Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's in a Name? Labeling

The other day, my girlfriend was writing in her journal about the way that people label one another. It was an interesting topic and we were sharing on the subject later that day, and about what it does to those who label and are labeled. So, what follows is part musings from her journal, which she graciously shared with me, observations from life and whatnot, and then, of course, my own wit and wisdom(?)

*For my non-spiritual readers: I hope that beyond the god stuff, you can find some value in the thoughts on what labeling is, and what it does to the victim of the label and the person labeling.

~For my readers of various faith traditions: I can only assume you have applicable lessons and warnings in your teachings. Extrapolate as needed.

Labeling: Identifying, Pigeonholing, and Marginalization 

God is massive. God has created the laws of the universe, and suspended them at will. Has given us seasons, and art, self-awareness, and intellect. Jesus sat with thieves and hookers. In the twenty first century, I’m pretty sure Jesus would be dining with junkies and politicians.
We must be about God’s business. And God is in the business of attracting people.

OK. That’s awesome. But the people, who say they want to identify with Jesus, spend more time trying to label the people that they are supposed to be serving. As a society, why do we label people? Poor, rich, autistic, black, white, disabled, gifted, and on and on and on. We slap on more labels than a soup company. Sure, sometimes we do it ‘cause we’re really lazy. Calling them, “The 90 degree couple” was easier than saying, “The couple. She has super long straight hair. He has average length black hair. He wears glasses. And they both wear stern expressions.” The label helped cut to the chase.

Being in a small private Christian college, in central Pennsylvania, there was a lot of labeling angst. I’d be with a group of people and one person is trying to describe a mutual acquaintance to those assembled.
“He’s the guy, in the engineering seminar, who is super quiet… He’s sort of tall...? Always waiting in the hall before class...? He always wears UNC blue…? He’s…um…black. Yeah, him. “

So, of course, some of it is just a convenient way to identify people and things. But often, labels are used to highlight those characteristics in others which one finds undesirable, and from which one seeks to be differentiated.
“No Fat Chicks” “God Hates Fags” “I Hate Stupid People”
These glaring examples of having a label, which is born from a single characteristic, contort, grow, and consume, until the world’s identity of this person is tied inexorably to this one thing. As good people, and more so if we call ourselves people of faith, we should be careful with our language. Students with disabilities don’t' want to be labeled as their disability. Do people who are poor want to be labeled as poor or needy?  These things are circumstances, not who they are. Just like grace is hard for sin stained humans to accept, Jesus didn’t run around saying, “You wretched sinners are really lucky to have me around. You’d be pretty much screwed if I weren’t here.”

Jesus looked at these people and saw the one, single, solitary important label, “The Image of God.” And he acted on it without fail. And, as a result, crowds of people followed him, and his biggest fans were the people who were the farthest from the “perfect life” to which he called his followers. Conversely, the church ostracizes itself constantly. It’s “Us” evangelizing “Them” and this may be why people don't feel welcome because they feel defined by their circumstances like being divorced or single parenthood, poverty, or even being “unsaved.”  These things don’t define a person.

Next time you host a service meal, invite ANYONE to serve, and ANYONE to eat.
When you think of someone’s label before you think of their name, say something nice about that person.
When you’re tempted to drag someone down a “Romans Road” conversation, take a page from Jesus’s playbook. Wipe away his or her tears and say, “go and sin no more.” Then realize that you’re talking to yourself, too.