I dislike labels. Well, that might be an understatement. I hate labels. I despise them. I was chatting with some acquaintances the other day about seminaries. I told them where I would be attending and they mentioned how they had heard it was a good conservative seminary. They asked me where some of my classmates were going and I mentioned that a couple will be attending Princeton Theological Seminary. Their response to this one was quite the opposite. They told me how liberal it was. And how it can mess with people’s faith. Upon asking them if they knew of anybody who attended Princeton, the promptly responded no.
Labels. We attach them to everything. He’s good. He’s bad. He’s conservative. He’s liberal. He’s Christian. He’s a hell-raiser. He’s educated. He’s not. He’s white-collar. He’s blue-collar. He’s smart. He’s stupid. The list goes on . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on . . . Do you get the point? Sadly though, Christians seem to be at the forefront of the labeling revolution. Christians really are some of the most judgmental people. Which is odd, considering Christians are supposed to be trying to emulate Christ, who seems to see right past the label game. Every knows the story of the women at the well. And Jesus spending time with tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and everybody else that nobody wanted to spend time with – the have-nots, the not-good-enoughs, the sketchy, the shady, the judged ones. We see this even in the disciples that Jesus chose. Simon the Zealot was vehemently against the Roman Empire – he wanted to overthrow it. And then there was the tax collector Matthew, who worked for the Empire, and made his livelihood on account of it. So you have anti-imperial Simon the Zealot and pro-imperial Matthew both among Jesus’ closest followers. How ironic. But you see this all the time. Jesus stretching his loving hand across boundary lines, neglecting to see the labels pinned to people’s foreheads.
The thing is, it’s more than just negative labels that hurt people. In my own experience, the best way to end a conversation with somebody is to tell them I am going to be a pastor. I have never seen people shut up so quickly. It’s as if people cannot get past the label tacked onto me. When we place labels upon people, we take away their humanity. We see them for only what they do/did, and not for who they are. We take away the one thing Jesus restored in so many people’s lives. Labels slowly kill people, gradually eroding away at their humanity. That’s why labels are so destructive. We must see the intrinsic value in others, which only comes in our shared humanity, in flesh and bone, in the fact that we have common emotions and insecurities. People have value in BEING humans. I think a quote from the French bishop and mystic Francois Fenelon sums it all up well: “All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers. Each one owes infinitely more to the human race than to the particular country in which he was born.”
Maybe it’s time we begin to shed the cocoon of labels and begin to see humans as humans and recognize all that is shared in humanity. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the churches in Galatia:
“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”