The Problem with Labels, Especially "Christian"

Rev. Doug Van Doren


This is the last Sunday after Epiphany when the lectionary text is always the transfiguration. The theme of the season after Epiphany is discipleship. Rather than another sermon on the Transfiguration, however, I want to look briefly at discipleship -what it means to be a Christian by way of reflection on how that label is being used.


I have a poster that says, "Label jars, not people." That is a great sentiment, and yet we seem to have a propensity for labeling people. We label them as funny, stupid, conservative, disabled, liberal, rich, poor, the list goes on and on. We don't just label people we know. In fact, the better you know a person, the more you realize that people really defy labels. Labeling pigeonholes someone. It seizes on one small aspect, or perceived aspect, of a person and makes it the whole of them. That is what defines them. Then you don't have to deal with the whole person. Like labeling a jar, you don't have to look inside to see what is there.


Labeling is a way of simplifying and shrinking life. Maybe it is a way that we try to make some order and sense out of so much that we have trouble getting a handle on. We try to order life in the same way that we order the jars in our pantry or spices in the spice rack. My sense is that we mainly do it, however, consciously or not, in order to gain control. If we can label something, we have a handle on it. We are in control; everything is in its place. Religious labels are some of the most commonly used labels though I am not sure that we see them as labels with the same kind of liability that all labels have.


I was prompted to think about this again (actually to fume about it) when I was reading somewhere recently, again, about whether President Obama is "Christian" - a question and a debate that will not die. Of course, there are a lot of political motives for this labeling but the partisan politics of it are not my point. It simply illustrates at this high-level what is going on throughout the country. Let us be clear, though, the point of labels political. That is, it is about power and control; a shortcut for putting someone in the camp of enemy or friend, or particularly for influencing other people's perception of them.


It doesn't matter that President Obama has said repeatedly that he is a Christian or that he belonged to a Christian Church (albeit a United Church of Christ) long before he was elected to Congress, let alone the presidency. So he vociferously tries to claim and prove that the label "Christian" is appropriate for him, while those who claim he is not hold onto that, regardless of clear evidence that he is. They are all playing the same game. Why is it so important? What is at stake?


The situation is complicated by the fact that it isn't just a matter of being Christian, but of being the "right kind" of Christian as judged by those who feel like they need to divide the world into Christian and non-Christian. If you are not the right kind of Christian, you are probably not seen by them as Christian at all (that would include most of you!). That is the crux of the matter isn't it, dividing the world into us and them, or more crassly, and probably more accurately, the saved and the damned.


The reason the administration so defends his "Christian" label, and those who want him to be perceived as non-Christian hold so fast to their rhetoric, is that there is a perceived benefit to carrying the label. Think about what that really means. In the U.S., if you do not carry the label "Christian" you are seen as "less than," perhaps even dangerous. This is truly a label, because those so bent on the need for this label don't seem to care about any perceived assets or values that come along with the label, any behavior or morals that one exhibits by being a Christian. Rather, it is the label itself that puts one into a privileged class, a privileged class.


I am a minister of the Gospel. Don't I want people to be Christian? Don't I think that there is something extremely valuable, even better about being "Christian?" You bet I do. But that is, "being Christian", not simply carrying the label "Christian."


What upsets me most, however, is not only that this way of labeling devalues and denigrates everyone who is not Christian, but that "Christian" is not then defined by a set of moral values and ethical behaviors, but as a class, the "Christian class." It is not attached to what one does, to how one conducts him or herself in both the private and the public realm. Rather, without wearing the "label" on one's sleeve or forehead, one is not seen as worthy. In the case of the President, not worthy to lead the nation, but it translates to all others. Those without the "Christian" label are not worthy regardless of the values and moral rectitude they exhibit. Though we are not even into Lent yet, I am reminded of the Easter scene in the Gospel where Mary laments, "They have taken my Jesus and I don't know where they have laid him." The term "Christian" has been co-opted.


Yes, I am Christian and proud of it, but not because it puts me in a privileged class (though I cannot deny that in the U.S. I benefit from that). But I am certain that Jesus is appalled to see that those who bear his name have construed it into privilege! When, even though he was God, he eschewed that privileged place to be one of us, to live and die as one of us, and not as the privileged class, be it religious or political, but the marginalized, the humbled. And who did he call "blessed?" It was the poor, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, the grief-stricken.


Contrary to what seems the reality today, I believe, and I bet most of you along with me, that one who commits oneself to Christ carries a special onus to show it, to show it by our love, by our love. So how can so many who so prominently want to have the label "Christian" emblazoned upon them, promote hate and refuse to see the humanity of those who are different. How can so many seek to balance the budget primarily on the backs of the poor, while continuing tax breaks and loopholes to the wealthy? How can we, especially those who want to call us a "Christian nation" question our commitment to basic healthcare for those who need it the most can afford it the least?


Let us be clear. When we baptized these two precious girls, Evvie and Amaya, we did a scandalous thing! We said that first - even though they are babies, and whether they continue to grow in beauty, or struggle, or don't meet the world's idea of perfection - we believe that they, like all, are precious and beautiful children of God now and always, no matter what. But we did not baptize them into privilege, certainly not to see themselves as privileged, or "better than." Rather, we baptized them into servanthood. That is, to see themselves as followers of Christ; servants of the just and peaceable realm. That means to see the world and others as Christ saw it; the realm of God, the precious creation, and each one a child of God, regardless of the labels they own or the labels that are pressed upon them. We baptized them not to flaunt the trappings of religion to call attention to themselves, but to live a life where it will be clear that love rules over hate, a life that puts trust not in wealth and privilege, but in the peace and power of God and God alone.


Yes, ours is a profession of faith. That is, we say that we are believers, followers of Christ. Our works do not earn God's love or our worth in God's eyes, our confession is a statement that we believe that and are seeking to follow. But because we are justified by faith, not works, doesn't mean that our works don't matter, quite the contrary. It means that we are to live lives transformed. To be, as Paul put it, "ambassadors of the Good News, ministers of reconciliation."


My sense is that, if we have to tell everyone that we are Christian then we probably are not. I used go into a hardware store that had a sign prominently displayed that the proprietor was a member of the Christian Business Men's Association. I thought to myself, "I'll be the judge of that, by how you conduct your business, not by what y