Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Need For a Label

I wrote a blog a few years ago about labeling and pigeonholing others. I made the statement that "we [United Methodists] are a people of labels. In fact, I daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others." I didn't have anyone disagree with me, but the blog didn't make a whole lot of noise - my hunch is, because it really wasn't news to anyone. I want to lift one paragraph out because it gets to the why of labeling - whether it be ourselves or others:
Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear. - Me (10/1/14)
I'm not ruling out the psychology and the way we humans may be hard-wired. I remember just enough from my psychology degree to be dangerous, but Maslow's Hierarchy  has always stuck with me. Posted here is how Maslow theorized our hierarchy of needs. While there is debate about some of the ordering, I think the basics are probably pretty accurate. 

Where does our need to label others and ourselves fit in? I think it's pretty easy: psychological needs. We need to feel safe, we need to belong, we need prestige and respect. Understanding labels, those that we place on ourselves or on others, fits into our psychological needs toward being self-fulfilled. We want to be whole. We want to matter.

We're seeing this go into full-throttle application in the United Methodist Church. We already had plenty of labels, groups, caucuses, affinity groups - but with General Conference 2019 and the work of the Commission on the Way Forward, we're finding more labels and ways to align oneself. The newest: the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Uniting Methodists. Folks that I consider good friends and brothers and sisters are in both groups, as well as folks from The Confessing Movement, Good News, Reconciling Ministries Network, Methodist Federation for Social Action... and forgive me if I'm forgetting/leaving out some. 

My problem? I have to preach Sunday and I, along with our church's worship planning team, picked the Romans text (14:1-12) as the focus for Sunday. It reads:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God." 
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
The annotation in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) reads, "14.1-23 Love Respects the Scruples of Others." I couldn't help but chuckle... and it's been sermon block ever since. I usually try to have the sermon done by Tuesday or Wednesday. $%&@ !

I'm certainly not naive about the UMC, and I know this is nothing new; we have from within our communion profound areas of disagreement. But it seems that we have a NEED to separate ourselves beyond food taboos or feast days: Tens of different caucuses and interest/affinity groups, paired with siloed General Church agencies and organizations, along with 26+ different statuses for clergy... we set ourselves UP for dissent and labeling. It seems that we thrive on it. It's quite possibly the United Methodist original sin: who do you belong to? Where are you from? Which side are you on? Approaching "the other" with suspicion is hardly Christian, and certainly not an effective evangelism or discipleship practice.

All of this contrary to the mysteries of the Christian faith and notion of Christian community. Certainly contrary to discipleship and making disciples: which "community" do we ask people to join? And do folks want to join a denomination that looks a lot like the U.S. political landscape?

Why have unity across the whole church? Paul's read of it was that the Christ, the Messiah, died and lived again to be the Lord of all. Why isn't that enough?

It might be that simple.