Identity politics — something we love to hate. And with good reason.
But why? What’s the problem with identity?
Identity is the answer to the question: “Who am I?”
There are a lot of ways to answer that question. I am the things I do. I am the father of my children, the husband of my wife, the teacher of my students, the driver of a car, the shopper at stores that track my every purchase and have their own answer to who I am.
I am also born into things that can answer the question. I am a member of my family, a member of an ethnicity — Ashkenazic Jew, a natural-born American citizen.
We should not give in to any kind of thought or politics that would define us as essentially and always estranged and hostile to each other.
If there are so many answers to the question, am I merely a congeries of ever-shifting identities? Is there some center and core that can answer the question better, more deeply, more essentially? Might there not be a hierarchy of identities that gives shape and form to all these different ways of answering who I am?
While this may be philosophical, it isn’t something removed from our experience. Each and every one of us negotiates daily with people who identify us in different ways. When at work, I am primarily identified by what I bring to the job. When I am online shopping, I am identified in another way. When I teach my grandchild, I am known in yet another way. And it is all me.
Genesis speaks to the core of human identity from the moment it begins to discuss humankind: “God created man in His image.” Although in the very same verse, it indicates a lower-level identity — “male and female He created them” — the message is clear — our core identity is beyond every distinction and is the image of the oneness of the Creator, who remains one even while creating and upholding a universe dazzling in its detail and in its differentiation.
The Hebrew of Genesis nails down this lesson. In the beginning of the verse, the text uses the pronoun in the singular — “in the image of God He created him” — but in the last phrase of the verse, when it speaks about the differentiation into male and female, the pronoun switches to the plural — “male and female He created them.”
In other words, behind all differences, there lies a singular identity to all humankind that is capable of supporting all differences in a harmonious way, exactly as the oneness of God bears the vast panoply of the universe while still remaining one and constant.
So what is the matter with identity politics? It is that what it peddles as identity is not the most important thing about us. As important as my ethnicity is and as crucial a part as it may play in the life I lead, if it is not informed by the divine core where all are one, it is just another idol.
Identity politics as we know it is just that — idolatry. It debases humanity by identifying us with that which is not the core of our being. It casts aside those possibilities resident in every one of us to freely take part in the grand creativity that the creation and Scripture inspire, and instead reduces us to faceless members of groups, in which our individual value is submerged in the gathering force of the power they seek.
American freedom is based on the vision of Genesis. It is Nature and Nature’s God who endows us with rights that no human being is justified in taking away. It is the vision of equal justice under the law in support of a coherent harmony that we must seek to live within.
Whenever we have denied this, we have failed. Slavery was the most conspicuous failure of our national life, though it was atoned for in part by hundreds of thousands of deaths. And it was the vision of the grand oneness within the image of God that did not allow us to be destroyed by our mistake. It is that oneness that calls us today to not give in to any kind of thought or politics that would define us as essentially and always estranged and hostile to each other — a politics of envy and despair.
It is time to reclaim our American identity in its wholeness and grandeur, which calls upon us to be nothing less than living examples of transcendent oneness.