In 1998, then president Bill Clinton avoided taking responsibility for a previous comment about whether or not he was lying when he said, “ there is no improper relationship” with a woman who was not his wife. He said that he had not been lying, by making this word distinction: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.” Then, and now, it looks like a devious ploy to twist words for the sake of avoiding accountability. It sometimes seems like this kind of pedantic inquiry into the subtleties of linguistics is just an exercise in finding differences without a distinction, the kind of games that are only played by scheming lawyers, bored intellectuals in dusty libraries, or social rejects in obscure internet forums. However, there are times when it does pay to understand the meaning of a word and its various uses, and I’d like to discuss this very word “is” as it is understood in the realm of personal identity. I want to discuss it because it has very real and destructive consequences if not understood properly.
“Is, am, and are” are all variations of the same word, but there are also variations of the definition. If I say, “That is an apple”, or “That apple is red”, there is a subtle but profoundly different use. In the first case, I am talking about the identity of an object. I am talking about what that thing is for the entirety of its existence. But when I say that an apple is red, I am discussing something about the apple. This may seem like pedantic nitpicking, but it is an extremely important concept that affects many of the ways we perceive ourselves and conduct our relationships with other people. And so, I want to repeat this.
When I am talking about the unchanging identity of a person or thing, this is a statement of ontology. “That is an apple”, is an ontological statement. When I describe a characteristic of a person or thing, it is a statement of description. “That apple is red”, is a descriptive statement. Same word, “is”, but a totally different meaning.
In our society, today, many people have come to believe that what we think and feel is our identity. They perceive statements about themselves (descriptive) as being statements of identity (ontological). For instance, when someone says, “I AM a Democrat, a Republican, a man, a woman, an environmentalist, an artist, a musician, etc., they actually use the word “am” as an equal sign.
Democrat = Me
But not all people use “is” or “am” in this way. They can say something about themselves:
Me = Me, and being Republican is something about me.
So, in this case, the Republican may say, “I hate the democratic platform”, and the Democrat hears, “I hate you”. That isn’t what is meant, however, because the Republican in this case is speaking about an idea, and makes a distinction between the idea and the person. Using “is” or “am” as a descriptive word instead of an equal sign allows someone to critique an idea while making absolutely no judgement about the person holding the idea.
Can it be that an idea, a belief, or a behavior is the identity of a person. Does being gay, or being a redhead, or riding motorcycles define who you are? Many people think so. How often have you heard someone say, “This is just who I am!”. And yet, what do we say about someone who used to be gay, a redhead, or a motorcycle rider, but no longer is? If that was who they are, and they are no longer that thing, then they are not actually the same person anymore. But that doesn’t make sense. We know that we are the same person we have always been, even if some things about us have changed. Personhood, identity, persists for the entire existence of something. Let’s return to our apple example. If an apple turns brown, is it still an apple? More importantly, is it still the same apple? Of course it is. What it IS, in the ontological sense, does not change, even if, and when, it IS no longer the same thing in the descriptive sense.
This confusion can cause great harm, both to the individual and the individual’s relationships. Take the Democrat example above. If you accept that you are and always will be a Democrat, then you have essentially barred yourself from change. If you think that your beliefs are identical to your person, then you can never progress without losing your identity. You will constantly be protecting yourself from change, because change would essentially constitute a kind of death. It would be the end of your personhood, because you would no longer be that person. This belief damages your relationships because they will be static and uncompromising, which is precisely what love is not. It is the very opposite of progressive.
This is why so many people cannot carry on conversations in which someone challenges their ideas. They get suddenly angry or hurt because they cannot separate themselves from their own ideas, feelings, or behaviors. A challenge to something about a person are, unfortunately, perceived as an attack on the person. (It is absolutely essential to understand this when speaking with other people who have fallen victim to this lie about identity.)
On the other hand, if you can let go of the idea that you are identical to your beliefs, you will find yourself free to change. You are free to examine things about yourself, to determine if they are good, if they are true, if they are loving. Equating people with their beliefs is dehumanizing. Looking beyond the attributes of someone, to see the value of the person underneath, is essential to human dignity.
Thank God we are, essentially, something more than our attributes. I mean that literally – Thank God. And we are thankful that He treats us as such. There is no argument to be made that we are not each less than ideal, each of us unable to meet even our own personal standard of what people ought to be. And yet, God is willing to love us as His own. God made us in His image; we are to be representatives of His Holiness, and yet all we need to do to see how far we are from being Holy is to read the news or the comments under a political blog, youtube video, or Facebook post.
While the thoughts in our hearts can be unquestionably evil, our beliefs completely false, our actions selfish, and our words ranging from blindly arrogant to intentionally cruel, God knew it would be like this. He knew what we would be. He knew that we would reject His plan to be loving and kind, selfless and serving, productive and joyful. And yet, already knowing us, He loved us. He loved us enough to bring about our very existence. He loved us enough to allow Himself to be beaten, mocked, and cruelly murdered on the cross. God despises much of what we think and do in this world, and yet He loves us so deeply that He died in our place. He reconciled a broken relationship. He made the effort to reach out to us with a plan of delivering peace. That is because God knows that we are more than our attributes. We are his creation. We are valuable by virtue of being created by, and belonging to, Him.
And so, by what failed logic or petulant emotionalism do we dare to turn to our fellow man and treat them with anything but love? How can we discern the value of another person by their beliefs or actions, no matter how vile, when God has loved us too much to do the same with us. We owe it to God to love (as a verb, not an emotive fancy) all His creation. We are all of equal value and we hold that truth to be self-evident. To equate your neighbor with their actions is to determine that they must earn their value. But Jesus had another way. Jesus began with the assumption that value is inherent. Our actions are not free of consequences, but they do not determine who we are; they do not determine our value.
The next time you think to judge a man by the outward appearances, remember that God is judging you by your heart. Remember that you would never want God to love or value you, based on what has been going through your mind even for the last twenty four hours. Let us instead love as God loves, and let us be therefore a model to others of God’s love for us all. Not only are we created equal, but we are created valuable, and we can all be forgiven and redeemed.