The following is an article I wrote and submitted to Christianity Today & Relevant magazines. Both declined to publish it, so I decided to just put it here. Enjoy.
Vin Diesel has a new movie out. My level of interest in the movie is so low that I cannot recall its title or story line, but I suspect it involves him driving a muscle car at high speeds, and shooting at people with whom he has grievances. I have mentally typecast Vin Diesel in such roles. Similarly, to me, Sylvester Stallone will always be an oppressed, underdog boxer, or bare-chested ex-Vietnam soldier, one who is single-handedly taking on entire platoons of enemy soldiers and defeating them. William Shatner will always be a parody of William Shatner, no matter what role he is playing.
Typecasting can be the boon or the bane of an actor’s existence. It is a bane if they are unable to break the mold of their type, but it can be a boon, also, because they will likely always have work playing the role in which they have been typecast. In real life, away from the silver screen, typecasting or pigeonholing people is a practice the Christ-follower will do well to avoid.
I was branded this week while participating in a private online forum discussion. I was labeled, along with others of like mind, as a narrow-minded, Christian Right Wing bigot. The person who applied this characterization to me does not know me, has never met me, and has interacted with me in the private online venue for all of a single day. Yet, with the application of one label, she knows everything she needs to know about me, and with that knowledge, she has defined the parameters for all future interaction.
This experience reminded me of the man born blind in John 9. The man, whose name we do not know, had a chance encounter with Jesus and his disciples, an encounter which left him sighted, but drowning in a whirlwind of contentious activity. In this account, the man interacts with five distinct groups of people, and each group relates to him in a specific way, mostly abusive. We want to look at one specific group of people with whom the man must deal.
The healing gift from Jesus brought about an immediate, chaotic uproar. No one but the man celebrated his healing – not even his parents. Instead, the public was concerned with the circumstances surrounding the healing, demanding to know exactly how the healing came about. It is on that stage, in John 9:8, that we find “the neighbors, and those who previously saw him as a beggar” (NASB). To them, the man was a category, a label, a beggar, and they related to the man on that basis.
If we move away from John 9 and the first century, to you and me today, we find the same methodical basis for human interaction being employed. We brand men and women. We catalogue, classify, and label them. I can size you up quite easily if I am able to place you within a particular grouping. It is neat and systematic. We just have to call a spade a spade.
Sometimes she is a whore or a slut, while he is a raghead, and those people over there are teabaggers. We are able to apply sexuality classes to people by pegging them as faggots and queers. It is possible to create racial groupings as well with the spics, the honkies, gooks, wetbacks and FOBs.
Other labels are less inflammatory, but are labels nonetheless. Politically, we classify people as liberals or conservatives, sometimes prefixing that with “ultra-” for added emphasis. We have environmentalists, neo-cons, greenies, Pro-Lifers, and Pro-Choicers. All neat, manageable, political groupings.
Having completed our task of indexing people into appropriate classifications, we affix specific properties and attributes to them that we deem appropriate to those groupings. The properties and attributes create a definitional structure, a contract in a sense, that dictates the basis for interaction with each grouping.
In some cases the contract dictates that I not interact with the grouping at all. By allowing myself to apply labels to people, I often free myself of any obligation to interact with them as individuals. If I can label you, I can dehumanize you. I can objectify you. I can interact with you less as a person and more as a classification, because the tag I affix to you is what defines the basis of the relationship, and that tag may grant me permission to completely remove you from my area of responsibility.
He’s a beggar? Oh, well I don’t deal with beggars. He just needs to get a job.
She’s a hooker? Excuse me. I don’t associate with such people.
He’s a twinkie? That’s just immoral and I refuse to dignify it by talking to him.
In my morning pass through the news I came across a headline that read, “White House Won’t Label Iran a State Sponsor of Terror.” In this one headline, we see a symptom of a much deeper reality. Just as we do individually, the political world has granted such tremendous power to the actual label that now, international policy is determined by the ability or willingness to affix a label to an entire nation.
The dehumanizing effects of labeling is seen in the work of ISIS, marching into Iraq and Syria, slaughtering everything in their path with which they disagree. We see disturbing images, daily, on our computer monitors and television screens, images of children being beheaded as their parents are forced to watch, women gang-raped to the point of death, men, women, and children locked in cages and burned alive.
These images shock and dishearten us, because we know that the atrocities they depict happened to men, women, and children, not to categories. Yet they occurred because of the ability to classify these men, women, and children as ?????, Kaffir, Infidel. To the mind of ISIS, it is completely within the limits of the will of Allah for me to treat you however I want to treat you if I attach this label to you. The label makes the difference.
The pigeonholing of persons, affixing to them a label or a brand, is not always done with malice. Often it is something we are unaware of having done. Consider the way we refer to church leadership. We do not interact with Jason. We interact with Pastor Jason. The label defines the basis upon which the relationship is established. We apply that label with respect and honor, but it is still a label, and it defines and regulates the way in which we interact with Jason. Senator Johnson, instead of Tom. Doctor Simpson, instead of Sharon. Professor Thomas, instead of Jack. These are labels of respect, but labels, nonetheless. And the label defines the relationship.
If we allow ourselves to codify a man or woman into a predefined grouping, we will be unable to build a genuine relationship with that man or woman because we will repeatedly bump into the label. We will relate to them on the basis of the label because it is the label that dictates our interaction. Before even meeting them, or knowing anything about them, we know exactly how to relate to a pastor, a drunk, or a druggie.
Returning to the man born blind in John 9, in verse one we read, “As He (Jesus) passed by, He saw man blind from birth.” Jesus did not see a label. He saw a man, one in whom he was to work the works of God. “We must work the works of Him who sent me as long as it is day. Night is coming when no man can work.” That is how a Christ-follower looks at humanity. This is a man or a woman in whom I have a calling to work the works of God. This is someone to love, to accept, to lift up, to look in the eye rather than look away, to bring the good news of the kingdom and of salvation.
So that the works of God might be displayed in all of these people, we must work the works of God while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. Dear Father in Heaven, let this truth of your Word penetrate our souls and be as real and relevant to us as the air we breathe.
Victoriously in Christ!
Your “We are people not categories” article is spot on. I love it. I’m not surprised it was declined for publishing, but I am no less disappointed.
Thank you for the very kind words, Ian. I was disappointed that neither publication opted to publish it, but I guess, like you, I am not surprised. It is pretty direct in places. That’s my style. I don’t care to mince words. Things are as they are, and we are better off being up front about that than we are if we keep everything bottled up inside and pretend that things are not as they really are.