Ferdinand Demara was born in 1921 in Massachusetts. He left home at 16 to become a monk before joining the US Army in 1941. He then assumed the name of one of his fellow soldiers, deserted the army, became a monk again, then joined the Navy. Then he faked his suicide and assumed another name and became a psychology teacher. He was caught and served prison time for his desertion, but then took the name of a young doctor he had gotten to know.
As Dr. Joseph Cyr, he was a surgeon on a Canadian battleship during the Korean War. When 16 combat casualties were brought to the ship, he speed read some medical textbooks and operated successfully on all of them. But then the mother of the real Dr. Cyr read about what happened in a newspaper and reported the imposter. The Canadian Navy did not press charges, and Demara returned to the US where he worked in various jobs under various aliases including working as a hospital chaplain. Even though he was found out, he was allowed to stay on because he was so popular with the patients and staff. In fact, he administered last rites to Steve McQueen in 1980.
Now there’s a guy who would be fascinating to have a conversation with. Imagine that for a second – sitting down with Ferdinand Demara. What would your first question be? How about this one – “So who are you?” Or perhaps you might rephrase the question: “Who are you… today?”
The question is one of identity, and you would think it would be an easy one to answer unless you’re a person like this. And yet this question – the question of identity – is an increasingly relevant one. Nationalism. Privilege. Ancestry. Gender. Politicism. All these cultural discussions have an element of identity at their core. Now, like never before, we seem to be asking that question not just about others, but about ourselves. “Who am I?” we ask. “To what do I belong?”
But you see, there is actually another question – a much older question – that not only is part of this discussion of identity. This question actually lays the groundwork for identity. And that is the question of authority.
Identity begins with authority. If we want to have the answer of identity, then we must first grapple with the question of authority. While the question of identity seeks to answer, “Who am I?” the question of authority seeks to answer who can even give the answer of identity.
Here, then is the real question that lies at the heart of the identity question: Are we going to choose to be self-determining beings, or are we going to acknowledge the rule of God?
If we choose to be self-determining, then the question of identity becomes really fluid. Who do you want to be today? Do you want to be male or female? Do you want to be moral or immoral? Do you want to faithful or not faithful?
But if we accept the rule and reign of God, then our primary question about identity changes. No longer are we asking, “Who do I think I am?” or “Who do I feel like I am?” or even “Who do I wish I am?” Instead, our primary question, rooted in the authority of God, becomes “Who does God say that I am?”
So the question becomes for us not who do we feel like we are; but who does Jesus declare us to be. Identity is not a matter of feeling or even of choice; identity is a matter of declaration. And in the gospel, we find the answer. We find the gospel truth that we once were dead in our sin. Not a people. Separated from God. But not any more.
God has declared that we are now, in Christ, His sons and daughters. Co-heirs with Christ. His chosen people. This is who we are, regardless of how we look, how we feel, or what our social status is. It is who we are because God has declared and made it so. In His authority, we find the answer to the question of identity.