The Complexity of Identity
Over the last few weeks I have finally had the chance to introduce my kids to the Star Wars movies. It took them awhile to get interested, and since Star Wars was one of the defining narratives that shaped my childhood, I had to force myself to wait to show it to them until they were ready (and yes, like any good parent of my generation, we started with Episode IV). But as we watched it and the array of characters appeared on the screen my daughter would repeatedly ask, “so is that a good guy or a bad guy?” When she asked that about the Ewoks I had to laugh (seriously, how could wonder if a teddy bear was a bad guy?), but most of the time I found myself having to give qualified answers. She is used to disneyfied depictions of the world where there are obvious good and bad characters. But Star Wars, like reality, is nuanced. The good guys can be self-seeking and greedy, and cute little Anakin becomes the evil Darth Vader who still has enough good in him to be redeemed in the end. Identity is fluid and people are complex. My six year old (along with many adults) would rather have the world be easily divided into clear cut categories of good and evil, but that’s just not the way it works. Heck, even the Ewoks tried to roast Han and Luke alive.
While our nature as children of God created in God’s image defines us at our core (and makes the ultimate redemption of all possible), who we are in relation to each other is constantly being shaped and changed as we proceed through life. We, at various points, can be both good and evil – as well as simply greedy, self-centered, and apathetic even as we try to follow the way of Jesus. We are the good guys and we are the bad guys. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote –
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Not only are we unwilling to destroy that part of ourselves, we often can’t even admit to the complexity of our identity. If we see ourselves as decent citizens and committed Christians, we have a hard time admitting that within that framework we might be participating in evil. I hear this all the time when I speak on justice issues. It’s the “I’m a good person, how dare you suggest I am hurting others when I buy clothing made in sweatshops or treat the environment however I wish.” We prefer our binary categories that help us label and judge the world. I’m good, others are bad. I’m normative, others are abnormal. It’s not reality, but it’s how people cope.
Getting at that reality is part of why I’ve recently become obsessed with the show Torchwood (a Dr. Who spin-off). Described as a postmodern, postcolonial, pansexual narrative, episode after episode it serves to deconstruct binary assumptions about our world and our identity. Captain Jack Harkness, the 51st century time-traveling, omnisexual, and morally ambiguous main character who is constantly re-negotiating the identity of the alpha-male lead role, dismisses our tendency to be comforted with the binary with “you people and your cute little categories.” There is no one purely good or evil in the show, simply people trying to survive as best they can. Friends who would otherwise die for each other turn on each other when it could save those they love the most. Middle men just doing their job contribute to systems of evil and yet are not powerful enough to stop them. In one poignant scene one sees that it is the poor gang members who have nothing left to lose who are the only ones willing to stand up against an act of extreme injustice the government tries to commit. The show pushes the boundaries of sexual identity, but also tears to shreds the stereotypical colonial narrative of the alien invasion story. In one storyline an alien race was threatening the destruction of earth unless we gave them 10% of our children to use as drugs. As the story unfolded we saw that the humans weren’t merely victims, but as capable of sacrificing the weak for their own comfort as the aliens. Even Captain Jack’s solution to the invasion revealed him to be just as much monster as hero. Assumed categories of right and wrong broke down in light of the messiness of reality.
I love the show because it is so real. As absurd as it sounds to describe a science-fiction show as real, it is the honest depiction of the fluidity and complexity of our identity that resonates so well. Most episodes leave me deeply frustrated and unsettled, but also commenting to my husband that this is the way evil works in the real world – not as some absolute tyranny out to destroy the world, but in the accumulation of everyone’s small decisions to shape the world for their own personal benefit. It takes these sorts of postcolonial stories that deconstruct hidden power structures and allow for the exploration (as opposed to imposition) of identity for us to become aware of the complexity of our own selves. The rigid definitions of who we claim to be break down when seen light of our relations to others. We are the victim and the oppressor, we are the hero and the villain, we are friend and we are the enemy – all at the same time. South Africa discovered this after Apartheid. They knew that to even function as a postcolonial nation the community had to let go of binary labels like victim and oppressor, confess their corporate complicity in evil, and embrace the messiness of living in relation with complex people.
Good relationships evolve because they allow for people to be in process. To understand where that line of good and evil exists in their hearts and to hold their cute little identity categories loosely. People change, we grow, we constantly fail, and yet we must remain in community. Unless we start to understand the fluidity and multiplicity of our identity in relation to others it is impossible to build healthy relationships that revolve around our core nature of being created in the image of God. And ultimately it is those relationships with God and others that matter the most.