The New York Times released an article this week about an African-American teenager forced to cut his hair, styled in dreadlocks with a cap over them, or forfeit his wrestling match. He chose to cut his hair. The article, not the teen, stated that he should not have to forgo part of his identity in order to continue the match.
The language in the article disturbed me. It wasn’t the teen who was using it but someone imposing that particular sense of identity on him without his consent. Perhaps he does consider it part of his identity. We may never know. But what disturbed me the most was that the way the author of the article uses “identity,” although normal for our society, was wildly ambiguous.
What is my identity? Who am I? Is my cultural identity the same as my individual human identity? Can I still be me if I’m stripped of my culture?
The word identity is often thrown around in these ambiguous terms. My appearance is my identity. My hometown is my identity. My gender is my identity. My church is my identity. But is this helpful? Does it diffuse racial tension or infuse it?
This is especially important for the Christian. Our individual identity is in Christ first before anything else. We should not be demanding of others to understand us whether they are unbelievers or weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,
“Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings.”
As unpopular as this opinion may be, I am not my earthly culture. Culture, although important in many ways, is not something I will take to heaven with me. It is temporal and I am eternal, made to commune with Christ forever in heaven.
Right about now I probably sound like a know-it-all white evangelical who likes to tell other people who they can or can’t be. But I’m actually attempting the opposite. While keeping in mind that all cultures are flawed in some way, cultural identity should still be celebrated. The teen with dreadlocks shouldn’t have to cut them because of someone else’s cultural preferences. (Whether he actually broke a real rule by having long hair is moot because I’m trying to make a point here….)
To understand this better, I will give another example of evangelicals rudely butting into culture—one which I am passionate about: worship styles. It is so common, especially among my own people (the young, restless, and reformed), to tell people how to worship. “Don’t be too loud, it’s not a show!” “Your smoke machine is too distracting.” “Hymns are the only thing you should be singing.” And my personal favorite as it directly contradicts the example set for us in the Psalms: “Don’t sing any song that’s repetitive!”
Should we not celebrate our culture differences (as long as it does not contradict the Bible’s direct or implied teaching) with something that is as personal as music? Should we not worship God in our own musical, mother language? It is not wrong to play your music loud. It is not wrong to keep using the organ and singing hymns. It is not wrong to dance and shake a tambourine. It is not wrong whip out the synthesizer on a Sunday morning. Worship is a celebration! Celebrate in a way that best communicates your love for God. Celebrate in your own culture, and when need be, gladly celebrate in someone else’s culture for the sake of the gospel.
Cultural identity is much like listening to my favorite style of music. Or better yet, worship music done in my favorite style of music. It can make me dance, cry, or wrap up in a warm blanket with a cup of tea. It feels like belonging.
That’s what the author of the article is talking about when he says that boy was forced to forgo his identity in order to compete. And that’s why it was so offensive. It was like stripping him of his sense of belonging—stripping him of his cultural identity. What he was not stripped of was his value—his innate human worth. Cutting his hair did not literally devalue him as a human being. With or without his dreadlocks, he is made in the image of God and has just as much value as a fetus, a small child, a teenager, a middle-aged man, an elderly man dying in a nursing home. He is always valuable because his individual identity is as a human being made in the image of the almighty God.
But what if the man who forced him to cut his hair really was a racist and was attempting to devalue him? That’s an important question. And it begs another—is every racist act committed, whether purposeful or not, an attempt at compromising another person’s value as a human being? Or is it disrespect for their cultural identity—their appearance, music, hometown, etc.?
You may be wondering why it matters. Racism is racism! It’s all bad! Well I think those categories do exist and they matters because, at least for me, it helps to have specific questions to ask myself in order to root out my own sin. As the song goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.” And if I don’t think rightly and specifically about my sin, how can I find it and, as John Owens says, mortify (kill) it?
Questions I can ask myself (or others) in order to know my heart better:
Do I think I am better than that person? Do I actually believe I have more value than someone else? If so then I am calling into question their human identity given by God.
Do I think my cultural preferences are superior to someone else’s? Am I imposing those preferences on them when I speak to them or advise them? If so then I am being disrespectful of their cultural identity.
Does my life invite the celebration of other cultures or do I make them uncomfortable by being narrow minded or willfully naive?