the dangerous power of labels
lately, i’ve been experiencing a little frustration about a recent conversation of which i was a part. this conversation, while significant, was merely a symbol of a growing frustration i’ve had for awhile. now, i will pause and say, for those who don’t know me all that well, that not many things bother me or get to me. and in this case, it isn’t like i’m losing sleep or have some kind of deep-seeded anger, but it’s just that i think this thing is an epidemic within the church and i have begun more and more to experience it.
what i’m talking about (just in case you aren’t astute enough to actually read the title…) are labels. specifically, it’s the idea of attaching some sort of label or name to everyone. you’re a conservative. he’s a liberal. she’s a christian. you’re a pagan. i’m progressive. you’re traditional. and so it could go on forever.
the aforementioned conversation was particularly off-putting to me. i was looking forward to the conversation because, in theory, it should have been a collegial and fruitful conversation. it went completely downhill, though, within 5 minutes because of the questioned that was posed: “are you x or are you y.” (i’m not even going to say what the two labels were, because the point is that they could have been anything…conservative/liberal, progressive/traditional, whatever.) the question was literally out of the blue. there was no precursor or “set-up” for the question. it was basically someone with an agenda that superseded the context of the conversation.
the problem with labels, as evidenced in this conversation, was that they only serve to make a sweeping generalization that draws a line in the sand. in this conversation, to the person asking the question, there was a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer. if i gave the wrong answer, this person was prepared to basically “cut me off” and cease to engage a constructive conversation. the other problem is that i refuse to lower to the point of taking on labels. labels are subjective and only have meaning in certain contexts. what is conservative to one is liberal to another. what is holy to one group is sacrilegious to another. so, when asked the question, instead of choosing, i simply responded with, “i don’t know what those labels mean” and that i don’t use labels to create false and needless dichotomies. it probably sounded pretentious to this person, but it is increasingly truthful in the way i try to engage with others and in the way i engage in seeing the world.
the other day, i watched a portion of a conversation between brian mclaren and southern baptist leader richard land. these two guys are at polar opposites of the theological spectrum, but they were able to engage in a collegial conversation that began with the topic of the danger of labels (more or less trying to define some terms). mclaren made a very poignant remark, stating that using labels is a “shortcut to thinking.” i thought that was a powerful statement and is so evidently truthful. it takes little thought to label someone and put them in a box. to understand someone and see them in an objective light requires patience and effort and skill.
to use a cliché, when you point the finger at others, you have three pointing back at you. this is true in this case for me. i have been bad about doing this to others, but i’ve tried to be committed, over the last few years, to refraining from using these dangerous and powerful labels. i really hope that the rest of the Church can do likewise and begin a movement of change for the better.
i would offer to sing this blog to you, but it’s probably best to leave that to the professionals…here’s a little derek webb for you…