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Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Using Labels
What does it mean when the common label given to a group of people is a negative description imposed upon them? At a recent seminar on poverty reduction for Haiti I attended, the presenter's historical overview of Haiti was interrupted by the woman sitting next to me. She mentioned that she would greatly appreciate it if he would stop referring to people as slaves. Those were men and women who had slavery forced upon them, not people whose core identity was that of being a slave. Slavery was a horror they had to endure, not the essence of who they were. The presenter thanked her for bringing that distinction to our attention and proceeded to integrate her suggestions into his talk.

We all use labels to self-identify and make sense of our world. They are unavoidable and often necessary. As a culture we have attempted in recent years to move away from offensive labels or ones that objectify others. Reducing a woman to a particular body part is far from acceptable speech. And no one would ever categorize victims of sexual assault merely as "the raped." No, we attempt with our words and labels to respect people and focus on positive categories. Yet the negative label of oppression, "slave," is still in common usage. Even in a presentation on how we can overcome the negative effects of slavery the term is so common its usage is assumed - until someone challenged it and forced us to consider the implications of our words.

This woman’s request forced me to consider the negative label we as Christians use all the time - "the lost." I've heard from a number of people who have had that label imposed upon them that they find it highly offensive. They do not appreciate having others insist that at the core of their identity they are mistaken, misguided, or just plain ignorant. They dislike being seen in terms that generally imply that they are a project to be saved not a person to be loved or respected. I understand that we as Christians do hold certain theologies of sin and redemption, but perhaps we need to seriously consider the impact our use of labels has on the very people we are trying to reach. That may mean abandoning the practice of assigning labels to people who are not like us altogether. And maybe, just maybe, it may mean getting to know, love, and respect people as people.

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posted by Julie at 4:30 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 7/17/2007 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Beautiful observations, thank you for calling them to our attention. I couldn't agree more.

  • At 7/17/2007 08:57:00 PM, Blogger Nancy

    Julie: I've struggled with that one myself...the language is "exclusive" and it hurts more than helps.

  • At 7/17/2007 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Candace

    I find this to be such an ironic coincidence that you make this post following my weekend visit with a peer who kept referring to herself and the members of her church as “the saved.” The phrase was thrown in the conversation quite liberally throughout the day (along with “the lost”) and I just couldn’t help but to mentally fixate on those phrases. I found the phrases to have such a negative connotation rather than a redemptive one; as Nancy states they truly are exclusive. Why does it always come down to “us” against “them?” I suppose it is human nature to identify and associate with those like us and to want others to be like us – but it seems that to do so in this context is hypocritical.

    It was such a difficult conversation to participate in as the focus of my beliefs are on following in the path of Jesus rather than achieving the “saved” status – I have never been able to draw a distinct identifying line between the saved and the lost (even with the best of intentions), and I do feel slighted when such a label is placed on me by another.

  • At 7/18/2007 08:01:00 AM, Blogger Dianne

    Good post. Ever since reading "The Shaping of Things to Come" (Hirsh & Frost) recently, I've been trying to think of those who don't know Christ as "not-yet Christians." In my mind, of course - I don't call them that. But it helps me to remember that we're all created in God's image, and there's not much difference between us except for God's grace . . . which of course is nothing on my part. It also reminds me that although I may not see it, God is most definitely working in people's lives and I need to make sure I don't hinder his work in anyway.

    ANyways, I was never quite comfortable with the term "lost" - kind of implied I was better than someone else.

  • At 7/18/2007 09:31:00 AM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    How about just humans made in the image of our Creator? Even the term Not-yet-Christians has a sort of an uninentional presumptive connotation...to me it implies that "I know something you don't, and you should be where I am."

    I may genuine feel I have something to offer someone else in the way of pointing a fellow beggar toward Bread, but that doesn't mean they should be where or what I am...if that makes any sense. Like if I call myself a Christian and think someone else should be one too, it puts the emphasis on me and my version of what it means to be a Christian rather than just being open to God working in and through us as well as others.

  • At 7/18/2007 09:33:00 AM, Blogger Lydia

    As a culture we have attempted in recent years to move away from offensive labels or ones that objectify others.

    I think that we've also moved into the idea that labels should be chosen by the people or groups who will wear them, and that it's almost always not ok for an outsider to pick one for them.

    In some circles there have also been attempts to reclaim what were - and for some still are - very hurtful words. Although even then, the words are only to be used by those inside the group.

  • At 7/18/2007 02:47:00 PM, Blogger Amie

    I really appreciate this post. I've been a career visitor for most of my life and have experienced the alienation which results from unconsidered communication.

    As well, I'm concerned with the words coming out of my own mouth.

    It is so very important to consider everyone!

  • At 7/29/2007 08:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

    some years ago I began to find the phrase 'non-Christians' quite difficult to say.
    (others thought I was being too fussy).
    It began to feel like I was saying 'non-people,' or something.
    Anyway, if I have to refer to some in that category I sometimes say/write 'not-yet Christians' (which I suppose could be seen as optimistic or presumptuous ) - I don't know, but it feels better saying it than 'non' something.


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