I Have Given up Labels

I’m giving up labels! I flinch every time I read or hear these words in referring to people: “Progressive,” “Evangelical,” “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Orthodox,” “Revisionists.”  Immediately upon hearing or seeing them, I sense ideology, partisanship, and divisiveness rather than theology, cooperation, and community.

Labels can be helpfully descriptive when they are precisely defined and modestly employed.  Yet, when used prescriptively as a means of categorizing, condemning, and disengaging from others, labels become vicious and outright sinful.

Labels tend to reduce people to categories to be resisted, demeaned, and perhaps eliminated.  They blur our vision of others and force them into ideological boxes.

We live in a society and in churches polarized by labels.  United Methodism is in danger of splitting over labels as members are lumped into “progressives” or “revisionists” and “evangelicals” or “orthodox.” In so doing, the denomination is mirroring the broader polarized society which lumps people with the same or similar labels and categories.

Labels invariably over simplify issues and diminish people.  No issue can be defined in a single word and no one can be reduced to a category.

Progressives can be evangelical. Evangelicals can be progressive. Liberals can be conservative. Conservatives can be liberal. Orthodox can be revisionists. Revisionists can be orthodox.  Even Democrats can have republican ideas and Republicans can embrace democratic principles.

Words are critically important. Words do shape our relationships and influence our treatment of others.  Labeling another as “enemy,” “foe,” “heretic,” “threat,” “terrorist,” “alien,” “criminal,” and a multitude of other offensive names, leads us to behave negatively toward the other. Dehumanizing is the first step toward rejection and violence.

We aren’t saved by words any more than we are saved by works. But words and works motivated and shaped by grace and used grace-fully heal, reconcile, and transform persons and societies.

Jesus was never impressed with labels as tools for categorizing and excluding folks. He was always turning the tables on those who pushed people into boxes and labeled them as unworthy or outside God’s circle of redemption. He welcomed “outcastes and sinners,” commended a “pagan” Roman soldier for his faith, extolled a “Samaritan” as the model of neighborliness, and promised a “thief” a place in paradise.

Jesus’s disciples were very label and category conscious.  They observed a man with the wrong labels and group loyalties casting out demons. Offended by his apparent “orthodox” or “progressive” associations, they told him to stop. He doesn’t fit their labels and categories. Jesus, however, had a much broader understanding of God’s activity. Jesus admonished, “Do not stop him . . . Whoever is not against us is for us”(Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50).

There are labels we might try using more often, especially in speaking about and with those with whom we differ: “brother,” “sister,” “child of God,” “friend in Christ,” “colleague in Christ’s ministry,” “sinner redeemed by grace,” “wayfarer on the way to God,” “citizen of new heaven and new earth,” and “beloved partner in ministry.”

We would do well to pause before using labels and meditate on Jesus’ caution in the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount:  “You shall know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:20-22).

What are the fruits? They are summarized in the Beatitudes—humility, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, integrity, striving for peace, magnanimity, and courage. Paul describes them as “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatian 5:22).

So, I’m giving up labels! I hope to spend more time and energy nurturing “fruit of the Spirit” in myself and others than putting others in simplified categories with restricting labels.

Is Love a Practical Way Forward?

My blog, “Schism Is a Failure of Love and Leadership,” sparked considerable discussion. Many thoughtful questions and challenges merit continued reflection on my part and additional discussion across the church.  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/schism-is-a-failure-of-love-and-leadership/

On the surface, the call to love seems piously superficial and naïve. One respondent indicated, my suggestions are more like “a sermon than a practical solution to our current divisions.”  I would argue that sermons are “practical.” Otherwise, we dismiss the “Sermon on the Mount” as impractical and naïve.

The comment reflects a serious problem. Legislative mandates, organizational directives, and juridical penalties have come to have more authority than liturgy, theological reflection, and spiritual discernment.  Our liturgy, theology, and discernment have tended to become instruments of legislative coercion, bureaucratic maneuvering, and judicial threat.

It is appropriate to revisit Jesus’s farewell discourse in John’s Gospel. Two statements of Jesus have largely been ignored:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and his prayer “that they may all be one” (17:20).

Admittedly, we suffer from a cheapening of the term “love,” thereby reducing it to sentiment that “we just get along.”  “Getting along” isn’t a bad thing in this age of vitriol and polarization. However, to love as Christ loves us is far more radical than being “nice” to one another.

What does it mean to love as Christ loves us? From the words and actions of Jesus, love is more than a sentiment. It is a revolutionary and dangerous way of being in the world.  Loving as Christ loves may very well get you killed!

To love as Christ loves us means to shift the margins of our concern and preoccupation from the centrality of the privileged and powerful to the vulnerable and powerless.  Throughout the biblical witness, God’s preferential presence and mission are among the “orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants).”  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/shifting-the-margins/)

Jesus moved the center of God’s reign to include the outcasts, the poor, the sinners, the children, the sick, the imprisoned, the infirm, “the least of these.”  To love as Christ loves us is to join him among those whom Charles Wesley called “Jesus’ bosom friends.”  It means to see and nurture the divine image in everyone and to challenge the systems, policies, and practices that diminish the inherent worth and dignity of all God’s beloved children.

Love is an action more than a sentiment or emotion or intellectual construct. Love seeks, includes, nurtures, gives, helps, supports, serves, corrects, and promotes the wellbeing of the beloved. It is inseparable from justice and the dogged effort to overcome oppression, exploitation, and cruelty.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’s priority was that his disciples would love as he loves and that they would be “one” in expressing that love in the world.  What would it mean for us to respond to those priorities?

It would mean at least this: we and the church would turn our attention and presence to the most vulnerable, neglected, powerless, and despised in our congregations and communities. They would be the center of our concern and presence.  Preoccupation with church growth, preserving doctrinal purity, labeling one another as “progressive” or “evangelical,” and denominational triumphalism would move to the margins. The love of Christ would become central and would make us one!