He looked down his nose at me and with a voice dripping with disdain said "I guess we know who the LIBERAL is in this room."
That was my freshman year in college. At the time there was probably no greater assault you could make on someone's character, at least at the Baptist college I attended, than to be called a liberal. The truly sad part in all this is that there were students who separated themselves from me over the accusation. The net result of that student's words were a freshman year that was miserable.
I have another friend from my college days who is about as far removed from me politically, religiously, doctrinally as one could be. His Facebook page is filled with articles and links that spell out his positions on every subject imaginable. He regularly posts articles that are critical of fundamentalists, or "fundies" as he and many of his friends label those on the other end of the spectrum. The problem is, I'm what he would call a "fundie." I believe in historic, orthodox Christianity, the inerrancy of the Bible, and both the sanctity of life and the traditional view of marriage. In short, according to him and many of his other friends, I am the cause of all that is wrong in the world.
Labels. We decry them at all times but seem ok with slapping them on those with whom we disagree. Liberal, fundamentalist, neo-con, progressive...they are all labels, and they are convenient ways to characterize, categorize and marginalize those who we use them against. Yes, I used the word against, and I meant my usage of it. We use labels as weapons. That's what the first man I mentioned in today's blog meant. And it was effective.
A label means that I don't have to get to know you or give any real thought to your opinions or positions. I can lump you with all the others with whom I might have a disagreement with. The religious leaders of Jesus' day had a broad label for anyone who was a Jew but not one of them: "sinners." That one label identified everyone who wasn't a part of their particular group. The "sinners" were the great unwashed, the unworthy, the less than blessed.
I guess, depending on your particular point of view you'd have to include liberals and fundies in this group. Sigh...I just can't win.
But there is one label that I proudly wear:
The term means "little Christ" and was originally used as a derogatory term against those first followers of Jesus in Antioch (see Acts 11:26). Throughout the years it has become a label, as if there was something inherently evil about being a follower of Jesus. I will admit that much of the bad reputation that Christians has been earned, but even the criticism points us to a greater understanding of the term. If the word had no inherent power to it then our critics would have no reason to slander us so with it. But our critics are correct, we seldom live up to the title.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that any of us could receive is mirrored in the words of a New Yorker to a member of a mission team I was a part of a few years ago; "You're not like the other Christians I know. You seem like a real Christian." I hope that my life would genuinely reflect Jesus. That's one of the reasons that I'm here on the planet (see Matt. 5:16).
Let me close this with a challenge to all of us. Ditch the labels. It's hard to understand someone else when you can't get past how someone else has defined them. Let's start listening and discussing our differences with each other. Perhaps we'll discover that "those guys" aren't so bad after all.
And while we're abandoning the destructive labels that we throw around so easily let's start asking God to give us the strength to live up to the one label that really does count: Christian.