In Monty Python's 1978 film the Life of Brian, the following conversation took place among the brains trust of the People's Front of Judea (PFJ), a revolutionary terrorist organisation seeking to overthrow Roman rule in 1stCentury Judea.
One of the revolutionaries, Stan, wants to become a woman—namely 'Loretta'. When pressed as to why he would want to do such a thing Stan replies that it is because of his long-repressed desire to have babies.
The leader of the PFJ, Reg, struggles to come to terms with Stan's radical re-alignment of traditional gender norms, making the point that Stan can't become a women because: a) he is a man, and b) he doesn't have a womb, 'where's the foetus going to gestate—in a box?'
He stresses that his negative stance does not come out of a desire to oppress Stan, but rather due to the fact that it is a physical impossibility for Stan to actually have babies.
The other party members, Judith and Francis, attempt to mediate a compromise between Stan and Reg. Although it isn't anyone's fault that Stan doesn't have a womb, the PFJ can nonetheless fight against their colonial oppressors for his right to have babies. Indeed, the PFJ's fight for Stan's right to have babies is symbolic of a wider struggle—the struggle against oppression.
Reg, however, remains unconvinced. Rather than this being a noble struggle against oppression and inequality, he instead describes it as being symbolic of Stan's, 'struggle against reality'.
The struggle against oppression
Fast-forward 37 years to the present day, and we see this debate being played out, not in the movies, but in the real world. In two high-profile cases in 2015, we have seen two Americans seeking to radically change their identities.
The first of these involves Bruce Jenner (former gold-medal winning Olympian and reality TV personality) and the unfolding saga of him attempting to redefine himself as a woman—Caitlyn Jenner.
The second of these involves Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who was discovered to be a white woman who had been pretending to be African-American for a number of years.
These stories have brought about a mixed response within the media and the general public. The responses to Jenner's decision have been mostly positive, even resulting in a feminine-looking Jenner ending up on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.
Dolezal's reception has been more negative, although she is not without her supporters. When it was revealed that she is not ethnically an African-American, she resigned from her position with the NAACP, and has received a significant amount of criticism, both for the idea that her actions helped to perpetuate racism, as well as for her dishonesty about hiding her true ethnic identity.
Regardless of the different reactions given to these two individuals, they are symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the way we approach the subject of identity in the Western World. More and more, traditional definitions of identity (predominately based on Christian concepts) are giving way to ever more subjective and unclear definitions.
For a long time, people such as Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have been relegated to the margins of society because of their orientations, or have felt forced to hide and suppress what they feel is their true identity.
For them, gaining public acceptance and validation for who they are and the orientations that they feel, truly is a struggle against oppression.
The struggle against reality
But simply because a person feels strongly that they have been born into the wrong gender, race, or sexual preference, does it then entail that they should automatically seek to define themselves as such?
So what does the Bible say about these issues? Ultimately, of course, we are defined by being made in the image of God, not by our ethnicity, social class or gender (see Galatians chapter 3, verse 28). However, this does not mean that those categories are entirely without meaning.
Going back to Genesis 1, we see that 'God created mankind in his own image, male and female he created them'. While Genesis does not mention the subject of race, it does take the concept of gender very seriously. This distinction was not merely an arbitrary one, as in Genesis 2, we see how maleness and femaleness are tied tightly to the concepts of gender roles and sexuality.
Of course, due to the fall and the subsequent corrupting effects of sin, these issues of identity do not always neatly align themselves in the way that we would want them to. Sin has had a corrupting effect on all aspects of our human natures, so too the areas of gender and sexuality are not exempt.
This view does not come out of a desire to oppress or marginalise those who struggle with the notion of gender identity. It is a real and complex issue, and needs to be approached with care and sensitivity for those who it affects.
However, is it right for us to go beyond mere toleration, and accept and validate the decisions of those who choose to identify themselves in a way which is contrary to reality?
Just like Stan, no matter how much he wants them, will never be able to have babies, Bruce Jenner will always be biologically male, and Rachel Dolezal will always be biologically white. Does such an approach do more harm than good?
Who do we trust to define reality?
Do we trust our 21st century Western philosophy, which is predicated on the foundation that there is no such thing as absolute truth—and if it did exist we would never be able to find it anyway? Or do we trust God, who made the world, revealed himself to us through his Word, and who loved us so much that he sent his son Jesus Christ to die as an atonement for our sins?
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html