Years ago I had a life-changing experience in a nursing home. I was visiting an aging parishioner and, as is so often the case, she was sharing her room with another resident. Both ladies were out having tests run, so I was left on my own to wait.
While I did, I noticed that my parishioner’s roommate had a photo on the dresser. Given the vintage of the picture, it was clearly a picture of my friend’s roommate, but what was captivating was the subject matter. Taken when she was a young woman, it included her twin sister.
Both women were clad in leotards and hung by their legs, side by side on a flying trapeze.
That image has stuck with me for over thirty years. It taught me to never make categorical assumptions about people, never assign behaviors or perspectives to them, and don’t ever fail to honor the individual pilgrimages they have made through life. Not everyone with white hair is a grandmother or grandfather. No one who is can be reduced to that role. Each is a real person with hopes and dreams — some of which were realized, some of which were not.
The same could be said of endless numbers of other groups. Labels simplify life, but they are as dangerous as they are convenient. Texans, Bostonians, gays straight, conservative, liberal….these and many other labels may lend simplicity to the world, but none of them capture the totality of the life that each bears and none of the labels possess definitive, predictable content.
I have conservative and liberal friends, old and young friends, friends who have a considerable amount of education and those whose education was shaped by experience —- the differences and complexities are endless. More to the point, each of their pilgrimages are singular, undermining the value of the labels.
Yet, far too often we prefer the self-righteous and smug value of labels to the richness of the conversation about our respective journeys.
Why does it matter spiritually to resist that kind of labeling?
One, it is a flight from love. Too much of the labeling that we do is rooted in a desire to establish what we do or don’t like about someone and then dismiss them.
Two, it feeds arrogance. To label someone else is to say, “I am the arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, sophisticated and clueless. I stand in the right place, you stand in the wrong one.” We can and should engage in critical dialog about what we think, but labeling has nothing to do with being critical. Labeling should alert us to the sin of self-righteousness — and sloth — because labeling people is not simply a function of arrogance, it is the child of laziness.
Three, labeling closes you off to what God can teach you through others, foreclosing on the stories of spiritual pilgrimage that can enrich our own. Labeling has a way of narrowing the permitted story lines in life, refusing to be surprised, educated, or broadened.
Where is this in Scripture? In the Book of Jonah, in the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, in the teaching of Jesus, in the churches of Paul as they spread out across what was an alien world to the fledgling faith. It always has been the invitation of a church that preached the gospel to whosoever will and who found a place for people – even those who persecuted her.
When I listen to boomers talk about inclusion and diversity as if we are the generational originators and guarantors of something new, I am always a bit bemused. The church has always been inclusive and diverse. Oh, there have been those who were forced to the margins and refused entrance, but that has always been at odds with the Gospel and those who closed the doors on others were never as like-minded as they supposed.
And then there are those who freely wield the language of diversity, who, in truth, are prepared to embrace only a few, preferring the love of categories to the embrace of real people.
The fact of the matter is that Scripture has always preferred the language of reconciliation to the language of inclusion — and for good reasons:
Our end lies not in the special character of our journeys, but in God
God does not just invite us, God invites us with conditions.
God does not simply include us, God includes us with an eye to changing us.