Labels are only good for cans. That’s the mantra we use to dismiss and neutralize the use of labels to put peoples in a box, classify them, make them one dimensional. All of us have been labelled and all of us have labelled others. I remember a classic example when I was in seminary. A fellow student of mine, strident in his liberal beliefs, was in full rant mode about the way conservatives label people, calling them wishy-washy and easily led, not standing for or against anything. He was tired of being characterized in this way. And then he said, “Those conservatives, they are so mean, hypocritical, judgmental and limited in their thinking.” “Aren’t you labelling them like they label you” I asked. Of course we are all guilty of this bit of hypocrisy.
When labels are used to close down a conversation, to assume we know the whole story, that the others are misguided and stupid and we are right and clever then we are using categories in a rather convenient way. It’s sheer laziness to plug everyone into a box and use such limited information that the moment you see or talk to or hear someone you know where s/he belongs. Human beings are massive collection of contradictory thoughts and feelings, none us can be so easily assessed. Further, the motivation for this labelling is usually not to understand but to put someone down, to criticize them, usually in front of a like-minded audience.
In these times we are told not to judge and not to label even though we all do. I have long thought the problem is not the labelling or the judging but the lack of humility and wrong motivation, namely wanting to insult or diminish others rather than understand others and ourselves. Surely a worthy human trait is to understand others and thus to have insight into ourselves, to use a testing process to determine what we are seeing and hearing in others and determining what that says about us too. If I want to know the basic thrust of my approach to politics or theology or the workplace or money management or civic engagement the only way to make that determination is to test it by examining how my views compare with those of others. That does not necessarily imply that they are wrong and I am right but it does require me to have an open mind to hear others in their own voice, not the voice I give them that makes them less credible.
A good example of how labels can be helpful is the way my own denomination is struggling now. The United Church of Canada is not just shrinking in numbers, it is currently in an identity crisis. I am more concerned about the latter than the former, I don’t think Jesus was ever concerned about “numbers”. When we see other denominations in a healthier place we may wonder if there are things we can learn from them. Too many of my colleagues dismiss more conservative and evangelical Christians as backward and reactionary. And I have some sympathy for this assessment since many, many conservative and evangelical Christians make equally disparaging remarks about liberal Christians like the UCC. But rather than get into a food fight with each other why not look at the differences and see what is driving them and what the other might have discovered that would be helpful to those of us facing a challenge? For instance I have zero interest in becoming a conservative Christian, it is not what I believe. But I do think the term “evangelical” at its best means the sharing of good news and we liberal Christians need to find authentic ways to share our good news in a pluralistic society.
We need not shift what we believe, that is who we are, but surely how we share what we believe can be examined and examining how others share their news can be helpful. Knowing that others are “evangelicals” and labelling them as such does not mean participating in a gathering of like-minded people where we pile on criticism toward those we don’t agree with. Instead seeing that evangelicals have a way of being and a way of sharing allows us to dig deeper into their world-view and see what parts of that can be helpful to our faith journey. Ideally they could do likewise as they come to terms with their beliefs on climate change and sexual orientation. I think we have learned a lot on those matters and some of my conservative and evangelical Christian friends have admitted to me privately that they want to look at our resources on these issues so they can find their own way forward. Knowing we are different and using a label or two to identify ourselves and others is not about setting up a feud or shouting match. Instead it is just a way to understand each other as we are and finding those things that can be helpful to all of us as we attempt in humility to be God’s people.