A reflection on Mt. 3: 13-17, the Baptism of Jesus by The Rev. Dr. Katherine Godby
In Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus, just as Jesus came up from the water, a voice from heaven announces his identity: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
How often I have wished that some heavenly pronouncement of me, or of many of my pastoral counseling clients or parishioners, would happen just that way. “Katherine! You are my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” With that, we would know, without doubt, who we are, and all self-image and interpersonal relationship problems would be presto! change-o!--solved, right?
As the saying goes, if wishes were pennies, we’d all be millionaires.
The issue of identity, how we come to know who we are, is an area of inquiry that has interested me for many years. The notion that the image of God, the imago Dei, resides within us as human beings is especially intriguing. A couple of points:
First, in traditional Christian theology, the imago Dei includes the idea that our original human nature was damaged in the Fall and is seen in its fullness only in the person—that is, the man—Jesus Christ. That Jesus was male has been the foundation for the tradition’s view that women are, by definition, the first rung in the ladder of humanity’s damaged nature. I remember how stunned I was when I first read St. Thomas Aquinas’ statement, following Aristotle, that women are “misbegotten males.”
Second, obviously in this case the tradition got it wrong. That all human beings are created in the image of God means, at a minimum, that we have a basic worthiness and goodness at the center of who we are and that we have the potential for other attributes of God within us as well — beauty, freedom, creativity, etc. As a person of faith I believe that all human beings, without exception, are born with the image of God within us, and that we are all beloved children of God. That is our basic identity.
Along with this basic identity, however, our identities are also, at the same time, socially constructed—formed throughout our childhood and into adulthood. Although the imago Dei is given as a kind of foundation for our identity and is, in some nebulous sense, permanent and unchanging, it is also accurate that our identities are fluid, always changing, and constructed from our social environments.
Part of the social construction (see below, Advent 4 Reflection by The Rev. Kate Hennessy, for a clear and concise description of social construction as narrative) of our identities includes the construction of gender. We tend to strictly categorize people: either someone is male or female. But according to Allan Johnson in The Gender Knot “an estimated 2 to 3 percent of babies are born with physical characteristics that don’t fall clearly into one sex category or another. A baby might be born genetically female, for example, with a “normal” vagina and clitoris that has developed as a penis. In cultures that admit only two sexes, there’s little tolerance for such ambiguity. . . . [T]he idea that everyone must have a clear and fixed identity as male or female is relatively new in human societies, and contrasts with societies that provide other alternatives. The Native American Navahos allow those born with sexual ‘ambiguities’ to occupy a third sex category (called nadle) with its own legitimate social standing. In some other cultures, people have been allowed to choose their gender regardless of what it appears to be ‘objectively.’”
Johnson also says that “our intensely personal experience of ourselves as sexual beings is profoundly shaped by the society we live in and ways of thinking about sex that are part of its culture,” noting that “when people say ‘sexual’ they typically mean ‘heterosexual’ and exclude all other forms of sexual expression as possible meanings. In ancient Greece, however, ‘sexual’ included a much broader range of human potential and experience which, in turn, shaped people’s perceptions. . . . And only a century or so ago in Europe and the United States, ‘homosexual’ was a term that described behavior but not people . . . . The word ‘homosexuality’ first appeared in print in Germany in 1869 and was first used in the New York Times in 1926. Today, by contrast, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered is treated as an aberration at the core of people’s social identities and an oppressive system of heterosexual privilege that excludes and persecutes them.”
My point so far is that part of our identity is our sexual identity, and our sexual identity—although we think of it as fixed and unchanging—is actually quite ambiguous. Johnson makes this clear, and we can all think of smaller examples. Remember the uproar “Women’s Lib” caused in the 1960’s? What it meant to be a woman was no longer quite so clear. Should the man open the door for the woman or not? Recall the anger some men felt at how “confusing” it all suddenly was. In the church I served previously some people felt that for a woman to wear a pantsuit wasn’t proper. Of course, others disagreed. The meaning of “woman” depends on the culture (micro or macro) in which the word is used. It is an issue because the social construction of gender is awash in patriarchal assumptions that resist ambiguity. We are profoundly uncomfortable when it is unclear how someone fits into our constructed “male” or “female” categories.
I think it’s crucial that we understand what patriarchy really is. Johnson says that it’s “organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.” Part of patriarchy’s obsession with control is its neat categorizations—male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, black/white, American/not-American, etc. Patriarchy is so pervasive that most people, like fish living inside water, aren’t aware of it. And if they get a glimmer of it, they resist a fuller awareness because that would mean facing ambiguity, facing their own sinful participation in its sexism, racism, etc., and most importantly facing their fear, for patriarchy is a system arising out of nothing but fear.
Human existence is fundamentally contingent. We have no say in when or how we are born or, for the most part, when or how we die. There is a fundamental terror at the heart of our existence. To deal with that terror, we try to control, that is, have power over, what we can. Patriarchy is an “obsession with control.”
Because boys are more often (but, importantly, not always) socialized to be strong and stay in control, to not become “girlie-men,” they often grow up defending against fear at every turn. Women certainly participate in patriarchy, but I sense that Johnson is correct when he stresses that “patriarchy is organized around male-identified control.” So, for many men, the “path of least resistance is to protect themselves by increasing their own sense of control… For some, it’s keeping their feelings to themselves rather than being vulnerable at the wrong moment to someone looking for an advantage. Or learning to win an argument, always having an answer, and never admitting they’re wrong. They may go out of their way to avoid the appearance that women can control them.” Patriarchy encourages men “to feel afraid of being ridiculed…afraid [that other men] will wage war, destroy communities and homes, beat, torture, rape and kill those [they] love.” In an effort to beat down that fear, men (and women who participate in patriarchy) are tempted to ridicule others—or even to wage war against others—first.
But there is another way to deal with the fundamental terror at the heart of our existence. We forget that although our identities are socially constructed inside a pervasive system of patriarchy, who we are is also a given. We are also beloved children of God who, as we become true adults—that is, as we seek to live authentically within the truth of the imago Dei within us—can choose to trust in God’s ultimate care and in our own belovedness.
When we choose to live our lives with a determination to more fully develop the image of God within us, we are choosing to allow the attributes of God to form our identities. We become more free, peaceful, creative, trusting, alive!, beautiful, forgiving, graceful, and kind. Justice becomes crucial to us, we live grateful for absolutely everything, and prayer is unending. As we choose to construct our identities on the foundation of our authentic and given belovedness, then that amazing love will cast out our temptations toward fear.
May it be so.
Bio: Katherine Godby is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is currently serving a United Church of Christ congregation in north Texas. Her Ph.D. in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling focused on issues of authenticity in a postmodern world. Married late, she is enjoying the plunge into life with a husband and three children-by-marriage—oh, and, of course, the cat!