Everyone has that drawer in their kitchen, or maybe yours is in the office. Mine is typically full of batteries, scotch tape and pens, the dried-up ones mixed in with those that still work, and probably some box tops I was supposed to send to school with the kids so their classroom could have 10 cents. Recently my husband decided that it was time to get that drawer in order, so he bought a drawer organizer and made a little home for everything. Now we know where to put the rubber bands and post-it notes, and we have no excuse for not finding an AA battery when we need it.
Labels are helpful for organizing. Our minds crave order in a chaotic world, and labels allow us to categorize things so that we don’t waste time finding them and can focus on more important matters. When it comes to people, labels are less helpful. Labels allow us to distance ourselves from fellow humans, to create an “us” and a “them.” Labels keep us from seeing the person by focusing only on one aspect of their life.
when we attach a label to someone, we are discounting the majority of their life—their influences, their interests, their experiences, their hopes, their fears. We have deemed all of that as less important than one thing …
We don’t even realize it, but when we attach a label to someone, we are discounting the majority of their life—their influences, their interests, their experiences, their hopes, their fears. We have deemed all of that as less important than one thing, often something they did not have full control over. The fact is, we can’t truly love people that we can’t see.
Human trafficking labels
Ten years ago, most people were not using the language of human trafficking. Women walking the streets were prostitutes, the men selling them were pimps and the guys paying for sex were johns. Here in Fresno, that began to change when, instead of seeing a criminal charge or a moment in time, service providers and law enforcement officers began to listen to stories.
They heard stories of children who ran away from home because they were being abused, of women who fell in love with a man who turned abusive and forced them to do things they didn’t want to do, of men who felt trapped with no other choice but to keep working. The stories had been there all along, but the labels kept us from wondering about them. Applying a label to a person assumes that you know enough about them to put them in a category and put them on a shelf, and that’s essentially what we did, until God began to open our eyes.
Suddenly workers at a youth shelter began to notice, as they listened to stories, that there were some commonalities. They began to realize that the story they were hearing today sounded a lot like the story they had heard yesterday, and that allowed them to be curious. Police officers began to sit with “prostitutes” and listen to their stories as well. When they saw past the label and began to wonder about the person, the reality started to emerge—that these were not women who had chosen this life but were women who were suffering and in need of resources. All of a sudden, victims were identified by name, not by a criminal charge, and the culture began to change.
When I began working with Central Valley Justice Coalition in prevention education, some of the language had already begun to shift, and certainly the attitude toward individuals who had been prostituted had softened. We no longer sought to punish victims as if they were criminals, but instead desired to offer resources to meet individual needs.
Hiding behind labels
It didn’t take me long, however, to notice that we as a society had moved quickly to labeling other groups of people. Traffickers were “evil,” “monsters,” “the worst of the worst.” Then we got curious about their stories, and we began to discover that traffickers had very often suffered abuse themselves, had been raised in gang neighborhoods where the model of manhood was a broken one, had been exploited themselves and saw recruitment as the only way out. Once again, listening to stories began to soften our hearts and helped us to see.
Sometimes the people we already love, the ones we think we know, can be the ones that we fail to see. At their worst, labels are the thing we hide behind so that others don’t see the truth. We know the statistics, but we don’t want to believe we know people who represent those numbers. We label him father, teacher, husband, pastor, and we don’t know all that is hiding. Again, we cannot truly love people if we don’t see them.
Sometimes love requires accountability. When someone’s actions are hurting another person, love means acknowledging the behavior, not sweeping things under the rug, not allowing a person to hide behind the titles, positions, labels they hold. Repentance is fundamental. We must also commit to loving those who cause pain in ways that keep them from being discarded. We don’t allow them to be forever identified by a moment any more than we allow that for victims, but we do require reconciliation, an acknowledgement of the pain caused and effort to make that right.
The work of repentance and restoration is hard, but it is our work as the church, the work we partner with the Spirit in and it starts with us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves begins with seeing ourselves. Acknowledging the ways that we as followers of Christ fail—the ways that we commodify people and fail to see their individuality and their humanity—is painful work that must be done.
We choose to see the people behind the screen, behind the counter and behind the products we buy. When we recognize our own complicity, we are much more eager to extend grace to others, more interested in what contributed to their current situations and more willing to recognize that there is more to them than we can see. Some- times this requires that we pull off our own labels that identify us as part of a particular group and become part of a larger community.
A name is a very different kind of label. Can you imagine if my junk drawer contained a label for each individual item: “Black ballpoint pen with the doctor’s office logo,” and “Blue felt tip marker”? This would not be helpful for efficiency and it would not allow me to lump all the pens together. It amazes me to think that we serve a God who is not interested in efficiency or in figuring out the easiest way to group us all, but rather in knowing each of us individually.
Creating labels is actually more about me, my efficiency, my understanding of the world, my feeling of control. Loving our neighbor means letting go of our own convenient filing system and spending time with individuals, expanding our definitions instead of narrowing them. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he did not label her and dismiss her. Rather, he heard her story, even before she could tell it. Being seen is what saved her and her community. What if loving our neighbor as our self was as simple as starting with their name?