Labels reduce, the Cross exalts

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“I wonder what this will cost me?”, I said to my husband right before sharing an article on social media about Jackie Hill Perry’s latest book. The book moved me deeply and my hope was that after reading the article, others would be curious to read the book too. He reassured me I should share it as worthwhile content. He was right. So, after posting the article along with my own enthusiastic recommendation of Gay girl, good God, as one my top reads this year, I put the phone down.

Shortly after posting I saw the first comment. There was pushback that misrepresented the piece and more importantly an open hostility against it. Jackie’s story, the article commenting on her book, and my own commentary, were all mixed together as part of the harmful efforts of the evangelical agenda against the LGBT community.

While I don’t expect everyone to agree with the faith professed by myself or the article, I realized it was likely they had not even read the article. The tone and words employed to express said push-back were out of sync with the spirit of the article. I understood it was a reaction to something more than what was shared. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.”

I wrote a short comment thanking them for their honesty, and affirming my affection for the person, as it was someone I know in real life. A short time later, they deleted the thread on their own accord and wrote me privately, where they apologized, and we engaged in written conversation for a long while.

During our private exchange, my friend expressed alarm at the harm the evangelical community was doing. It was a frank comment, and I took it seriously. While there are plenty of instances where in the name of religion people have engaged in behaviour unbecoming of the gospel they profess to uphold, I wondered how was that the case with my sharing this article? It didn’t matter. Their mind was made up.

I looked up the word evangelical in the dictionary. The root comes from the Greek evangelos, in reference to good news according to the Gospels or the New Testament, adding “of those Protestant churches that emphasize salvation by faith in Jesus.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Fifth Edition). It is an accurate word to briefly describe my faith.

As a person who writes and speaks openly about her faith in Jesus, I fall under the umbrella of evangelical. A word that has come to mean many things beyond the dictionary’s definition, and which groups points of views and behaviours I do not subscribe to yet fall under by virtue of being a Christ follower.

When do words cease being an indicator to inform, and become a label to categorize people? I think when we don’t understand something, and a word becomes easier than the time and energy it would take for us to know. Not agree with, but understand. We all do it.

As I processed the aftermath of the whole article situation, I was reminded we all use labels. The label I was reduced to stands for homophobic, verbal abuse, and even violence. Although I was not personally accused of partaking in all of those, I was quickly judged as someone who endorsed it all and was guilty of the first one. Being regarded in that light left me winded.

All are actions heavily condemned in Scripture as they blatantly violate the supreme truth that ALL humans are created in God’s image, including and especially people we don’t like or agree with.

A follower of Jesus is called to uphold the Word of God with their actions. This means that the same Scripture that compels me to stand for the rights of the unborn for example, equally compels me to treat with dignity and respect those who don’t share that conviction. This is a nuance many are not ready to grant space in their thinking in our culture today.  

Whether the issue is abortion, sexuality, or something else, the discussion becomes black and white. Obliterating the fact that our thoughts and emotions usually run in shades of gray. We’ve blurred the lines of debate to labels void of character or humanity. It’s easier to lash out at the evangelical community, a faceless entity filled with hateful voices, than it is to debate amicably with a friend who disagrees with you.

With a sober mind I think of the times we’re tempted to use labels to explain away so we don’t like to engage in real conversation. For example, an immigrant stops meaning a person who moves from their country to a different nation. It now stands for lazy and opportunistic. Muslim is no longer someone from the Islam faith, but is now a horrible person bringing violence to our neighbourhood. Homosexual is no longer same-sex attracted, but dirty.

Those of us who follow a crucified Savor must be mindful of how we steward our words, especially in the way we think of others. Because whatever we hold in our hearts will eventually show up in our words and actions.

The way of the cross is costly and hard, because love always is. It cost the Father His only Son. And it cost Him, His life. Investing time to listen and get to know others will be uncomfortable. Not everyone will want to engage. And some may still react with disdain. This is part of the cost. And if Jesus deemed it worth it, we should do no less.

While my views on the gospel are uncompromising, there is a difference between saying things that oppose, and using rhetoric that reduces someone to a word intended to strip them of all but an adjective that makes us feel safer for keeping them away. I invite us all reading this to examine where in our hearts is there room for more time to listen, and less adjective calling?

I was reduced to evangelical as an adjective intended to close any further discussion with me and likely cost me a friendship. While I assume the cost as part of the price of picking up my cross to follow Jesus, I also take the whole experience as a sobering reminder to walk in humility and always see everyone first and foremost as the glorious expression of a God who chose to make us in His image, and be careful to never reduce anyone – myself included- to one word.

We are so much more friends. More than what words we want to attach to our personhood, more than those we heard all our lives and still hurt us, more than the good ones we fight hard to earn. We are His workmanship.

And when we look at humanity, may we see what God Himself sees; the work on the cross done by Jesus on behalf of a people who couldn’t do for themselves what God could.