Thursday, February 26, 2009

Labeling Others

Sue von Fange, in an article on singleness in the church notes “At times we all tend to think that by labeling someone we’re excused from relating to them because they don’t fit into the same category as we do.” Unfortunately, we are great labelers. Whether its race, politics, religion, economic status, or lifestyles we naturally try to label other people. It helps us define who they are. But labeling both gives us control over them as well as giving us an excuse to avoid taking them seriously. Living in an area which is heavily influenced by academia, we face the constant temptation to look down on those with lesser degrees, lower economic status, or lesser jobs. Labeling can negatively affect our relationships with neighbors, co-workers and even fellow church members. But when we label people in this way we miss out on so much that we can learn. It really is a form of profiling, which God looks upon with great disapproval.

Two incidents in my life stand out in stark contrast to this pattern. Shortly after beginning my graduate studies in seminary, several of us students visited a coffeehouse located in a church in downtown Chicago. The church had hired a poor elderly black man who was a wino, one who had spent years on the streets, to be their janitor. Part of his job was to be at the church when the coffee house was open. That evening, for three hours, he kept us spellbound as he told us of life in the inner city. Here we were, a group of bright, up and coming white seminarians from suburbia and rural America being taught about life on the streets by a poor elderly black drunken inner city wino. As we sat at his feet, we learned a lot about life that evening. Forty years later I still recall that evening with a sense of awe. It would have been so easy to dismiss him because of his status in life. But had I done so, I would have missed so much. This experience has had a definite impact in how I have viewed and treated people through the years.

The second incident was shared by a friend who had been named as the department chair at a prestigious university. Shortly after their arrival, his five year old son was fascinated by the garbage collectors as they made their rounds. He had never seen this before. When his father came home from a day of teaching he said with wonderment in his eyes “Dad, do you know what I wish you were – a garbage collector.” Position meant nothing to his young son. My friend related that it taught him humility. As humorous as his story is, it has a point. Value doesn’t require status, and labeling is an acquired skill. We often learn it from our parents and associates. This can occur overtly or subjectively.

We also become very adept in labeling other Christians. We refer to them as Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist, etc. While it can define them, oftentimes it is a way of labeling as well. My mother-in-law’s family and friends came out of the pietistic reform movement in the spiritually dead Scandinavian state churches of the late 19th century. My wife, Juanita, recalls overhearing her mother’s friends say many times “Well so and so is Lutheran, but I think they might be Christian.” Another form of labeling!

How much we miss when we label people in order to avoid, ignore or discount them! To what extent are we teaching our children to label others by the way we live? How much more could our lives be enriched if we treated everyone as a person of worth and value? What labels do you need to peel off and throw away?

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