The dehumanizing effect of labels

Max Ediger grew up in Oklahoma and lives in Cambodia. He has worked in Asia since 1971. Max writes, “The emphasis of my work has been to find new and creative ways to work for justice and peace (‘justpeace’) from an Asian perspective.” Max’s post originally appeared in PeaceSigns, the magazine of the Peace and Justice Support Network

Animals, terrorists, illegal immigrants, crisis actors, extremist, etc. are all words that have something in common; they are dehumanizing labels we put on people we fear, distrust, hate or feel threatened by. When we place labels like this on others, we no longer view them as a person we need to listen to and seek peace with. It is so much easier to kill a “terrorist” than to kill a father, a mother, a son, a daughter or a neighbor. It is easier to ignore the pain of “crisis actors” and seek to discredit them than to sit down and listen to their story and identify common grounds for cooperative action. It is simpler to try and shout down someone who is speaking a different language than to try to understand who they are, where they come from and how vulnerable they may feel as a minority in our neighborhood.

Even common labels can be dehumanizing and can create division and conflict. If someone calls me a “liberal,” I am not sure what they mean because their definition of a liberal may be totally different from mine, and they may place on me all of the negative images they have of “liberals.”

Our labels are like boxes, and when we label someone, we place them in a box we have created based on our prejudices, misunderstandings and assumptions. We take away that persons humanity and the right to be a free and independent individual. Our label becomes a wall between them and us, preventing dialogue and engagement. At the same time, when we use that label loud enough and long enough, others may take it as truth and allow the label to dictate for them who the labeled person is and what they stand for.

What did Jesus have to say about this unhealthy habit of labeling others? A relevant story is found in John 8:1-11. Religious scholars and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus whom they labeled an adulteress. According to law, such a labeled person must face the death penalty by stoning. Instead of agreeing with the ancient Law of Moses, Jesus challenged the men gathered with their fingers pointing at the woman to look, not at the women but rather at themselves. “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the first stone.”

Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Don’t label others. Instead, look at yourself and the areas in your life that need changing.”

When Jesus cleared the temple of the sellers and money lenders as related in John 2:15, was he just being a “crisis actor” for speaking out about something which he found very offensive? The arrogant religious leaders of the day apparently thought so because they reacted in anger and never took the time to hear his message.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares the following teaching:

For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.’”

Does this mean that when we call someone an “animal” we are calling Jesus by that name? When we place anyone in a box created by prejudice, dislike and fear, we are placing Jesus in that box?

Jesus called us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger and care for the sick. Labels can prevent us from doing that. In Christ we must see all people without label, without status, without a dividing wall, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.


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