When teachers organise our classrooms, we label furiously. Colourful tags help us to quickly locate whatever we might need. “You’ve lost your pencil for the eighty-third time, Ryan? I suppose I don’t need to tell you to get another from the ‘Stationery’ cabinet. You broke your arm at recess, Hayley? Fashion a splint with some gauze bandages from the ‘First Aid’ box and some popsicle sticks and glue from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ cupboard. And ask Luke to help you set the bone – his mum’s a doctor.”
Yes, a place for everything and everything in its place, whether it be ‘Maths Materials’, or ‘Reading Comprehension Activities’, or ‘Pointless Crap I Keep Imagining I’ll Use in Some Improbable Future Scenario’.
Label Me, Negate Me
We tend to employ the same system on people to classify, categorise and easily reference them. For instance, I’ve recently noticed (again) how adopting certain stances on nationalism, the environment, gender equity and immigration and refugee issues (among others) will get you branded ‘just another liberal’ or ‘a left-wing nut’.
But am I really a ‘liberal’?
Sadly, we stamp those whose ideas we don’t like with tags like ‘liberal’ in order to summarily dismiss them. We assign them to a particular camp with others we consider equally worthless. In doing so, we actually reject the image of God within these people. We ignore their stories – their experiences, their triumphs, their tragedies, their loves, their fears, their situations – which lie beneath those ideas we don’t wish to ponder or consider.
Once You Know the Story…
There’s always a story. Stop to consider mine and you’d realise that my concerns for the world’s poor, for people’s capacity to earn a real living wage, for the plight of refugees, for women and their status within society and the church, and for the protection of the environment don’t arise from membership in a club of ‘liberals’. They stem from a belief that these are vital Kingdom-of-God issues and from a desire to be more deliberate in living out that kingdom.
I’ve worn progression of labels over time: ‘red-blooded patriot’, ‘die-hard Republican’, ‘pre-tribulation dispensationalist’, ‘doubter’, ‘English major’, ’Anabaptist’/‘Pietist’, ‘firebrand’, ‘pariah’, ‘writer’, ’musician’, ’missionary’, ‘老外’, ‘expat’, ‘teacher’, ‘Yank’, ‘Australian’. Some of these I chose to wear. Some were given to me. But taken together, the labels themselves make it clear that my story (or any story) is far too complex to fit neatly into a simple box with a solitary stamp or sticker.
You Don’t Belong on a Shelf
That’s why I need to reflect carefully on those times (unfortunately too many of them) when I’ve offhandedly branded another human being – even someone I’ve never actually met or spoken to! Sure, the designations may differ (‘fundamentalist’, maybe, or ‘jingoist’, or ‘alt-rightist’), but the principle’s the same.
If I’ve flung an unfair label in your direction, you deserve better! Such careless epithets are beneath us. Yes, we may continue to disagree, perhaps even strongly, but you’re much more than ‘Poster Board’, or ‘PVC Paste’, or ‘Power Cables to Things I May Not Even Own Anymore’, for me to file away on some corner shelf and forget.