. Did she see it? Was I seeing it because I was more white? I found her more white like me than most of my students from Africa who were really dark in color? Wasn’t she more like me—born in the U.S. with educated parents, wealthy, and a native English speaker.

What was her core identity? What was mine?

Most identity is framed by comparison than we think. We often grasp for definition when someone starts with an identifier. She went to Harvard, but I went to a Bible College. She is a news reporter and producer, I teach college and do research. She is famous, I just blog.

So the first identifier out often sets the identity formation process.

So what is the identifier of importance? Was it color, was it race, was it money, was it education, was it siblings and family, place of birth, or is it personality? Has it become looks?

Most of us watching her noticed her attractiveness (at least I have learned women notice that even more than men). As far as hair, she had a lot lot more than I and many were asking about her hair. She was a woman— a very beautiful looking woman—and I am a man (yes, not as beautiful to some as she but I am hoping someone likes to look at me once and a while!). So her gender was a defining identity at least on the stage that day?

But are these the only defining variables:  genes and gender, skin color and parentage, education, culture, and language?

Do we have no choice in our identity that takes us beyond these given identities?

What about our inner thoughts? The deep reflections? The decision on where we spend our mental time and where we serve and who we serve?

I have a twin brother that has much of the genetic, biological, social and cultural inheritance I do. Does that make our identities identical?Even though we are identical twins, don’t we each engage in producing identity.

Yes, the 3 R’s and 1G-Race, Resources, and Religion- and then Gender seem to be the strong defining elements of identity, but so is choice and what we chose to think and that can be even more powerful.

Jeremiah 9 (NIV) has been an identity framing passage for me.

23 This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord. (22-24).

Here is a reality check about identity that ultimately makes identity formation more than a superficial issue.

And that was a moment of revelation. It helped me understand why God does not want us and can NOT accept us defining our identity in short-changing ways. Trust in our education or wisdom, our physical strength and beauty, and money (wealth and strength) doesn’t allow the diversity to continue to grow. I can thwart the dynamic aspect that identity, like a river, continues to change and flow. If you trust your current wisdom you won’t learn more. I can find new ways of understanding strength and beauty even when parts of my body wear out. I can tap into resources yet unknown, even when my money and friends run out.

And the way to keep growing is to stay close to a God who continue to creates. My identity is tied to God’s who can never be reduced and therefore I can’t be reduced.

There is something more fundamental than all of this outer stuff, the trappings of self that we image to the public but doesn’t fully define us and can never and should never contain us or name us. We are only fully human or we can stay only fully human when we stay close in our relationship with the one who we can understand but never fully define because He continues to amaze us.

The contrast with this growing dynamic is the statement before this passage, Jeremiah tells us

“‘Dead bodies will lie
like dung on the open field,
like cut grain behind the reaper,
with no one to gather them.’

It is our identity of frailty contrasted with the “external” identity in God that gives us the engine of our human identity.

“They have the understanding to know me.” Herein is the deep identity developing truth about all humans. We have a unique capacity to grow in our knowledge of God and therefor our knowledge of ourselves can continue to emerge and identity is refreshed from above. (you can only grow as you behold something you can never fully understand but seek to anyway.

We have been created, hardwired for relationship with the cosmos-creating God that transcends all things. But we have this experience in a life of fraility. We can be in the grave anytime soon.

Sober and serious, universal and individualistic. More basic than color, money or even education.  We are children of the living, creating, transcending God and because of our apple eating parents, we will all die. Regardless of how black we are, educated we are, wealthy we are, nothing can bring us out of that fate but nothing is more joy or boasting producing then the fact we still have a heritage from Him, inHim and ultimately beyond even our fraility.

That is why Jeremiah ends this passage with the reality of individuality and choice as the defining identity:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places.For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”

Even my identity as an American–a nation that could be added to this list Jeremiah gives–and my identity from a great religious tradition-Adventism- pails to save me or even fully define me. I must stand individually in a unique encounter with God, letting that inform and transform my heart to be more like His.

Yes, I know that there are differences in gender, race, education, and wealth, but because we all have the same Father, it is relationship to the father that will ultimately be the deciding identity on our future.

Believing that makes us more unified, even as it divides the world, not into black or white, rich or poor, educated and undereducated, but in heart siblings vs non-heart siblings. We become more redemptive if circumcised deep in the heart, to be be better men or women, better white people or people of color, better PhD trained individuals  or Harvard graduates.

This base reality breeds a respect for diversity that bridges to group, nation, church, or world in a unity born from love.

“Thus it is in the Christian life. The closer we come to Christ, the nearer we shall be to one another. God is glorified as His people unite in harmonious action.” Ellen White, Adventist Home, p. 179. The metaphor is the spokes on the wheel. As you come closer to the center you come closer to each other. This suggests one way toward greater respect for each other would be coming closer to Christ’s identity and thus finding our own more clearly.

And in beholding, we become changed into an identity born of better things.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV).

“By beholding we are to become changed; and as we meditate upon the perfections of the divine Model, we shall desire to become wholly transformed, and renewed in the image of His purity. It is by faith in the Son of God that transformation takes place in the character, and the child of wrath becomes the child of God…” –1SM 335-338

Who am I?

Who are You?

How are we both in Him?




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