I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Who am I? When I am first getting to know someone, how do I explain myself? Father, Husband, pastor, Christian, Baptist, Liberal, Evangelical (neither of those last two fit exactly, despite what some think, so I struggle). Some of these labels apply to roles that I play. And that is fine with me to a certain extent. Father, Husband, Pastor, Christian, all have certain behaviors, certain expectations and even skills assumed in them. Which gives me purpose and guidance. There are certain things I must do well in order to be a good Father, Husband, Pastor, Christian. There are behaviors I must avoid if I am to represent these roles well.
Labels can refer to roles that help us maintain a way of being in the world that is purposeful, responsible and good for ourselves and others.
Labels can also be weapons. For instance Native American’s were once labeled ‘savages’ which was a convenient way of dehumanizing them, and therefore not having to treat them with dignity and respect. No one label (except one) can fully describe any person. Reducing a person to one label dehumanizes them and reduces their dignity, the image of God that they were created to realize and to be in the world.
I mention this because identity is the struggle in this past sunday’s epistle reading. Paul, who writes what we read, identified himself as a Pharisee, a Zealous Jew. This was his role, his label, his identity. It gave him a sense of meaning, of purpose. It connected him to a tradition and so rooted him. There is nothing wrong with that. But as Paul would also write ‘I was violently persecuting the church of God.’ While a clear identity, roles, even labels have benefits, they also have a shadow-side and Paul illustrates this. All those who do not identify themselves as we do, as I do, can be perceived as ‘wrong’ or as a threat. Identity and labeling become weapons.
I recall once working in a kitchen in a church basement (not Berean) serving meals to the homeless and impoverished in Providence. One of the church members referred to the people being served as ‘those people’ in a very derogatory manner, as if ‘they’ were less human than the rest of us.
Listen carefully for identity and label speech around you this week. does it describe and celebrate a difference or suggest a lower status, a being less-than?