I shudder to think about how much of our time in life is spent with labels. I think it must be human nature to attempt, in some way, to categorize things in order to make sense of them. But in doing so, we attach such blanket generalities to things that what we end up doing is exactly the opposite. We confuse the issue. We make it all harder to sort out and make sense of, not easier.
That item is too big. That outfit is too bright. This music is too loud. And of course, when we’re talking about inanimate objects, everyone’s got a right to their own opinion. As long as they realize that’s all that it is- an opinion.
Here’s where things get tricky. We apply the same kind of labels to people. The quiet kid at school who isn’t very social is told they’re “shy” and subsequently ignored. The one whose genetics gave them heavy bones and some extra pounds is “fat” and mocked. The taller, well-built kids are “athletic” and promised the world. The kids who grasp the learning concepts quickly are told they’re “smart” by teachers and ushered to the front of the class, while being labeled “nerds” and “teacher’s pet” by their classmates for the same traits.
And we assure ourselves that this is just a trend. That our younger childhood self doesn’t know any better and therefore makes those kinds of social miscues. But once we grow up and begin adulting, we’re far beyond that.
Except we’re not. We’re worse.
Ask your child to describe some friends from school and they’ll mention things like “long brown hair, pretty smile, likes to laugh” and you’ll have no idea that they’re talking about the only black girl in the class. Because that’s what you saw. Or they’ll describe the one boy who really likes playing soccer every single day at recess. That same boy, you noticed was a bit pudgy and out of breath and could barely keep up with the ball and might as well give up now.
Oh, it gets worse.
What do you call someone who steals things? A thief. What do you call someone who drinks too much? An alcoholic. What do you call someone who has killed another person? A murderer.
What about someone from Ireland? Irish. From France? They’re French, of course. And there’s Germans, Egyptians, Japanese, Indian, Peruvian. The list goes on.
The person who works at a bank? A banker. At a hospital? A doctor. Someone who practices law is an attorney.
And then we put it all together in our tiny, compartmentalized little minds and describe our friends like so:
“Jack has been stuck in middle management at a retail company his entire life and that isn’t likely to change with his Irish temper keeping him from climbing any further. He’s a stubborn Republican, so obviously he hates immigrants and the homeless. His love life also sucks because he can’t commit, and God forbid if he ever has kids because he’s terrible with children. He’s a mess, but we still love him.”
What we’ve done is take someone with hopes, dreams, fears, and failures- a person with multi-layered motivations and struggles, and distilled them down into a mere caricature of themselves. We devalue them in our own eyes- because the description is by comparison to ourselves and how they measure up to our standards- in an attempt to assign some kind of social hierarchy and pecking order.
And in all of the categorization and stereotyping of the thieves and bankers and Spaniards, we’ve lost sight of the most important thing.
Each one of them is a person. Unique in their personality, fingerprints, DNA, and the very purpose for which they were created. And the more that we lose sight of that, the more we stray from our call as believers in Christ to be unified. One body. One calling. One movement. This is why I think that Paul writes in a few different places:
“Here [in Christ] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is telling us that labels don’t matter any more. They do more harm than good. When I look at my neighbor, if I see someone different than I am, I am less likely to befriend him. But when I look at him as a beloved child of God, I see him as God sees me. And we are equal. On the same footing. And I am compelled to love my brother in that condition.
Here’s how Paul puts, it following one of those lists of groups we no longer need to factor in:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” – Colossians 3.12-14
God’s chosen ones. Holy and beloved. These are the labels that matter. These are the ones that we should be using to describe the brothers and sisters around us. These are the ways that we are going to move forward into the future with hope for a better tomorrow. Not that I will endeavor to change my Democrat neighbor into being a Republican but that I will approach people with compassion, kindness, humility and forgiveness. I will look to love more than I will look to judge. And I will seek harmony rather than find more ways to divide.
Every time we claim that all Jamaicans are like this or that all the liberal Democrats do that… every time that I blame the millenials for a certain problem or throw the baby boomers under the bus for something else… and every time I say that the big corporate CEOs are to blame for such and such or that the welfare leeches are the biggest issue facing our country today- I should be well aware that I am little more than part of the problem.
No more Us vs. Them. From here on, let it just be “us”.