What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: Labels may be helpful, but more often they are damaging (part VII)

In order to live with all of the data that comes into our lives, we humans must categorize and organize. We can’t fully avoid it. This involves naming –people, groups, animals, and things.

It can be a good thing to be able to name/label/categorize, in many different situations. The Genesis writer includes “naming” as one of the ways that humans express their humanity and use this gift to be co-laborers in God’s ongoing creation. As I sit here writing this blog, my computer would not work if Microsoft had not labeled/named/categorized all of the system files, and even my own files would not be of much value if I had not “labeled” various categories (called “folders”) to make them much more easily accessible and usable. A whole lot of cars are being recalled this week due to air-bag problems. How would you respond to the recall if your car did not have a “name” on it? I would not know how to ask Kye about the meeting I missed last night if we did not share a common label for the group “Leadership Team.” As Henry Louis Gates’ current PBS show “Finding Your Roots” indicates so clearly, one of the main ways of finding our personal historical roots is by locating the correct labels/family names and then by DNA categorization/labeling. On and on it goes.

Having said that, most of us have suffered hurt and even shame at some point in our lives because of labels. Equally sadly, most of us have hurt and shamed others—inadvertently or intentionally—by the labels we have used. As a young man who was racist and chauvinist, I used to use labels regarding race and gender that I now abhor. I was so pro-American that I thought the American flag flew above all other “foreigners’” flags because God so ordained, and I was delighted that there was only one “foreigner,” one “Catholic family,” and no “Jews” in our very “American” little town. As an ignorant anti-gay and anti-lesbian person, I said and did things that I now regret so deeply. As an able-bodied person with a relatively positive personality, I used many descriptors that now turn my stomach in speaking about people who were challenged with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. And soon, as a “converted” Christian, I argued with my soon-to-be wife that inter-racial marriage was against God’s order of “like begats like.” Thankfully she knew I was full of BS on that topic and told me so.

Before too long, as a Christian who was no longer so reflexively “narrowminded” as I had been before, I began expressing my new “openmindedness” by labeling those who were more conservative as “legalistic” and “narrow-minded” and “unloving” and “theologically ignorant” — even when some of them were actually just being honest, faithful, obedient, and careful believers the best they knew how. One does not have to watch Fox News and MSNBC very much to see that mean and destructive labeling provides an “acceptable way to hate” for both the liberals and the conservatives who wish to use “naming” as a tool for manipulating the world. Strangely enough, as I made that sad journey I have just described, I was less likely to label and degrade people than many other people around me were. Throughout that journey, I was often labeled (or should I say quite mislabeled?) as the “nice guy.” What a broken world we are! (Valuable, wonderful, amazing and fascinating, too, but that is a different blog!)

I have personally been labeled many things besides “a nice guy.” As a person who in the of the 1970s was labeled a WASP + M (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant + Male), I have certainly enjoyed enough privileged status in life to know that compared to many others, I have little to complain about. Nevertheless, I did not live without experiencing a bit of what others suffer in the extreme. As a kid with a father from the North and a mother from the South, I grew up as a “Yankee” even though I lived in the South for 18 years and, as a teen, was trying desperately to belong. My fellow athletes called me “a brain” because I found school easy (it was not meant to be a complement), and they called me “Ape” because of my stocky build and low forehead – I was their poster child for proving human evolution from the apes. (“Ape” probably was meant to be a complement — after all, we were football players.)

Both church and town people labeled me “the preacher’s kid,” and expected me to act in ways that I felt compelled to rebel against. Then, when I rebelled,  they said that it was because I was “a preacher’s kid.” It never entered their minds that my behavior might mostly be a response to their labeling. My seminary Dean labeled me as arrogant and not a team player, and my University Philosophy professors labeled me as “our one and only Christian grad assistant.” And, in spite of always being a “Yankee” in the South, a dear friend here in C-U told me years after we met: “I couldn’t believe that a ‘Southerner’ could be so smart, knowledgeable, and open-minded.”

About 4 decades ago, we began New Covenant because the churches we – with our ragtag group of hippies, radicals, ex-Catholics, Jews, and conservative Christians – attempted to join did not want us. However, as soon as we started NCF and began growing, the same churches that had not wanted us labeled us a “cult.” And, about a decade ago, quite a number of long-time friends left NCF saying, “It is so sad that Ron, who was such a great Bible teacher, no longer believes the Bible.”  Why that amazing label? Because I, with all of my own personal confusion at the time, said that the one thing I was sure of was that gay and lesbian Christians, as well as non-gay and non-lesbian Christians, should all be focused on loving one another like Jesus told us to do.

Having rehearsed this bit of personal history, I truly know my life has been very easily compared to many others with regard to the misuse of naming and labeling. My goal in writing about what I have learned concerning labeling is not to gain some sympathy. I do not need any. My life has been on the easier side of the divides most of the time. But, I do want to encourage us to (1) avoid labeling casually and thoughtlessly, (2) be ready to repent when we find we have been hurtful with our labeling and categorizing, and (3) be ready to abandon the labels that once seemed OK, but have now become pejorative — as once-helpful labels often do quite soon.

I honestly do not know (or care) whether you think that I am theologically a liberal, conservative, moderate, or none of the above. I do not know (or care) whether you think that I am a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or none of the above. I do not know (or care) whether you think that I am a cultural and ethical liberal, conservative, or moderate. I don’t even know where to put myself on many of these labeling scales, since it really depends upon the topic and the context in most cases. And, I often find that people are using these labels to categorize one another in order to avoid looking at the complexity of the real world situation, and in order to avoid having to respond actively and obediently to the realities right in front of our eyes.

So, what have I learned in 40 years as a pastor? There is one label that I hope God graciously allows me to claim as I stand before God both now and someday:

FOLLOWED JESUS (through the ups and downs) & FORGIVEN (for all the times he did it so poorly)!

Or, if you want to say it another way, please understand that for me it is saying the same thing, just in more general terms:



As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.

/ Ron

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