If you think about it labels are common place in our world; even in our Christian circles. The following is an article by my friend Benjamin Hegeman, in which he challenges us: How do we love those who label us?
Just before chapel time, I asked a student I knew well if he would be attending that day, “Yes”, he said, sheepishly, “but I hope I won’t be labeled for being white, male and straight.” We both laughed, shook our heads and attended. Welcome to the contemporary climate on one Christian campus.
Labels rock in Benin too. Every single day Christine and I are labeled. For example, when I am travelling I am called ‘white man’ (Bature), ‘old man’ (tɔkɔ), ‘money man’ (gobigii), ‘male-man’ (tɔn durɔ) and ‘holy man’ (mon père –thinking I’m a Catholic priest) –or, if they know my vocation, I am ‘teaching-man’ (keu koosio). To people who do not know me, I’m a label. But I’m not; I’m a person. So how do we love the Beninese who daily label us?
To those who personally know us in Benin, we receive relational names: Papa and Mama, or Martin-Papa or Mieke-Mama, or ‘loved-one’ (kĩnasi) or a Christian title: pasteur. It is not hard to love those who love you, and for whom your labels have faded in importance.
But who in Benin knows us to the core of our identity? Who are truly soul friends? These are those of which the Bible says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
According to missiologist Tim Green, each person’s identity has three aspects: one’s inner core identity, one’s relational identity, and one’s labeled identity. Those who do not know our inner person or our relational status call us by labels. And here is the question: ‘How do we love those who label us?’
At Houghton College, as on campuses nationwide, labels are all the rage. It can’t be otherwise in a post-modern world where everyone’s ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ is promoted, and where, each story is then ranked according to the social status of your label. And it sounds so much like Benin: America’s labels are now also based on one’s skin, age, gender, social-status, sexuality, and at times, one’s disabilities. Again, how do we love those who label us?
While visiting another campus this year, the academic dean told me that he needed to hire new people who were non-White, non-male, not-old and non-American. (That I was all of the things they did not want was not lost on me –nor that he himself was not 3 out of the 4.) He was ‘fresh label’ shopping and, as he saw it, not all labels are equal. Fair enough, but I must protect my heart to not label him back. Loving is going beyond the label to reach the person.
Students both in Benin and in Houghton must learn to intentionally love in a world crazy with (often unhealthy) labels. We need to be examples of loving beyond the label and embracing folks unconditionally even if they wish to label us and dismiss us. ‘Love them that label you’ is now as close to ‘love them that hate you’ in the 21st century. Pray that we can be examples for those younger than us.