check the labels on the can

People say they don’t like labels. But then in the next breath they will make a comment about a group they find hard to understand. My more progressive friends will talk about “labels are only for cans” all the time and then launch into a critique of the right or conservatives. It shows a lack of self-awareness but I also shows that people underestimate the necessity of labels as tools of understanding...

For how do we differentiate different belief systems unless we know what binds persons together with a common vision? For me the issue of labels is less about using them, I think they are necessary to think through issues, and more about how we use them. Are they tools of understanding or an easy cheap shot we use to dismiss and malign?

In the religious context there is a lot of misunderstanding of those who sit on the more conservative side of the theological spectrum. Terms like evangelical, traditional and fundamentalist get used interchangeably. The truth is each of these groups may find a political candidate they can all support but their reasons for doing so are all different, their identity unique to certain passions. Here is a rough guide to how to tell the difference between these groups; 1) traditionalists are what they appear to be, persons who draw comfort from a continuity, if it worked in the past it should work now. Further, they want to honour those who have gone before us, thus the need to maintain the practices of the past, 2) evangelicals are in love with Jesus. An evangelical is in love and wants everyone to know, they need to grab us by the lapels and look into our eyes and tell us, “Jesus saved me, Jesus came into my life, he knows me and he appreciates me and God, his Father, is now directing my life, every day something happens, and I know it is God’s hand on my life.” Now that is an evangelical! And 3) fundamentalist. There are some people who are just very angry about the world, it is a bleak and dark place because someone has done something and there is a need to tell the world who has made this mess. A fundamentalist feels it falls to him/her to stand on the street corner and let you know that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and “fill in the blank” is to blame.

Now each of these groups can come together over a common foe and they do. In 2004 George W. Bush needed all three groups to defeat John Kerry. But their convictions can lead them to new places. When HIV/AIDS became known to the general public each of these groups had a different approach. The traditionalists thought abstinence was the answer, if couples were monogamous the challenge of HIV/AIDS would diminish. Evangelicals wanted to save lives and lobbied President Bush to send the most aid of any President to confront this challenge to the continent most affected by this deadly disease. Evangelicals knew Jesus loved the people with HIV/AIDS so the money necessary to heal people with disease was a matter of faith. And I think we all know what fundamentalists had to say about people with this illness. They stood in judgement, fundamentalists condemned and judged persons with HIV/AIDS. I remember during the height of the epidemic I was walking by a fundamentalist church and on their sign was the sermon title, “God’s letter to the Philadelphians – Sin no more!” The reference was obvious, the most popular movie of the time was “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks as a man with HIV/AIDS.

I have a lot of respect for evangelicals and count many as good friends. I may not share the emotive and ultra-personal quality of their walk with Jesus but I respect the love and compassion they bring to their discipleship. I used to have more in common with traditionalists than I do now. Ironically, as I age I am becoming less and less interested in the past and tradition and continuity. But I do understand traditionalists and their faith in continuity. I confess that while I search for common ground and reasons to understand fundamentalists I do not often find them to be sisters and brothers in Christ that I can have dialogue with. Frankly most will not talk to me, as a member of a mainline church I am suspect at best, the enemy at worst. It’s very hard to have a conversation with someone who thinks you work for the devil.

Of course those of us on the left side of the aisle have differences too; liberals, social democrats, socialists, Marxists, all are unique with very different agendas. Yet like the groups described above they can and do come together over common foes. In another blog I will talk about them, us.