Identity & Identity Theft

One of the threats within our culture is that of what we call “Identity Theft.” What we mean by that phrase is that someone has discovered enough personal information on you that they can charge things in your name, on your credit card accounts, or by withdrawing from your savings account. But surely our identity cannot be reduced to a list of numbers and bits of data in a computer somewhere? Surely our identity is based on something much more fundamental and important than our financial status.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the word Identity refers to “the fact or being of who or what a person is.” The English term is derived from the Latin pronoun, “idem,” meaning, “the same.” Identity is often abbreviated as “ID,” which is reminiscent of the Latin, “id,” which is the 3rd person singlular of the pronoun (it, he, or she). In Biblical Greek, the word  pro/swpon (prosopon) seems to convey the same idea, reflecting the entirety of one’s person—one’s physical and personal presence. In fact, when the early church fathers were discussing how to describe the fact that the Trinity contained three persons yet was one in essence, they opted to use the term pro/swpon (prosopon) when speaking of his person and the term oujsi/a (ousia) when speaking of his divine essence.

The question remains, then, if identity is the basis of who you are, how then is that identity derived? Do we define our own identity and thus have the ability to “redefine” ourselves? Or is our identity something that is placed upon us by a power or authority outside of our person? This might, for example, be our parents, who name us and train us up in a particular fashion, or this might be a government that assigns us an identification number—an “id” number—and uses that number to represent the totality of our being in life and culture? Certainly, we might like to lean toward the former, but how is our identity defined and based on that definition, can it genuinely be “stolen” as many speak about?

The modern educational system operates on the mindset that we are makers of our own identity. We encourage “free” thinking, the idea of the “self-made” man (or woman), and that we are autonomous when it comes to our own life. The quirky are celebrated in our culture and are the ones who eventually become trendsetters. We have embraced the idea that a mid-life crisis is not a terrible thing to have take place (as it is a form of re-definition) and we find that it is not uncommon to go as far as to redefine ourselves physically as well as intellectually and emotionally. People do this in minor ways like changing hairstyles or hair color, some take more drastic steps and get tattoos or have their body parts pierced, and some take even more radical steps and opt for elective surgeries and implants—even to the point of changing one’s physical gender through surgery and hormones.

What is striking, though, about the modern educational approach is that while they are teaching students to make their own decisions and define their own person, the very teaching that holds up radical independence as a virtue is a form of authoritatively imposing design on the student’s identity. When you authoritatively state that all students should construct their own identities, that very axiom is a means to conform the person’s mindset to a particular ideology. I point this out not to suggest that it is bad to encourage students (and adults) to think and act for themselves and not simply following blindly along behind an authority or a charismatic leader. Such blind obedience is the way we end up with Germans goose-stepping behind Nazi soldiers and educated Americans following David Koresh to their deaths. Yet at the same time, to affirm the idea of a radically independent self-definition is not intellectually honest as experiences, influences, direction, and other outside factors influence the formation of our identity. Much like a compass that we might follow, for that compass to work, there must be a magnetic north to direct the needle toward an absolute point of reference.

If, to maintain the compass analogy, there is the topography of life that influences the actual path that we take toward our destination, what serves as the fixed and absolute point of reference? My suggestion is that the answer to this question is that God provides that fixed point most specifically in his Son, Jesus Christ. For the Christian this should be pretty much a given, but I would submit that God also provides the fixed point for the unbeliever as well, though the unbeliever seeks to reject the direction to their own destruction. It is destruction because as we are made in God’s image and Christ provides us with the perfection of that image, fleeing from Christ is also fleeing from being all we are designed to be, pursuing a continued undoing of that image that God has placed within us. Yet, as the image of God within us is what makes us human in the very first place, then an undoing of that image within us is an unravelling of our very human nature, reducing us little by little to the level of animals.

Thus, if the development of our personality is both directed by an outside source and participated in by the decisions we make, then we should pose the final question as to whether that identity can be stolen. The answer to that question must, by definition be, “no.” Certainly, our identity may be mimicked and our governmental identification numbers can be stolen and abused, but who I am is not marked or determined by the numbers floating around in cyberspace by which the government or my bank might know me. Who I am is held by God and thus is held secure by God in whose hands I am positively held. To suggest that if someone steals my social security number and banking numbers is to steal my identity is to reduce who I am to nothing more than a statistic…something to which we must not allow our culture to reduce us.

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