Labels, Boxes, and Dehumanizing the Other

I am becoming more and more frustrated with labels. Early on in our time in Ireland, I received an email from a person who had heard we were church planting in Clontarf. The email consisted of two questions: “Are you a charismatic christian?” “Are you planting a charismatic church?” I didn’t know the person who […]

by bob

Jun 14, 2017

Some labels are better than others!

I am becoming more and more frustrated with labels.

Early on in our time in Ireland, I received an email from a person who had heard we were church planting in Clontarf. The email consisted of two questions:

“Are you a charismatic christian?”
“Are you planting a charismatic church?”

I didn’t know the person who sent me the email. Let’s say I wrote back and said, “yes.” The person would be able to make decision. If they were averse to charismatics, they’d likely say, “Thanks and goodbye.” If they considered themselves a charismatic Christian, they would likely take my “yes” to be saying, “I’m just like you.”

Which would lead to frustration later on when they discovered that I didn’t actually fit their definition of charismatic.

Instead of answering their question, I offered to meet for coffee. I’d love to have a conversation and answer your questions, I have less interest in filling out a checklist so you categorize me.

We default to labels because once applied, we can decide if you are worth my time.

“Oh, you’re one of those.”

Or, “Hurray, you’re one of us!”

Our Experience in Ireland
Our general experience of moving to Ireland was similar. We found among many people a need to “figure us out” before deciding how to relate to us.

“Why are you here?” Was a common question. And until they got an acceptable answer, there was a distance. But once they figured out which box to put us in, then they knew how to relate to us.

For example…
When we moved here we decided, not to begin conversations with “Liz’s parents are from Ireland.” If it came up naturally, okay. But as that had nothing to do with why we moved to Dublin, we decided not to bring it up until we were further along in a relationship.

What we found was for many people, once they learned this, there was a completely different level of openness. For Liz, in conversation after conversation, once she shared that detail, the follow-up would be “Oh, I should have you over for tea.”

I now know what box to put you in…I now know how to interact with you.

Why I’m thinking about this
This has come up again for me, in light of current political stuff especially in the UK and the US. It is almost impossible to have a conversation or hear a news story without likewise hearing a derogatory label stuck on somebody.

  • Liberal
  • Conservative
  • Progressive
  • Evangelical
  • Socialist
  • Snowflake

And on and on and on.

Each of those words can be spoken with a sense of pride…or of disgust depending on who is uttering it. (Okay, maybe not snowflake).

Labels are easy. And they’re lazy. “Oh, you are an evangelical? I now feel free to assume a bunch of things about you…”

“Oh, you think the government should pay for x, you must be a socialist and now I know all of these other things about you.”

The idea that your view of issues is nuanced, is not considered. That you may hold a ”conservative“ view on this issue and a ”progressive” view over here just makes you weird.

I’m become more and more frustrated with labels because they are dehumanizing.

When I stick a label on you, rather than engage you as a person, I am declaring that you are less…that you are unworthy of my time, my compassion, my understanding or anything else…

You are no longer a person made in the image of God…you are something other. You are someone I can write off with a snide remark and a roll of my eyes.

Think I’m exaggerating? Look at the current state of political dialogue in the US.

Think about how we relate…how we talk about each other. Are people being valued? When was the last time you sat down with someone you disagreed with…not to convince them you are right and they are wrong…but to listen to them. To understand them. I know…crazy.

When I was leading a church in Ithaca, I would often have people ask me what kind of church it was. And really what they wanted was a label or two that would allow them to decide whether or not we were worthy of checking out. My response was always…”I can’t really describe it, you’ll have to come check it out.”

Maybe we could do that with people in our lives…rather than reading the label that you’ve stuck on them, treat them like them might actually be worth your time…worth a genuine conversation.

That’s what I’m thinking about today…maybe that just makes me a _______________.

What about…

I grew up in Western New York and have started and led missional church planting efforts for a little over 30 years. As you might gather, I have opinions about the church, and I share some of them here.

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