Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What if Identity Synthesis is Part of Our Healing?

Written by: on January 8, 2024

Grief is complicated. There is an illustration of grief that looks like a giant ball of tangled string: one way in, a thousand tangles and loops, and finally, a way out. Years ago, someone I loved hurt me deeply. I was in great emotional pain but instead of feeling sad, I felt MAD. I was so, so, angry. After expressing my rage to my therapist she looked me kindly in the eyes and said, “Kally, your anger is your body’s way of protecting that vulnerable hurt place within you.”

Identity Synthesis

In his book, The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk describes “The Identity Synthesis,” a new ideology that is changing the key rules and norms of mainstream institutions;[1] an ideology that calls us to divide ourselves into groups including but not limited to “race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.”[2] One example of Younk uses is when a Black mother wants her daughter to have one teacher but the principal of the school, a Black woman, places her daughter in the “Black class” instead. Younk writes, “In a growing number of schools all across America, educators who believe themselves to be fighting for racial justice are separating children from each other on the basis of their skin color.”[3] Not everyone agrees with this identity synthesis though, as is demonstrated by the mother of this Black student. An educator herself, she believes, “putting my daughters in a class with a whole bunch of people who look like them isn’t necessarily going to give them community. They need to be able to get along with everybody.”[4]

While many advocates of the identity synthesis are “driven by a noble ambition: to remedy the serious injustices that continue to characterize every country in the world”[5] Mounk has serious reservations about this new ideology, claiming “it is possible to recognize these injustices and fight against them without subscribing to the identity synthesis.”[6] Instead of falling into what Mounk calls, “the Identity Trap” he gives us a list of ways we can fight against identity synthesis. This list is found in his conclusion and while it contains some important ideas, what I found most helpful was his advice on the podcast, The Good Fight, on which he was a guest. During this podcast he said we need to speak out about what we know to be right. [7]

Most of the books we’ve been reading on leadership these past semesters have encouraged us to do the same. Be “differentiated,” “undefended,” or to “lead from who you are.”[8] As a leader, and as a white woman who falls into the “privileged” category, I feel like I am still listening and learning from those who have experienced a history of oppression and injustice. As a woman, I too have experienced the injustice of patriarchy, but not to the extent others have felt oppression. I appreciate what Mounk has to teach us about what he calls the “Identity Trap” but I do not feel like I can completely agree or disagree with his opinion that the divisiveness it causes is completely unhealthy.

What if our world actually needs Identity Synthesis?

The reason being has to do with my discussion of grief from the first paragraph. Like I said above, grief is complicated. Anger is often used as a way to protect the grieving places within us. I wonder, if the identity synthesis we are experiencing in our world today stems from a place of grief and if it is part of the healing process – a difficult part for sure – that, if allowed to run its course, will one day lead those who have been deeply hurt, out of the complicated mess of grief.

When my loved one hurt me, this person apologized and owned the mistake, AND I was still angry, sad, rageful, depressed, in deep pain. Healing did not happen overnight but came in fits and starts and required this loved one to apologize to listen to my pain, acknowledge it, and apologize again and again. When I finally worked through my pain and grief, with the help of my loved one, our relationship deepened.

It was also helpful when I heard from others who had experienced this specific kind of hurt. I wanted to rally us together, to form a group who could support each other. I needed to hear, “me too,” or “you’re not the only one.”

I don’t want to further divide our country with identity synthesis ideology but I also wonder if at least for a time, people of color, the lgbtqia+ community, and other groups who have long been the recipient of unjust laws, policies, and behaviors, need this identity synthesis to feel their anger and distrust of those who have abused them and to work through their collective and individual grief. And I wonder if those of us who are white and privileged also need the identity synthesis so that we can feel what it is to be on the outside looking in, so that we can learn how the behavior of our ancestors and our own behaviors have oppressed and hurt others.

Ultimately, identity synthesis is not a long-term answer to racial or any kind of injustice. It has potential to severely divide us to a point of no return. As a Christian leader my role is to participate in the healing of the world, encouraging and equipping others to do the same. Based on my own experience of healing from deep hurt, I needed to feel the rage, the anger, I needed to hear an apology over and over, I needed to see and experience true repentance from the person who hurt me and I needed to know I was not alone in my pain.

Could identity synthesis be part of the process of healing our world? I don’t know. I would be interested in a book that could explore that idea though.


[1] Yascha Mounk, The Identity Trap, Penguin Publishing Group, September 2023, 16.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid, 9.

[4] Ibid, 11-12.

[5] Ibid, 18.

[6] Ibid, 19.

[7] Coleman Hughes, The Good Fight Podcast, released September 30, 2023, on Scribd.

[8] Each of these adjectives come from various books we’ve read. “Differentiated” from Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nerve, “Undefended” from Simon Walker in Leading Out of Who You Are, and “lead from who you are” from Jules Glazner in The Sound of Leadership.

About the Author

Kally Elliott

Mom of four. Wanna-be Broadway star. PC(USA) pastor. Wife. Friend. Sometimes a hot mess. Sometimes somewhat together. Is this supposed to be a professional bio?

15 responses to “What if Identity Synthesis is Part of Our Healing?”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Kally,

    Thanks for your thoughts. It was thought provoking.

    As I help two people (possibly two more) into Ukraine, I wonder about identity synthesis and is relevance to people dying in conflict. Ukraine/Israel, the priorities are shifted. War does that, it shifts our social priorities.

    Life and death, survival, sharing Christ to people who are not promised tomorrow (hmmm…are we?) are thoughts that make me wonder about “U.S. identity issues.”

    Still life intrudes and my NPO tackles the political polarization on immigration. I spoke with Dr. Clark about “the Third Space” where churches can move into seeing both sides of an argument and responding with biblical/unconditional loving action.

    Sigh…I will use Mounk/Fukuyama as digestive juices to break down my identity issues.


    • Kally Elliott says:

      Russ, what I think I hear you saying is that in light of war, of life and death, identity issues might not be as important as we are making it? (I could probably say that better.) And, whew, you are probably right! In light of war, is anything that important besides loving others and helping others find ways to live???

      That said, identity issues do cause great pain in some people and I think as leaders we have to be aware of that pain, that grief, and be able to hold space for it so that (hopefully) at some point we, as a nation, can work through our collective grief.

      • mm Russell Chun says:

        Hi Kally,
        In my blogpost is finally used a sign post to my section “What my peers are saying.”

        I wrote…”The members of DLGP 02, pastors, social workers, hospice are folk are at the cutting edge of dealing with “wokeness” in their local communities. While my Colorado neighbors fly the Pride flag year round, I rarely interact with woke folk. The DLGP02 comments give me insight into the world around me.”

        I think that the folk in DLGP 02 are filled with hearts that serve. Your insights are valuable to me as I do not work with those who have identity issues. Mostly refugees who flee tragic circumstances and are trying to find a way to survive in America.

        Thanks for keeping abreast of those in pain.


  2. mm Tim Clark says:

    Kally, what a profound post! I really appreciated the personal connection to your grief/anger.

    During the 2020 turmoil some of our elders, who were black, wanted to have a discussion group about racism and pain points with other elders, who are white. We had that discussion and it blew up. The white elders agreed that racism is historical but couldn’t see how this was an issue “currently”, and the black elders were trying to express their pain not only of personal history but of present injustice they still faced.

    In the end we had a lot of work to do to bring reconciliation, but the crux of the issue was that white folks (even really GOOD white folks) couldn’t just sit and listen and lean into someone else’s pain because they couldn’t see past their own experience and political position.

    That’s a long way of saying I resonate with your suggestion that we may still need to lean into the pain certain groups have lived even if we don’t think that’s the ultimate way out… in fact, maybe the way is through to get out.

    • Kally Elliott says:

      It’s easy to get caught up in one’s own experience making it difficult to understand that other’s might have a different experience. I often find myself in this same situation and then have to check myself. That must have a been a difficult time in your church and hard on you as a pastor/leader! I am impressed you were able to lead them to reconciliation.

  3. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I never would have made the connection to grief that you did, but I think it’s really astute. It also helps me have more compassion in those moments when I start to feel overwhelmed by the whole identity topic.

    What wisdom would you offer for those leading? What I mean is, how do we both allow space for the messy grieving process while still moving forward, avoiding that “point of no return” as you mention?

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Kim, you ask, “What wisdom would you offer for those leading? What I mean is, how do we both allow space for the messy grieving process while still moving forward, avoiding that “point of no return” as you mention?”

      What first comes to mind is, we have to be curious about how others are experiencing a situation, the world, an issue, etc. Curiosity. Instead of forging ahead assuming we have the answer, getting curious and being open to the perspective and feelings of others will better inform us to make good decisions. Curiosity also humbles a leader because we realize we may not completely understand the issue. Understanding the “why” behind someone’s behavior, words, takes curiosity and can help us to put ourselves in their shoes.

      Once we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes we are better able to hold space for their grief. They also feel better heard and (probably) at that point, are more willing to go along with us.

      • mm Kim Sanford says:

        I’m glad you mentioned curiosity. It’s something I wanted to write about in my post but didn’t quite get to. I find curiosity is often the key that makes or breaks a difficult conversation or turns anger into compassion. Thanks for that reminder.

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    Kally, after you shared briefly on our weekly Zoom call you motivated me to re-read your post and spend a bit more time with it.

    That’s a lot like grief. Some times you have to sit with it longer. If I am too quick to move past it, then it can further deepen the painful points of hurt. It exasperates it.

    A number of years ago, I made an ill-informed Instagram post, and used a term that I thought was accurate, only to find out the next morning that it was a firecracker word. I made a comment about the beauty of “gentrification” that I saw happening in my community. I clearly didn’t fully grasp the implications of that word, at that time. I do know. I know now, because I woke up the next morning to a slew of negative messages on my IG. So many people, a good number of them “trolls” had found my post and declared me to be “rich, heartless, godless, abusive, racist, etc. etc.” YIKES.

    I could have easily turned off comments, deleted, fired back an angry missive, etc. But instead I sat with it. I tried to figure out what the rub was (of which, I now know) and genuinely apologize where I was able.

    Sure, a number of them were “trolls” looking to pick an online fight, but others perhaps we hurting folks trying to earnestly help me understand the implications of my post.

    On a lighter note: my kids and church staff tease me about “gentrification” to this day. I get a stomach ache every time!

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Oh John! That must have been so awful to wake up to so many negative comments! Being someone who doesn’t like to “get in trouble” I would have really struggled with that! And like you could have fired back at them or deleted comments, we could also say something like, “Oh, this is just cancel culture at work!” but you didn’t do that. Instead, you took it as an opportunity to learn and grow. That’s awesome. I wonder if this culture of people “calling others out” or “canceling” is also an expression of grief – and a way of saying, “Hey! I care about you so please do better!” Obviously, it is often just people being jerks to each other but sometimes, I really do want to believe that people are just trying to make the world a better place…even through negative comments online. Thanks for sharing this story with us. Also, I am definitely going to find a way to use the word gentrification as much as possible when we are in D.C.

  5. Travis Vaughn says:

    Kally, last week I asked the leader of an organization that has asked me to be a guest speaker to their org in February a question. So that I’m not addressing questions/concerns that no one is asking, I asked the executive director of the org the following via text: “What would you say are the two biggest challenges facing the (leaders) in (the room), from an individual leadership standpoint and from a church/organizational standpoint?” His answer came quite quickly: “Personal: resilience
    Organizational: an unwillingness/inability to lead and make hard decisions.”

    I thought of that conversation while reading your post. You captured something incredibly important, stating, “As a Christian leader my role is to participate in the healing of the world, encouraging and equipping others to do the same.” Anecdotally speaking (and with a bit of intel among some organizations and seminaries), the desire to actually lead, even as challenging as it may be to lead through some of the issues you articulated in your post, doesn’t seem to exist as strongly as it (perhaps) has in the past. I wonder — are you seeing an unwillingness of people — potential leaders — to humbly lead, unwilling to equip or empower others to serve as instruments of healing in the world? If so, how are you (and/or others) addressing this challenge?

    • Kally Elliott says:

      Honestly, at my particular church, I don’t think I am seeing an unwillingness of people to humbly lead or equip others to serve as instruments of healing the world. I am often encouraged to preach about difficult topics, say hard things (with kindness and compassion), and to take a stand. As I think of the ministries many of our congregation are engaged in, I believe they too are leading in ways that heal our world. For example, our church is the county’s go-to place for emergency shelters when there is cold weather, smoke, or hot weather. We house people over night – and this is no small undertaking. It requires tons of volunteers, even overnight. I am being encouraged to volunteer too – though I really, really, really don’t want to have to volunteer overnight. We, along with a few other churches in our community, are preparing to host a “Guns to Gardens” event where we invite the community to bring in unwanted guns and we saw them up and create garden tools out of them. These are just two examples of ways people in our church are stepping up in leadership, taking a stand, making hard decisions (not everyone wants the shelter to be at our church or for us to do guns to gardens!) but they are leading in a way that equips others to heal the world. As I reflect on your question, I feel grateful to serve the congregation I currently serve.

  6. Scott Dickie says:

    I like your question too Kally…and I think you are rightfully pointing out the necessity for people who have experienced trauma to share in some form of meaningful community with others who have likewise experienced a similar experience.

    Where that ‘group identity’ moves from being a healthy and restorative process to an unhealthy and destructive (becoming a ‘new oppressor’ of the former oppressor) is extremely hard to discern and is likely quite unique to each individual.

    What I like about your post is the ‘spaciousness’ to put our own ‘discomfort’ and desire to see resolution to the side, in loving service to others and not ‘demand’ the process work on our preferred timeline.

  7. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Yes Kally!

    Grief is the core to all of our woes! I wonder if it’s what we experienced in our biblical origins, when we “fell” it was the beginning of experiencing loss and grief and we’ve been unraveling that knot of thread ever since. Why are we so hesitant to fully embrace grief and loss? What if we found our ability to truly grieve and go through it instead of stuffing it deep down and it comes out sideways? Cain and Abel is a great story of the beginning of our identity issues, One lost or perceived loss of the parents favor and grief over this loss twisted into jealousy and envy. We have to normalize grief! Thank you for your take on this, I went the same route. Did Mounk address grief? I didn’t read enough of it to see that, but perhaps you did? Is he onto something?

  8. First of all, Pastor Kally, what your therapist said was beautiful,“Kally, your anger is your body’s way of protecting that vulnerable hurt place within you.” Your therapist is cool.

    Second, as expected, your thesis is brilliant. Identity synthesis is part of our healing. Of course, you believe this because you are a healer of people’s pain. You are also on to something…something for me to think about…what if it is important for us to be in our groups to heal but also realize staying in just our groups eventually becomes a hindrance. This is something to ponder and dialogue with others. Thank you friend for your courage and insight.

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