Identity theft is a crime which affects many people. In fact, a major credit bureau recently experienced a breach which could impact over 145 million people. With personal information, criminals can open credit accounts, file tax returns, redirect social security benefits, buy property and many more serious thefts. No one wants to experience the significant loss and inconvenience that can arise from identity theft and many times it is only recognized when it is too late.
Identity theft is not a new crime which has come about with the rise of computers and the digital age. There is a more serious form of identity theft that goes back to the very beginning of creation. That theft has to do with the attempt to steal the very essence of who a person is and to replace one's own essence with it. It comes down to, “I don't like who I am and so I will become someone else.” Identity theft has to do with seeking power over others, whether it be by the person one wants to create of another or by the possessions of another one wants to steal.
The first act of attempted identity theft was carried out by Adam and Eve. As we read in the Book of Genesis, God created them, as man and woman, in His own image and likeness. He created them to live in love with Him and with each other. They were not only to know who they were in this manner but also to find their joy as that of God Himself. This did not satisfy them. They did not want to be like God but they wanted to be God. They did not want the power of love but the power of authority. The devil was the master of the digital age before it existed. He gave Adam and Eve a false image on the screen of life and seduced them into clicking a button they thought would transform them. It did but not in the way they anticipated. The devil has continually tempted man and woman with many forms of identity theft throughout salvation history. The giving in to the temptation has always brought unhappiness and confusion.
The temptations that confronted Jesus during His forty day period in the desert before His public ministry were those of attempted identity theft. The Son of God willingly took our human nature to Himself as a complete reversal of the original sin of Adam and Eve. He became one of us out of love and reached out to us out of love even to His going to His death on a Cross unjustly condemned as a criminal. To save us, Jesus became like us in all things but sin. Jesus, more than anyone else, knew who He was but the devil tempted Him to steal this identity. He placed before Jesus, in all three temptations, a false identity of who He should be as the Son of God in His human nature. The devil tempted Him that He should be a Savior of worldly power, authority and wealth, flaunting creation with fear, and not one of love who was going to be rejected by those He came to save. The devil tried to steal God's identity from Jesus and to make himself God by telling Jesus to get down and worship him.
Jesus was keenly aware of the many attempts of the devil to have others steal His identity. On one occasion He asked His disciples the question as to who did people think that He was. They offered many different answers from John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Isaiah or one of the prophets. It was St. Peter who gave the correct identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus was so pleased with Peter's response that He named Him as the leader of the Apostles and the first Pope. On another occasion, Jesus warned His disciples that many would come in His name to try to deceive them with a false identity as to who the Savior should be. It was only by knowing Jesus that the disciples would remain faithful to Him.
Peter is a good example of someone who knew himself especially in his relationship to God. He also is a good example of someone who succumbed to identity theft both on his part and in regard to the Lord. When Jesus called Peter to follow Him, Peter’s first response was to tell Jesus that he was a sinner and Jesus should have nothing to do with him. Jesus recognition that Peter knew both his own identity as well as that of Jesus only confirmed the Lord’s decision to call Peter. However, when Jesus revealed to Peter more of His identity as the Christ who would give His life on the Cross for us, Peter objected and asserted that he would not let this happen. Peter tried to change the identity of Jesus while he took on a new identity as one who now directed God. Jesus's response to Peter was extremely sharp as He referred to Peter as Satan. It is clear that the devil always tempts by instilling dissatisfaction with who God is. He also tempts by instilling dissatisfaction with who one is especially as that identity comes from God.
One of the great insights of the spiritual life is that we cannot grow in love of God unless we truly know who we are. Getting to know ourselves and our identity is not always an easy task and many times causes pain and disappointment. We would like to be other than we are and we often wish to impress others with who we would like to be. We are afraid to be ourselves because many times we think it is not good enough. As we get to know ourselves better and better, we not only find the goodness that is within us but also the disappointing aspects of our selfishness and self-centeredness. It is only by recognizing the difficult parts of our identities that we are able to accept ourselves and to allow God's mercy and goodness to enter us. We cannot be happy unless we are the person God made us to be. We cannot accept others unless we are willing to accept ourselves. Ultimately, we cannot have a relationship with God unless that relationship is based on knowing and accepting who we are.
While identity theft, in regard to stealing essential information about a person so that person can be taken advantage of in terms of assets and finances, is very prevalent around us today, there is even a greater identity theft prevalent which truly attempts to make ourselves to be God. As we look around the world today and see so much hatred, violence, discrimination, exclusion, religious persecution and lack of peace, much of that comes from a society that has lost its vision in terms of God and who He created us to be. The devil is effective in convincing our society to leave God out of the picture and in tempting us to create ourselves, not in His image and likeness, but as Him.
Pope Francis has been very strong in emphasizing that a person comes into this world from the hands of God with a right to life which includes how God has created that person to be. He has emphasized that we cannot change who we are and trying to do so only causes unrest and misery. In a most recent address to the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Pope stressed that the essential differences in our identities, including our gender, are rooted in nature and ultimately reflect the plan of God for human life. While very understanding of the tensions of modern life which lead to an escape by means of changing identity, the Pope stressed, "The biological and psychological manipulation of sexual difference, which biomedical technology allows one to see as open to free choice - which it's not! - is thus likely to dismantle the source of energy that nourishes the alliance of man and woman and makes it creative and fruitful." God has given us an identity which cannot be changed although others, including ourselves, may try to steal it.
As serious as the matter of identity theft is in regard to stealing personal information by which one can set up a false account to divert personal funds, even more serious and prevalent among us today is the theft of identity in regard to who we are especially in our relationship to God. Identity theft is nothing new. It is good for us to know ourselves to our core and to accept ourselves as God has made us. It is also good for us to do this in regard to others. Only accepting our identity, as God has made us, gives us true joy.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 20, 2017