The trouble with labels

July 3, 2013 | Editorial
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

In an increasingly polarized culture, we seem to be plagued more and more with labels that define us. Driven by an obsession to organize our society, we put each other into the categories of liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro-choice, fundamentalist or social gospel, traditionalist or progressive, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, Oil Patch worker or anti-pipeline crusader. The list goes on.

If you care about creation, you are immediately seen as an environmentalist, with all the attending stereotypes. If you see God as beyond gender or as more than a Heavenly Father figure, then you subscribe to feminist theology. Clinging to our myths and needing symbols to define our relationships, we are more comfortable if we can put each other or a group of people into a box, seal the lid and say smugly, “Now we know who ‘they’ are,” and deal with them accordingly.

We talk rather frequently these days about the gift of diversity within the faith community. Indeed, in our political discourse there is a grudging reference to the richness of the “many voices” contributing to the process and conversation. But if we see diversity as a gift, why do we organize ourselves so often around these boxes and see ourselves either as friends or foes, either working in tandem with their “worldview” or pushing back against it?

There are at least three things wrong with labelling:

  • It is de-humanizing. Rather than see our sister or brother in the fullness of her or his personality, character and spiritual commitment, we see them as objects in a line-up of pre-determined assets or liabilities, the identity of which has already been defined by the dynamics of the broader culture, and not necessarily by the dictates of the “body of Christ” to which we all belong. If they are aligned with our own preferences and beliefs, we embrace them. If not, we distance ourselves. They become the “other.”
  • It is divisive. Rather than unite us in a common commitment and vision as followers of Jesus, these labels foster division and suspicion in our many conversations around faith issues. If we are already prejudiced by a label for our sister or brother, then we interpret their words and motives as fitting the confines of their “box,” and either don’t listen to them or write them off, again, as the “other,” not one of us who are on the “right” track.
  • This leads to self-righteousness, the curse that prohibits fellowship. Those of us who rally around a certain label or ideology/theology become our own worst enemy because we have shut out others who don’t share our viewpoint and vision. Our faith circle decreases in size because we find it difficult to make room for others with whom we find it increasingly hard to relate and talk to. The dimensions of our faith narrow and constrict so that new ideas and the fresh air of other authentic expressions of faith are cut off.

I am reminded of the metaphors David Goa used in addressing Canadian Mennonite’s annual meeting in Lethbridge, Alta., this past March. In describing the public discourse of today, he referred to “political silos” and “tree houses” to decry the alignments that occur and that amount to a form of warfare. “Parties square off against each other, defining the terms of their relationships in opposition and seek to defeat the ‘other,’ ” he said.

“Party politics is in danger of reducing each person to a uniform set of single issues,” he said. “Each party occupies its own tree house and once you know the password—a single set of issues—you are granted admission.”

Goa’s metaphors come dangerously close to describing our own faith “boxes.”

Labelling is an ancient problem. Remember the story of Jesus as told by the gospel writer Matthew (16:13-17), when he asked his disciples who people said he was. His disciples immediately picked up on the public labels when they answered, “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

“But who do you say I am?” he asked. And Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responded, “Simon, son of Jonah, blessed are you, for flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father which is in heaven.”

Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we stayed close to Peter’s confession in our labelling?

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Hi Dick: Thanks so very much for your editorial, bang on. And also so very painful to read in light of Will's piece on the Durango Mennonites. I will write a letter to the editor, or if you are open to an op ed, asking how we speak about folks like the Old Colony who intentinally seek a simple life in a strange setting and what we do with 'reports' of northerners who go down to help but sometimes seem to want to change them to 'conform' to our ways. I would also like to raise the question why we seem to 'judge' the Old Colonists with such 'colonialist' language when we seem so redemptive to the Old Orders
. The contrast in tone in the two articles in this last issue was striking to my mind. Would you be open to a bit of a longer piece? Best (and hello from Cambridge). Royden Loewen

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