The Church has developed its own mechanisms of calling people “names,” of “labelling” others. The most powerful “labels” in the Church are “fundamentalist” and “liberal.” Calling someone one of those labels is rarely a simple description — it is an act of repudiation and denunciation. Here are ten observations about labelling. But, first …
I do not think it possible to avoid labelling. I also think it nearly impossible for Christians to behave when it comes to labelling. Exaggeration in using a label seems to evoke a sense of being faithful to the tradition, so many have become “expert labellers.” (Sadly, I think.)
My prayer today is that (1) we will understand what we are doing in our use of labels, (2) that we will learn to be much more accurate and loving about our labels, and (3) that we avoid labelling as often as possible. Sticks and stones my break my bones, but “labels” will never hurt me. Baloney! Nothing wounds like unkind, unjustifiable, and exaggerated labels. (Just in case you are wondering, no, this isn’t a response to something said about me. Someone wrote and it led me to reflect on something I read years ago by Bruce Malina, called Calling Jesus Names.)
Here are my observations. I’d love to hear your reflections.
1. Each society, group, church has boundary lines of who is “in” and who is “out.” Familes know, churches know, and friends know who does and who does not belong.
2. This group-consciousness permits people to know where they are and if they belong or not. Labelling has to do with this fundamental way of viewing a society.
3. The labels used to describe who is “in” vs. “out,” because those labels use language, sometimes reflect reality — some really are “in” and some really are “out” — and sometimes they do not reflect reality. Some are called things that are inaccurate, even if they are effective (but wrong). So, the “label” itself may or may not tell the truth about someone.
4. Labels are of two sorts. Some are given honorable “titles”; others are given dishonorable “deviants.” An “entitled” person is approved; a “deviant” person is disapproved.
5. The rhetorical labels we use are as much “weapons” as they are “descriptions.” Labelling someone can both bring honor and destroy a person’s status.
6. A person who has the capacity to label deviants successfully is a “champion.” Champions defend the sanctity of the group and define the borders and boundaries.
7. Champions are supported by “enhancers” — those who spread the label of the champion.
8. To label a person a “deviant” creates collective avoidance and isolation.
9. The major function of labelling is to create a “master status” for a person — that is, it gives a number of people a way of interpreting and classifying another person.
10. O be careful labeller what you say; o be careful labeller whom you assign to deviance. We will be judged for every word we utter. Check out James 3.