Reading Labels

I had an interesting quick exchange with my friend, Marty Troyer, the Peace Pastor and pastor at Houston Mennonite Church.  Let me post what he put on his FB page.

Ok, that was awkward. Working at Panera, plugged my headphones in wrong jack, so was blaring my David Crowder Music OUT LOUD for a full 2 1/2 songs before I realized what was happening. Appreciate the grace my Muslim table-neighbor just afforded me with her little aw-shucks grin!

Now, stop and examine your thoughts, your reactions to what you just read.

Go ahead.  Think about your thoughts.

Did you read about a Christian who sheepishly realized his blatant, overt, Christian music blaring in the midst of a room that contains Muslims?

Or did you read about a dude who committed a public faux-pas by playing his music out loud in the middle of a public space?

Be honest with yourself.

If you reacted with the latter, then kudos to you!  More in a second.

If you reacted with the former, you and me share a similar problem.  There are labels in this mini-narrative that kind of stand out.  We have a Christian pastor, we have a Christian music artist, and we have a Muslim person interacting in a public space.  The labels, “Christian”, “pastor”, and “Muslim” color the way we interpreted the scenario.  Our own experiences coming, perhaps, from some evangelical influences and a concept of “don’t be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ” combined with these labels makes us react in a way that some could call prejudice, judgmentalism, and perhaps a bit of fear.  And look back up this paragraph and you’ll see that I’m right along with you there, too.

But Marty intended the second reading, a reading of simply humans being human together and the little quirks and mistakes that come into play in those situations.  The labels, for Marty, were just a way of telling the story, describing the situation.  No color was intended, simply a meeting of people.

This whole situation brings to mind a verse from Galations. 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise Galations 3:26-28

Now, before you cry “UNIVERSALIST!”, I’m not saying Islam and Christianity are equals.  Please don’t go there.  What I am pointing out is a truth in this letter from Paul to a church that was stuck in trying to figure out where people belong.  Who is Jewish, who is Gentile?  How do we categorize and classify people so that we know their “place” in this new society called the People of God?  Where do we draw the lines that help us “control” what happens and how it happens?

Paul is saying that these things don’t matter any more for people in the Kingdom.  No matter whether or not you have a Y chromosome, no matter whether or not you can actually trace yourself back to one of the 12 tribes of Israel, no matter your particular social status or class, you are an heir of Christ’s Kingdom, a chosen people, and children of God.  This applies especially within the context of that chosen people.

But what about outwards to the rest of the world?  I am not saying that we shouldn’t recognize differences in cultures and worldviews.  If we go around stepping on other people’s views all the time, we can very quickly expect the same to happen to us with the inevitable smackdown.  Full “color-blindness” is unhelpful because it denies those differences and even tries to impose a homogeneity on others that is unjust and ungracious (check out Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 for more on recognizing and respecting differences). 

At the same time, though, if we rely on labeling and categorizing people, we get drawn into the stereotypes and into many of the cultural narratives surrounding those labels (like Muslims vs. Christians in the scenario above).  One thing that we can do is recognize that, when we set aside those labels, we are all people together.  And there is enough commonality in humans that, even with different religious, cultural, and ethnic contexts, when we are just humans together, it makes for a world that is a lot more peaceful and a lot easier to live in.  God loves the whole world, no matter what labels we put on it.  And, as the People of God, we are called to do the same.

10 thoughts on “Reading Labels

  1. My Great Aunt Jessie was similar to your friend. She was always mentioning “nationality” as we call it in Hawai’i. When she told a story, it was never about just a man or just a woman. It was a “little old Japanese man” or a “Portuguese woman.” I thought she was terribly prejudiced until I talked to Dad. He pointed out she does it with everyone. She wasn’t trying to use stereotypes; she was just trying to describe the situation a little more vividly. It took a bit of getting used to. {SMILE}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin


    • Interesting perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily peg Marty as doing that quite so much…but perhaps in this sitch that was the case…I’ll have to let him comment.

      But that’s a good thing to keep in mind. When someone makes distinctions about race, color, nationality, etc., it’s not always a judgment call but may simply be a matter of being descriptively accurate.


  2. Yes, I did use the label intentionally, but not for the reasons Robert assumed. Labels are not all bad. Jesus’ use of the label “Samaritan” completely and utterly changes the Good Samaritan parable at a fundamental level. So much so that you cannot truly understand it WITHOUT the label. That parable is one of my 5 yo’s favorites, and so I’ve made sure from day one that he understands the context, which he can now repeat and will if we forget it, “No one likes the Samaratin and no one thought they could ever be nice to anyone else.” That about sums it up.

    My reasons, whether pure or not, were along these lines: #1 To Humanize a woman/faith/peoplegroup that is so marginalized and otherized in our world, and who has been so lambasted this week with all the protests regarding the Islamaphobic film. It was my way of saying, “I had this teeny tiny, yet beautiful, little connection with a woman who is Muslim that made me realize “they” don’t hate “us.” I had an opportunity to let my friends know that I connect meaningfully with Muslims, and I grabbed the chance. Many folks who follow me on FB don’t have this opportunity, never interact with Muslims, and only hear about “them” through Shawn Hannity, Fox News, etc.. and so therefore “they” are always “enemies.” My effort to humanize her/them necessarily calls that myth into question.

    #2. The room is full, and she was the only one who humanized me. Others did what you said you wuold have done and sneered, most just ignored me. I know there was at least one table with a pastor or two, some business folks, a mom and her adult daughter, etc… She alone extended me grace. I was saying “thanks” to her, and returning the favor to her.

    I believe it is wrong to say that we are or should be living in a post-racial world. That “color-blindness” is the goal as well as the key to getting us to the goal. Acknowledging and accepting our differences is beautiful, essential, and frees us to be who we are called to be. She gave me the high point of my day. I’d like to think she went home and FB’d my antics to all her friends, saying something like, “I was in Panera and this crazy Christian totally embrassed me…. and I had a chance to shyly smile and, in my own way say, “it’s ok, you’re still welcome here.”
    Marty Troyer, (The Peace Pastor)


  3. Pingback: Is it ok to say she’s Muslim? On Humanizing the “other” | The Peace Pastor | a blog

  4. Thanks for the post and for raising these issues:

    I grew up in the deep south, not that bad now- and when I was growing up there was absolutely some rays of hope peeking through but even the most “liberated” thinkers still used labels to describe people. I was discouraged from having “black” friends and really got in trouble when I drank from the same cup as one of our African American cheerleaders at a football game. I knew as I took that cup that someone would have something to say and was overjoyed knowing that there would be offence to this.

    Describing someone by their skin color was first (if they weren’t white). If they were white then their national heritage and if that wasn’t clear then the side of town in which they lived. There was always a label and it took me years to realize how my language was affected. It really is the most specific and descriptive way to pinpoint a person. Effective though it may be it is not ‘loving’ language. Expedience of effort is not our goal as Christ followers our mandate is to love. Most of the time that means that we can’t engage as the world does.

    At our church we have a pastor who is African-American. He self-describes as “black.” Great we’re open enough to hire a non-white person as a pastor. However, there is a white pastor that makes a well meaning stereotypical quip every time he mentions him or is in his presence. I know this man, he is a mentor to me, but it was because of this that I vowed not to make another race based joke. Even if it was good hearted or would be accepted well. I’d rather abstain than take a chance at breaking good will.

    Thankfully I noticed this before my boys were born and my wife and I take extra effort to describe people using their relationship to us or what they may have been wearing. Trying to point them somewhere besides skin color. I was deeply saddened the first time my 3 year old referred to a playmate as ‘black’ I knew that he’d been taught by someone else that this was acceptable. We have not resigned though, it is important to me that they grow up in a world where pointing out differences is foreign to them.


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