Labels can be very helpful. They can assist us in understanding the content and quality of the products we are buying and how long the products might be of use to us. In those instances, I like labels and depend heavily upon them to lead me to deeper understanding and to help me make sound choices. When it comes to labeling Human Beings, however, labels can be more problematic and often lead to misunderstanding and a breakdown in communication.
A few days ago, my teen aged daughter was sharing what went on during her day at school and told me of an incident involving "human labeling" that I found absolutely astounding. She recalled having lunch with her classmates and discussing the latest goings on, when one of her friends of a different ethnicity suddenly shared that they liked her because she didn't "act Black." Not being one to back down from an awkward situation, my daughter asked what this individual considered "acting Black." My daughter listened with astonishment as this very misinformed friend listed a series of less than flattering attributes that they associated with "Blackness." When my daughter tried to assist the friend by bringing some positive perspective to the situation and to the friends understanding of "Blackness" in general, the friend didn't miss a beat. "But you're half Asian", the friend answered, "So that kind of washes out the Black stuff." Some at the table nodded their heads in agreement while others stared in disbelief.
Flabbergasted, another one of my daughter's friends who is originally from East Africa interjected, "And what does that say about me?" Undeterred, the friend added, "Oh you're different too, because you're directly from Africa, not one of the Blacks from here." All attempts to educate this friend and to bring awareness to the situation went for naught. The imprint of the labels was just too deep.
To this friend, the label "Black" has an exclusively negative meaning directed only towards African Americans. The adjectives, "unsophisticated", "unruly", "undisciplined", "undependable" and "ineducable" are just some of the flawed descriptions this individual would attribute to American-born Blacks. This label has such power, that even when the fallacious nature of the label is exposed, the label persists - Black American = not good!
Of course, these aren't the only labels used to relegate people to a less than desirable status. We all tend to assign labels to marginalize or demonize people we don't have the desire to get to know. We use terms like "conservative", "liberal", "radical", "fundamentalist", "lunatic fringe", "outsider", "special interest group" to make certain people appear less sympathetic or even worse. less human than ourselves. It's part of the baggage of our sinful nature.
One well known broadcaster of yesteryear attributed this practice of labeling to selfishness and laziness. He believed that people were simply too selfish and too lazy to do the work of understanding others. After all, it takes work to learn a language, courage to engage a culture, patience to understand a way of life and selflessness to take the risk of being rejected as you reach out. It might even take a lifetime to make headway towards really learning about someone beyond a label.
Jesus, however, is calling Christians to do to the redemptive work of getting beyond labels. He has charged His people to be His witnesses in the places familiar to us, the places on the wrong side of the tracks from us and even the places that are totally strange to us to the point of laying down our lives if we must. His imperative, known as the Great Commission, calls Christians to learn unknown languages, eat unfamiliar food and love people long considered unlovable for the purpose of making God's redemption known to everyone. As a matter of fact, Jesus says when we minster and reach out in His Name to those we consider the least desirable, we're really ministering to Him!
My daughter's lunchtime occurrence clearly exposes the need to carry out Jesus' imperative. If American Middle School students in 2007 are labeling each other with such recklessness, much work remains to be done. Hearts must be touched and minds must be transformed - that's the power of the Gospel. For this reason, I still have hope - The Bible unequivocally affirms that people can be changed by the power of God if His people are willing to continue in reaching beyond barriers and labels.
I take some comfort in the fact that my daughter and her friends continue to eat together, and laugh together and still work at trying to get past the labels in spite of the difficulties. I believe that this effort pleases Jesus - people stumbling along, sometimes even stumbling over each other, but never giving up on doing the work God has called them to do in bringing healing and understanding between people. Those kinds of people are called "Peacemakers." That's a label I'd like to see spread around.
Until next time,