Liberal left. Far right. Fundamentalists. Feminists. Republicans. Democrats. Environmentalists. Illegals. Conservatives. Blacks. Whites. Calvinists. Charismatics. Abortionists. Creationists. Evolutionists. Gays. Christians. Rappers. Millennials. Boomers. Legalists. Atheists. Muslims.
Labels. That’s all they are. Just identifiers. Markers. Definers. Nothing more.
Jesus was having a dinner party with some friends of a friend. Some party-crashers shake their heads and ask Jesus a question: “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (The Bible, Luke 5:30)
Tax collectors and sinners.
Just sayin’ what they are. Just a label. Nothing more. Just a description.
The description was accurate. They were, in fact, tax collectors. And they were sinners. Nobody really escapes that reality. Tax collectors and sinners. Just a statement of fact. A harmless label, right?
Except it feels like something more. It feels like an indictment. One of those kinds of people. Misguided people. Broken people. Harmful people. Lesser people. Those people.
Liberals. Fundamentalists. Feminists. Illegals. Muslims. Christians. Atheists. Welfare mom. Not simply a descriptor, but a warning. Unlike me, those people are dangerous. Those people. Jesus warned of a man who prayed, “I’m glad I’m not like this tax collector.” Labels become indictments.
Labels also become boxes. Once I have assigned a label to you, I know all I really need to know about you. “Oh, you watch Fox News. You are one of those people. I’ve got you figured out.” “You voted for Hillary Clinton, huh? Don’t say anything more. I know your type.” “Black Lives Matter supporter? That’s all I need to know.” “Tax Collector? Keep your distance. You guys are all the same.”
Comedian Kathy Griffin co-created a photo you might have heard about, a ghastly bloody photo, for which she eventually apologized. The photo stirred a comment or two on social media. Reading some Facebook comments, I encountered a lot of box language. This is just like the far left. They are all the same. Insensitive. Hateful. Dangerous. Disrespectful. (Read: “unlike me.”) Those liberals all fit neatly in my box.
Labels as boxes lead to a worse problem: labels become walls. Labels create distance. Labels mark people we should avoid. Jesus defied the label rules. Critics sneered that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (The Bible, Matthew 11: 19) They were stunned that he welcomed and ate meals with “those people.”
Labels block conversations that we desperately need. Once I have indicted and boxed someone with my label, I avoid them. After all, they are trouble. They are all wrong. I have nothing to learn from them. My label becomes a wall that keeps me from learning from others where I may be wrong.
Jesus issued a sobering word to label-makers and box-builders and wall-raisers: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” (The Bible, Matthew 21:31) Read: The people you have labeled and dismissed and despised are right on something important that you have missed entirely. Wow! Labeling people—and the boxes and walls labels create—can block me from learning something vitally important. Labels can be dangerous.
Labels cannot be avoided, however, nor should they. But I can counter the destructive potential of labels by giving every person I encounter a different, better, truer label. When Jesus was criticized for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, he told a story that gave them a new label: “beloved children God wants to come home.” For Jesus, those despised “tax collectors and sinners” were “sons and daughters made and loved by God.” A new label. God’s label.
Here is what is true of every single person you encounter, regardless of political leaning, ideology, religious persuasion or nationality. The person is designed by God. Made in the image of God. Dearly loved by God. A precious person whom God thinks about all the time. Those are the labels I give Kathy Griffin. Those are the labels I attach to President Trump. Those are the labels I embrace to guard my heart from arrogance, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and contempt. Those are the labels that stir grace and compassion and teachability. Those are the labels that breed life.
(All Bible quotes are from the New International Version.)
Feature photo By M0tty – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24648200