I'm a by-product of the 1980s and will rarely pass up an opportunity to watch an 80’s movie because it’s like taking a stroll down memory lane. Walk with me…. Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Footloose, Flash Dance, and Top Gun. Can you see the fashion, hear the music, and recall some of the iconic sayings? For me, big hair, neon, lace, leather, and valley-girl dialog come to mind.
If you were a teen in the 80’s you knew that Members Only, Vans, Jams, Ray-Bans, and Jordache meant one thing… COOL.
We learned at an early age that labels can define us, they can tell us who we are and what we are worth. We coveted labels that built us up and made us feel special and loathed anything that made us feel inferior.
Here we are 30 years later and labels still dominate our world: Gucci, Coach, Kate Spade, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Harley-Davidson, Oakley, etc. It doesn't matter that other options are just as functional and esthetically pleasing- the label matters.
Why? Because when we affix labels we can justify treating others differently.
Consider some of the labels we use:
Labels are not benign; especially when they are used to warp our perception and stealthy create division. They speak bias, prejudice, discrimination, judgment, and condemnation. They are just trickier to appreciate their damage because they come wrapped up in a non-threatening bow- we tell ourselves that labeling is a normal necessity- not at all like racism or bigotry. There seems to be an almost developed art-form to seeking differences so that we can disparage, distance, and disengage.
The idea of labeling isn't a modern phenomenon. Humanity has been doing it for ages to make one group of people feel superior or inferior to another. We can even glimpse into the Bible and see this age-old problem of racism, sexism, and elitism highlighted with negative labels affixed like: Gentile, unclean, foreigner, tax-collector, harlot, Canaanite, and Samaritan to name a few.
A wonderful illustration can be found in the book of Matthew when a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and asks for a miracle.
The Faith of a Canaanite Woman Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Couple of things to note: The fact that Matthew calls her a "Canaanite woman" might not seem like much, but in that era, these simple words spoke volumes – they spoke her labels- FOREIGNER. INFERIOR.
If the Disciples had their way they would have rebuked her and sent her off. Yet, we see an interesting exchange occur between this labeled woman and Jesus, and at first glance, it seems kind of harsh until you look under the surface. Jesus didn't shy away from the labels of that time he highlighted them and then watched in delight at her response of extraordinary faith. She impressed him and was met with engagement and reward. No strings attached.
What a great teaching moment for us all! Labels acknowledged, dismissed and then love extended.
Jesus didn't categorize people to ostracize them; rather, his mission was inclusion for ALL. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus welcomed the children, touched the lepers, went out of his way to engage foreigners, and spent quality time with the disenfranchised. His teachings were considered radical because they challenged and broke down the existing barriers of elitism, racism, and sexism. He wanted to turn this world upside down and it was that very mission that got him killed.
The radical love of Jesus involved removing worldly labels and replacing them with inclusive love.
Maybe it is time we stop and consider the labels we use- how they modify our perceptions and cause us to disengage and divide.
I wonder what this world would look like if we removed our typical labels and ONLY applied heavenly descriptions that spoke love, equality, kindness, and inclusion?
No more devaluing others.
No more division.
No more detachment.
A changed world indeed.