The LIBEL of LABELS (Part 1 of 2)

name callingWhen he was a child, a friend of mine whose Jewish parents and he were on an elevator with an African-American man said, “Look Mommy, a Schvartzer!” which is a pejorative term, in the category of the “N word.” His mom shushed and rushed him off the elevator at the next floor. Kids don’t know any better. They name call all the time. They don’t understand the connotation of the derogatory. It’s we adults who should know better.

In an election year name-calling and propagandizing flies from mouths to ears to mouths and on to other ears like a flu virus sickening anyone willing to inhale it. No party or church is immune to this highly infectious airborne virus. To keep from being infected we have to be proactive and take defensive measures. We have to protect ourselves and others by breathing through the filter God’s Love Letter and strengthen our immune system with what it says about humans stamped with his image.  

Most candidates sound like they take their mudslinging cues on how to win friends and influence people from the tabloids and their television and radio counterparts. Though we’ve come to expect this sort of juvenile behavior from politicians (some more than others), what’s up with supposed followers of Jesus engaging in such libelous labeling?

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3

The most efficient way to sling mud is to do it with a broad brush! You get more mud slung that way. Name-calling is a universally favored broad brush. It saves a lot of time and verbiage to just call someone a name.

Here are a number of things I’ve observed about the libelous nature of labeling. Regrettably, most or all of which I’ve learned from my own failures.

Labels create the illusion that a particular group is wrong about everything.

Call someone an “idiot” (like my dad was apt to do) and it sounds as though you’re saying that’s all they are. He can’t be smart or perceptive or wise about anything at all. He’s just an idiot.

In one of my favorite movies ever (Entertaining Angels), Dorothy Day says to the Cardinal who wanted her to take “Catholic” out of the name of “The Catholic Worker” movement because of their love for the poor and indigent, some people thought she and her band of angels were communists, “Because the communists are for it doesn’t mean we have to be against it.” I don’t know if the statement is apocryphal or not, but it’s brilliant! I could expand the sentiment, “Just because the Catholics are for it… or the Protestants… or the Republicans… or the Muslims… or the gays… are for it, doesn’t mean that we have to be against it.” You might not agree with the Mariology of the Catholics or the sexual preference of the gays, but that doesn’t mean that every Catholic or gay is wrong about everything, and that to be right(eous) we have to reject everything they stand for.

Jesus is neither a Republican nor Democrat. He isn’t registered with either party but stands for all that’s right (as in correct) in both. While we register with the group with which we have the least disagreement, we oughtn’t assume he agrees with every aspect of the party’s platform.

When Joshua saw the Lord with his sword drawn and asked him if he was on the side of the Jews or their enemies the Lord replied, “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Joshua 5 We would do well to remember that he’s not on our side, but we’re on his.

Labeling is the arrogant practice of the small minded and tiny hearted.

It’s the small minded whose minds won’t stretch to include those outside their party, church, socioeconomic group, or race. It’s simply easier to throw everyone in one classification or another than to actually become acquainted with the person him/herself. The labeller won’t make space in his heart to include someone who holds views other than his own.

Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” Proverbs 18:13 (The Message)

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” James 1:19

Maybe if we stopped to listen to someone with whom we disagree, we might find something good, something that merits our respect.

Labeling hurts the labeler as much as the labeled.

When we label someone we miss out on the myriad of possibilities that he/she has to contribute to us. For instance, in my opinion Sally might be wrong about abortion, yet quite right about another spiritual, moral, or social issue. Don’t you see how I lose out if I file her under the heading of “She’s pro-choice so don’t listen to her about anything…”? I might disagree with Tom’s view of LGBTs, but if I stamp him with the “Heretic” label I might miss out on something he has to say about prayer or generosity or patience.

Labeling is an easy way to intimidate people and bring conversations to a premature conclusion.

“You’re just a racist” or “… a bleeding heart liberal” or “a right wingnut.” That’s the sum of it, that’s what you are, I’ve placed you in that file and you can’t convince me otherwise.”

In prehistoric times before computers I used a considerably elaborate filing system, you know the kind that involves cardboard file folders and file cabinets. One whole drawer was devoted to quotes and illustrations in which I would toss ideas for future sermons. I have files for Christ, The Cross, Love, The Church, Zeal for Christ, Faith etc. – a couple dozen of them. When I ran across something I wanted to keep I’d copy it and throw it in the appropriate folder. That way when I was teaching on Faith, I could go to that file and hopefully find something that helped me communicate on a particular Sunday. Problem was, there are many stories, analogies, or quotes that could very well fit more than one theme. One C.S. Lewis quote might go well with a message on prayer or forgiveness or holiness. If I just threw it in the prayer folder I wouldn’t come across it when looking for something on forgiveness.

See what I mean? If I categorized a tidbit of truth under only one heading and failed to see it that it might apply to a number of others the quote or illustration would be no help to me while teaching on another topic. Of course, the solution was to make as many copies of the quote as I needed for whatever number of folders it applied to.

In the same way, it’s to my disadvantage to pre-label people by throwing them into one category and miss out on whatever wisdom they possess on another issue. When I toss a person or ideology into a file I’m saying that’s all they have to offer, they have no other potential to be of any benefit to me or anyone else.

“Don’t listen to him, he’s gay (or a Democrat or a Pentecostal).”

In the next post I’ll share some other harmful results of labeling.

What ones have you seen or experienced first hand?

6 Replies to “The LIBEL of LABELS (Part 1 of 2)”

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