We love our labels. I’m not referring to the ones we find inside our clothing, or pasted on the outside of soup cans, but the handy kind we can slap on people for quickly and easily defining who and what we think they are.
If someone is fascinated by the intricacies of technology, we label him a “geek.” People that devote much of their time to athletics are labeled “jocks.” A student who dedicates herself to mastering her coursework and achieving high grades is labeled a “nerd.”
We see this throughout society, particularly in politics, as well as with social values and ideologies. For instance, “liberal” and “progressive” have come to mean anything from being a champion of the poor and disenfranchised to being opposed to the perceived evils of capitalism to supporting the interests of oppressed minorities.
By implication, if this is what “progressive” people look like, then “conservatives” must be “regressives” – inhibitors of progress, right? They are characterized as being uncaring or insensitive to those in need. They endorse big business, but detest big government and have little interest in what minority segments of society desire or need. At least that’s what the conservative label supposedly represents.
We see this in religion as well. “Fundamentalist” and “religious” are terms both used and abused, applied interchangeably for extremist Muslim terrorists; very legalistic, highly judgmental people claiming to be Christians; leaders of mind-controlling, dictatorial cults; and individuals that genuinely believe in the foundational teachings and principles of the Bible. These groupings obviously are not one and the same. But for the sake of convenience, the terms “fundamentalist” and “religious” often receive one-size-fits-all treatment.
We could regard this as symptomatic of the throwing the baby out with the bathwater syndrome. But what a convenient, simplistic method for casually dismissing all people of faith. Sure saves the trouble of trying to figure out what they actually believe – and why.
Years ago my family and I decided to change congregations. That move also involved changing denominations. Later we were told the Sunday school teacher for one of our daughters at the former church asked her class to pray for our family because, in her mind, we had turned our backs on the “true” denomination. As if we had chosen to embrace the antichrist and forsaken Jesus. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but in that teacher’s perhaps well-intended but confused mind, we had aligned with the wrong “label.”
Frankly, I detest labels like these. Labels are lazy. Why take the time to get to know and understand folks when you can neatly slap a label on them and be done with it, right? We see this with races and ethnicities, too. We conjure all-encompassing stereotypes for people groups and apply them en masse. This definitely saves a lot of effort bothering to befriend some of them and discover who they really are. Just slap a label on them. Makes life so much simpler – or so we would be led to believe.
Thankfully, God is not in the label application business. Jesus was comfortable associating with Samaritans, even though the Jews viewed them as pariahs. He enjoyed hanging out with Gentiles, including the despised tax collectors, much to the consternation of the hyper-religious, self-righteous Pharisees. And He had special compassion for outcasts – the disabled, sick and hurting.
Having observed this firsthand, the apostle Peter observed, "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10:34). Another version translates that, "not a respecter of persons." And the apostle Paul declared, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We are quick to assign labels to other people, perhaps because that makes us feel better about ourselves, being able to classify them either as being like us or different – and assuming those that are different are somehow inferior.
But if we apply the question that’s become a cliché, “What would Jesus do?” we have an straight-forward, uncomplicated answer: He wouldn’t stoop to applying labels. He’d take the time to get to know people, try to understand what they’re thinking and why, and seek to respond to their unique needs, on their terms.
Problem is, this takes time and concentration. It might distract us from our overly committed, self-consumed lives. But I suspect the effort would prove worthwhile.
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, a former newspaper editor and magazine editor. He is presently vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a non-profit focused on mentoring and coaching business and professional leaders. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” “Business at Its Best,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also posts regularly on two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com. He can be emailed at email@example.com.