Tag Archives: Jonathan Katz

“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)

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.

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