Hot buttons and labels

Published 12:43 pm Saturday, October 11, 2014

by Andrew Book

As a society, we love our labels. We love to be able to label each other, because labels allow us to put one another into categories we can understand. Our goal is not usually to oversimplify people or misrepresent one another, we are simply trying to understand each other. Unfortunately, in an effort to understand we do oversimplify and misrepresent one another because the two categories we most often place people in are “like me” or “different.”

We want to know if others are “like us” or if they are the “other” who should be distrusted. The problem with these categories is that no one truly fits into either category. Here’s what I mean: there is no one who is just like you. No matter how closely you identify with someone, you will eventually find that there is something you disagree on, whether it’s music, politics, religion, ethics or sports. In the same way, there is no one who is completely different from you. You might discover right off the bat that you don’t agree on your feelings about President Obama, but if you keep talking you may discover mutual interests in fishing, hunting, a favorite band and a deep faith in Jesus (yes, both Democrats and Republicans can follow Jesus). The problem with our labels is that too often we don’t keep talking once we have decided that the person is the “other.”

Usually we label people based on their position on one of a number of hot button issues: LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) inclusion, abortion, the death penalty, gun rights and party politics are common hot button issues, and once we can label someone as “for us” or “against us” we usually think we have them pegged. But do we? Does understanding how someone thinks on a single issue really help you to understand them or value them?

The reality is that by labeling one another we are putting each other in the category of “people we trust” versus “people we don’t trust,” and “people we can listen to” versus “people we should not listen to.” Let me give you an example: I hate the death penalty. How do you feel about me now? Do you agree with me? Do you want to keep reading? Let’s try again: I also hate abortion. Now, how do you feel about me? Do you feel like you can trust and listen to what I am saying in this article more or less based on my feelings about those two hot button issues?

I expect that many of you are probably feeling somewhat conflicted about your feelings toward me, because I just told you my feelings about two hot button issues, and you probably agree with me on one and not on the other (because I am considered more “liberal” on the death penalty and more “conservative” on abortion). So, the question is, which box should you put me in? Am I “like you?” Well, in some sense, yes, I am like you. Am I “other?” Yes. I am different as well. We are all different.

The unfortunate reality is that we too often view those who we categorize as “different” as a threat to us and we shut them out and decide their stories are not worth listening to. The reality is that those stories, which are different from our own story, are the very stories that we most need to hear because they can change us and shape us in ways that people who agree with us cannot. This is true in the church, in politics, in schools and in every aspect of life. We need to hear each other’s stories because, as we listen, we realize that the ways we thought the person was “other” pale in comparison to the ways they are like us. Then we are able to hear the beauty in their story and we may just make an unexpected friend along the way.

We talked last week at Courtland United Methodist Church about the story of the church in Acts 15 as they debated the hot button topic of their day: whether non-Jews needed to be circumcised to become Christian. This was a huge deal to the Jewish church, and it was an issue that could have divided them into groups that labeled and refused to listen to each other. But it didn’t. Instead, they listened to each other’s stories, shared where God was working in their lives, and ended up realizing that they had much more in common than they might have thought.

I hope you will take your label of “other” off of someone this week and listen to their story. I hope you will find a new friend, a new perspective, and a new way of seeing the world without boxes that say “like me” and “other.” And I hope you will make a new friend along the way!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or