The events that took place in Charlottesville recently, as well as much of the apparent dissolution of the social and cultural fabric of the U.S. in the months up to and following the election of Donald Trump have, I think, made it evident that we live in a crisis of identity. I’m not talking about a crisis of the identity of the U.S., which perhaps has a related, derivative origin. I’m speaking of the crisis of how a person finds a sense of identity.

I am not here to suggest either that we once had a clear sense of identity, and we could retrieve it if we could just rewind the clock. Nor, I think, can we toss phrases out that, though at one time holding great meaning, have become emptied, through the abuse of simplistic use, into clichés and platitudes.

There are all manner of ways to acquire identity. These various methods, no matter whether they are good or evil, meaningful or essentially empty, all have a tendency to work to some extent. By “work,” I mean they help one to figure out one’s place of belonging, give a sense of purpose, and gives one’s life the semblance of meaning.

These things we desperately desire, even if the wealth of entertainment accosting us at every angle works as a brief anesthetic against the emptiness we feel.

Outrage and Sadness

In Charlottesville, we saw a stark contrast between two separate groups: A group of “alt-right,” white nationalists and a group of those who would stand opposed to that, some of whom refer to themselves as Antifa (anti-fascist). The presence of these opposing groups in one place led quickly to violence, injuries, and the death of a woman from a horrific act by one on the alt-right side of the aisle.

While condemnations appropriately came swift and strong, one of the questions that should be plaguing us is simple and obvious: Why do people join white nationalists, neo-Nazi, or the (racist elements of the) alt-right?

I think this question does not get answered thoughtfully in the “public discourse,” because of our attraction to simplistic answers and the manner in which such answers gives us a Disney world of straightforward heroes vs. villains.

I believe the reason someone would join a white supremacy group is the same sort of reason some people want to drive a Mercedes or a big truck: Identity.

Identity gives place, purpose, and meaning. It tells you where you belong in the world, what you should do, and why what you do matters.

When someone lacks a sense of identity, they will grasp whatever seems plausible. And these various forms of identity can take on a terrible aspect, as we have seen.

Why, though, something like white supremacy, which surely sets one against so many and puts one in a place where discussion, organization, and demonstrations all surely take a significant amount of time and energy, if only to protect oneself? Why not identity, rather, as one who helps others, volunteering that demonstration time to a local shelter or to clean up the city?

Again, we need only look at ourselves to see why. Anger and blame are not, despite our unwillingness to admit it, unpleasant experiences. We like being angry. This explains why outrage has far outpaced mourning over the death of Heather Heyer (check your social media feeds)—and even mourning is expressed in ways that show it to be little more than thinly veiled outrage.

Let us reflect on this for a moment, because there are at least a few who, despite being outraged, are surely far more saddened: Those who knew Heather Heyer personally. Her mother. Her friends, coworkers, and so forth. That is, those who knew Heather in a way far richer than our categories can offer.

This distinction between those who are primarily outraged versus those who are primarily saddened gives us a sense that there are different ways of recognizing identity, and of having identity.

Who was Heather Heyer to her mother? As a parent, I cannot imagine losing a child, even a “child” in her thirties. In Heather, her mother sees the moment she found out she was having a child, the newborn, the toddler who was both infuriating and adorable, the teenager who wept because of her emotional travails, the young lady nervous and full of excitement entering college or a new job. Inside jokes, shared sadnesses, moments of joy and pride, sweet moments of a child falling asleep on her lap, of comforting the inconsolable, of laughing until you can’t breathe.

I don’t know that Heather Heyer’s mother saw all this in her daughter, but my guess is that my description is not far off.

What does “the public” know of Heather Heyer. She identified as a counter-protestor to the alt-right group there. She was killed because of her ideological and physical position by one of the alt-right crowd.

That is enough for outrage. It is not enough for the sadness appropriate to the loss of this woman—a sadness that only those closest to her can experience.

Which response is most appropriate to one who sees the richer identity? It seems sadness. Not that there isn’t outrage, but that outrage arises from the terrible loss of a person who is unique and for whom no recompense can suffice.

To come to recognize another’s identity in a way that leads you to true sadness if they were to be lost requires effort and time. To recognize another’s identity in a way that leads you to (primarily) outrage requires almost no time or effort.

Outrageous vs. Tragic Identity

So, too, does it take far less work to take on an identity that makes you one who expresses outrage, rather than sadness, over the way things are.

But outrageous identities seem to be growing in our society. Why? Because there seems to be nowhere else to turn for identity.

Consider what I noted above: It takes work to know someone well enough that their loss would hurt you. That is doubly “bad”: It takes work and, if you were to lose them, either through death or loss of the friendship, you would be hurt. Greater effort plus vulnerability?

We prefer less effort and less vulnerability. We want insurance, and we want it cheap.

Of course, the old saying is truer when speaking of identity than in any other realm: You get what you pay for.

What are examples of cheap, outrageous identities. Well, the white nationalists and Nazis and other repugnant groups are obvious examples. So, too, in fact are any groups that primarily identify themselves as what they are against. Like when you form a friendship with someone by means of hating the same person. We’ve all done it. And, in doing this, we have been complicit in the vast and sinful idiocy of humans in seeking outrageous identity.

But what are the characteristics underlying outrageous identities?

I believe they share three important traits:

(1) They determine identity by focusing on that over which they have no choice.

This sounds a bit strange, and may seem a strange critique because everyone seems to do this. I will attempt to show why this is a problem from a theological and philosophical standpoint momentarily (which will require some modification of the statement), but first some examples and practical problems with this.

The examples should be obvious: Identifying oneself based on race, culture, a desire or set of desires, and so forth are all examples of this. That these lead to trouble is obvious enough. We see it in the fracturing of our society, even in the strange claims that to fail to refer to someone using the pronoun they deem correct results in a rejection of the legitimacy of their existence.

Of course, we all have a tendency to do this, even when referring to things over which we in fact have some choice. So, you might develop an identity with a group of co-workers against a manager because you have been “subjected” to this servile situation.

A further problem arises, which I consider a second important trait of what they share:

(2) They determine identity by setting themselves up against an enemy of that trait.

If I identify myself by a set of traits over which I have no choice, I will inevitably be identified as fundamentally other than those who do not have those traits. Opposition becomes essential to one’s identity.

This opposition is not mere distinction and difference, but scapegoating and blame. Human history is littered with hundreds of millions of the corpses and ruined lives of the other who was sacrificed at the whim of outrageous identity.

(3) They determine identity as a group.

This last one is implicit in (2) but needs to be stated explicitly because belonging is such an important goal of identity.

All three come together to offer the cheap, easy method to gaining an outrageous identity. And it is not clear which, if any, comes first. Some join a group (3), because they feel attacked by a different group (2) based on a particular trait they share with that group (1). Some become so attached to a particular trait (usually a desire) (1), that they grow to detest those who get in the way of fulfilling that trait/desire (2), and through that find friends who share the similar trait/desire and hatred. Some despise a particular group (2), and so join a group (3), establishing themselves as possessing a trait that they all share (3).

Outrageous identity might not seem bad—it gives a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning—except that it forces us into a worldview of power relationships and war. Perhaps Cain was the first to choose an outrageous identity, if he saw his failure to offer a meaningful sacrifice as something over which he had no control. His own brother became a source of suffering for Cain and, it seems, a scapegoat. So Cain killed him.

What then would an identity that presses us toward sadness at loss—I’ll call it tragic identity—rather than outrage, look like? We can start by simply writing the opposite of the above claims:

1) It would depend on that over which we have a choice.

2) It would not treat others who were different as opposing, nor scapegoat.

3) It would not organize us into groups.

These, I think, are correct, or close to correct. They require some qualification, but rather than going through each of them and (re)defining terms, etc., let us rather start from God, specifically God as Trinity, whose identity is the source of our own.

God as Trinity and Human Identity

It might seem a bit ridiculous to appeal to God as Trinity to figure out something as pressing and practical as how one finds one’s identity—kind of like looking at a book on advanced set theory to choose which restaurant to go to for dinner. Nevertheless, I believe every doctrine has pressing and practical points. The Trinity perhaps above all.

What does it mean that God is Trinity. It means that God has eternally been in relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Never has God been alone, but has rather been three in eternal, loving (perichoretic) relationship.

In turn,  God the Father became the Father (in eternity, mind you, so that there was never a time when the Son or Spirit were not) by begetting the Son and giving forth the Spirit. From Himself, the Father gave so that the Son and  Spirit might be. As stated clearly in the Nicene Creed regarding the Son: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”

We are made in the image of God. And so we should be able to derive something about ourselves from looking at God. Let me try a few, borrowing heavily from the John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion.[1]

First, as noted, not even God is alone. During that mysterious pre-fall period, God declares that it is not good for man to be alone. No one created in God’s image can function in extended loneliness. Nor, too, can a human be content in only relationships with those who are not equal to a human, such as animals. For God the Father did not bring forth lesser “gods” in the Son and the Spirit (these are the heresies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons), and so too must we be in relationship with other humans.

Second, and this is a tremendously important idea, God the Father became the Father through a personal act, not by virtue of His “substance.” I’ll summarize some of this, but a good read through Zizioulas’ book will give greater detail.

The ancient Greeks (according to Zizioulas) took personhood as a “mask” over substance, the latter of which was directed by fate. We, today, think much the same way: We have been educated and trained to believe that our personhood is merely an illusion that is in fact driven by biological, chemical, and physical processes (depending on how far down you want to go). When I smile, it is really just chemical reactions, or [fill in the blank]. Love is merely an adaptation useful for reproduction. Etc. That is, I am really just a complex machine, and my personhood is, at best, an epiphenomenon of these mechanistic processes.

The Church Fathers re-envisioned personhood in their work to understand the doctrines present in, but not fully described, in Scripture, particularly the Incarnation and the Trinity. I’ll skip all the details (read the book if you’d like those), but note that one thing that they did was to give primacy to personhood over substance.

Put directly: God the Father did not beget the Son because His substance caused Him to do so. Rather, He acted as a Person and shared His substance with another in a manner that did not make Him less.[2]

Let’s apply these two elements of the Trinity to our pursuit of human tragic identity.

1) It would depend on that over which we have a choice.

You can probably see how this applies, though it needs to be qualified. We, of course, haven’t the extent of personal freedom[3] that God has. For example, we are creatures, whereas God is uncreated. While we have at least potential personhood from the moment of conception, it seems that our substance needs to develop for a while before we are capable of acting as persons—that is, as being beyond, or more than, our substance. None of the Three Persons of the Trinity had an infancy or a time when they were incapable of acting as persons.

In our creaturehood, then, the expanse of our personhood is significantly less than that of God. Nevertheless, our identity is fundamentally tied to our personhood, which is that which goes beyond that over which we have no control (our biology, etc.).

This is perhaps expressed most practically when Jesus calls His followers to leave mother and father (biological connection) to follow Him.

2) It would not treat others who were different as opposing, nor scapegoat.

This second point comes into focus when we consider God the Father begetting the Son and bringing forth the Spirit. God the Father acted as a person in bringing about the personhood of others.

Is there a manner in which we image this giving-of-personhood? Yes.

Our natural tendency is to see others as merely their substance. They are objects, either useful, in the way, or to be ignored. And this is reasonable, given that one cannot see another’s personhood, just as one cannot see another’s consciousness. All we see is the stuff they’re made out of (biology, culture, history, etc.).

Thus, our default way of thinking—thinking without actively using our minds—sees only what we can see: bodies, clothes, pain or pleasure caused by the person’s presence, etc.

But, if we engage our minds when coming across someone, we can give them personhood through imagination. Yes, this is really in fact recognizing personhood, except that “recognizing” has a passive sense to it. You cannot passively recognize personhood (you’ll just see substance)—you must be actively imagining.

How does this look? I cannot think of a better illustration than this video made from an abridged version of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech several years ago at Kenyon College.[4]

As Wallace notes, really paying attention requires active thinking. Indeed, just like with God the Father, it requires a person to bring about a person, and so this kind of thinking is irreducibly personal thinking that gives to the other personhood.

And so you look at someone whom you find annoying, not worth attending to, or even evil, imagine within them all the sufferings and hopes and loneliness and desire for belonging that you feel yourself, but see it in them. And you will find compassion and kindness, even love for your enemies, developing within you. No matter how different someone is than you, giving to them personhood in the active work of imagination will break down barriers and lead to love even of those who carry out horrendous acts—a love that says, with Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

3) It would not organize us into groups.

The last element of tragic, as opposed to outrageous, identity is that it would not organize us into groups.

But don’t those who believe in the Trinity (aka “Christians”) in fact divide themselves off from those who do not?

Not really. Let me explain again by starting with the Trinity.

We see the Trinity acting just as the Father did (except in time): Creating all things, creating humans, and inviting humans to be in relation to God in identification with the Son (“in Christ” “sons/children of God”). That is, God is always including others, drawing others in. We turn away from that invitation. That is called “sin.”

Even when we turned away, Christ came and died for us, so that we might be called sons of God. Again, to turn away from that invitation is to persist in sin, even when the open arms of God have been made wonderfully manifest.

So, too, must the Church, Christ’s body, be. The Church surely is distinct from the world, but not by means of judging and rejecting those outside the Church (see 1 Cor 5:12-13). Rather, the world judges itself by rejecting the offer of love.

A group then forms, but it is not a group that defines itself over against those who are outside. Rather, it is a group whose definition comes from the active granting of personhood to those around it—the same personhood you can see in yourself: To love your neighbor—even those who have mistreated you terribly, like the Jews did the Samaritans—as yourself.

Offering Tragic Identity

The Church sees no enemies, but only the lost, desperate for belonging, purpose, and meaning, and to whom the Church opens its arms. Sometimes those arms may be stretched to breaking and nailed to a cross, but even the one wielding the hammer is not our enemy—he may see himself as our enemy, but we will not accept that, because our identity is found in pouring out personhood on every person with whom we come into contact. And we thrive in the relationships of love formed in those who accept our welcome, the welcome that Christ offered in removing the brokenness of our rejection of God’s welcome.

I’ll end this by explaining why I call this Trinitarian identity “tragic.” It is partly because this kind of giving-of-personhood to others will throw on you a dramatic sense of the way the world and its people groan under the weight of the evil we’ve inflicted on ourselves and each other. And it is partly because the effort required to carry this out can be exhausting (but also invigorating!). And it is partly because such giving-of-personhood draws you close to others and makes you vulnerable, when you could have been safe otherwise—like Christ, who need not allow Himself to be abused, insulted, crucified, but did so out of love.

But this kind of identity is tragic, too, because it contains within it all the beauty and heroism that we look for in a great tragedy: The tragic hero is the one whose virtue and beauty shines in dramatic contrast to the arbitrary and evil world that surrounds him or her. Christ’s love and goodness shined most brightly in the darkness of the crucifixion.

This tragic element of beauty is emphatically opposed to utilitarian perspectives. If I think an act is good only if it will result in some significant benefit to the Church, or if I think that an act that results in some significant benefit to the Church is necessarily good, then I have misunderstood Christian identity and fallen back into outrageous identity. We do not love so that we might be loved. We love because we have been loved. We give personhood because God, who had every right to wipe us from existence, chose to forgive and to re-give the possibility of true personhood to us. Surely, we look forward to a time when Christ will return to make all things new. And, at that time, the tragic elements of identity will surely pass away (though the scars, like Christ’s wounds, may remain). But until then, we love audaciously—taking up the cross and following our Savior.

The crisis of identity in the U.S., our obsession with outrageous identity, has finally begun to show the extent of its wickedness. The killing of innocents spreads. The anger and hatred is evident on our neighbors’ faces. Fear, reaction, and broad objectification has begun to infect even the Church, such that we look for an outrageous champion. But our purpose is not to protect our group against the other groups. That is outrageous identity. Let us show the world through our everyday interactions what a tragic identity looks like, so that they, too, may accept the embrace of love that God has offered, and the image of God within us may be further restored.

[1] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997).

[2] What I mean is something like this: If the Father was made out of 100 divs (a quantity for the amount of divine substance one has) and gave 33 1/3 to the Son and 33 1/3 to the Spirit, thus making them equal, then the Father would only have 33 1/3 divs left. But the Father’s substance does not have this kind of possession over the Father, because He is fundamentally person. He can give of Himself without becoming less.

[3] I am aware that this word is problematic and will lead some to start mumbling angrily about such figures as Calvin, Arminius, Pelagius, and Augustine. I am using the term differently, though. It might have a relationship to the Calvinist-Arminian debates, but only a derivative one. What I mean by this is simply the capacity to act in a way that is beyond the programming of one’s substance, which, in our case, can be applied to our biology, culture, etc.—that is, those things in which our personhood appears, but do not necessarily control our personhood. It may be that human personhood only appears as the Holy Spirit enables or Himself acts, and that those enslaved to sin never in fact act as persons, etc. But those debates are outside the area of my interest.

[4] Unfortunately, Wallace’s metaphysics are a bit off and his perspective on what unites us—which he claims may or may not be true—is off as well. But he nevertheless is stating something that seems correct because it describes a perspective on human relationships and human thinking that reflects a Trinitarian metaphysic.

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

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