Beyond Labels

Beyond Labels
Women’s Division Director Tupou Seini Kelemeni of Honolulu, Hawaii, left, and Margaret Hotze of Rocky Mountain Conference.

A few months ago, I facilitated a seminar on immigration at a local church. At the end of the day as I was packing up my materials, the pastor’s wife approached me and said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t want to come to this seminar today, but I’m glad I did.”

It was clear her reluctance to attend stemmed from the fact that the seminar was dealing with such a contentious issue. But her confession raises the question of why she would be afraid to attend an event at her own church, where her husband, the pastor, also was attending, and where many of the other participants were people she worshiped with every Sunday.

Her words spoke volumes about the state of civil discourse in our country.

Our society has become filled with labels: conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, fundamentalist/radical. We use these labels to box people in. It’s like we’re forming teams. You are this or that, you’re in or out, and there is no space for complexity. We learn quickly to side with a “team” and then become so entrenched in that team’s perspective that space for growth, change and open dialogue becomes nearly impossible.

This dynamic becomes most evident during election years. For example, anyone who has ever shopped on Amazon knows that when viewing a particular book, a list of books with the message “Customers who bought this item also bought” appears below. Amazon provides this service in order to encourage customers to make more purchases, but for social network analysts such as Valdis Krebs it provides a lens for studying political patterns through buying habits.

Between 2003 and the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Krebs decided to track the purchase patterns of political books and periodically map the networks that appeared. In large part, he found what one would expect: that books by conservative authors formed one network while books by liberal authors formed another.

He also always found a small handful of books that customers on both the right and the left purchased. These books served as a sort of bridge between the two networks. That is until he mapped the networks once again in October of 2008, the month before the election, when he discovered for the first time that there were no books that bridged the gap between the right and the left.

In other words, the closer we got to the election, the more polarized we became as a nation.

Ears to hear

Mr. Krebs’ analysis suggests we are giving people with whom we differ less and less space to be heard. We only read what will reinforce what we already think. We only talk with people who agree with us. We rarely seek out information to help us analyze an issue from multiple perspectives. Instead, we close ourselves off from information —and people — that might contradict what we hold to be true.

This kind of polarization not only builds walls, it creates a great deal of fear and anger, making it extremely difficult to have civil conversations on issues such as immigration, abortion or climate change.

As Christians, this trend is of particular concern. In Matthew 5-7, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is a reminder that we are not called to build walls but to be peacemakers. He encourages meekness, a thirst for righteousness and mercy. He instructs us not to remain in anger but to seek reconciliation. He warns against retaliation and judging others and commands us to love our enemies.

Acting as peacemakers and loving our enemies does not mean we must always agree with one another, but Christ’s words do raise questions about what it means to be a community of faith in the context of an increasingly polarized society. Questions such as:

  • What is the value of being in fellowship in a community with diverse perspectives?
  • How do we create communities where all feel their voice is heard?
  • When is it possible to agree to disagree, yet remain in community?
  • Are there times when it is necessary to disengage from conversations or communities?

The Dialogue Project, an organization that builds dialogue among the Palestinian and Israeli Diaspora, is constantly confronted with the challenges of bringing together polarized groups. One exercise the project uses to help participants move beyond the temptation to label is called “The Wright Family.”

Participants standing in a circle and, holding a pencil, listen to a short story about the “Wright Family.” Every time they hear the word “right” or “Wright” they pass their pencil to the person on their right. Each time they hear the word “left” they pass their pencil to the person on their left. By the end of the story, usually two or three people don’t have any pencils while others have several. However, few if any participants can answer simple questions about the story or even provide the names of the characters. The reason is they weren’t really listening to the ?story. They were only listening for the “trigger” words, right and left.

The exercise serves as a reminder that in these kinds of hard conversations too often we find ourselves listening only for certain trigger words or phrases. When we do this we are no longer truly listening. We are simply waiting for the trigger that will allow us to label someone.

We all have our trigger words for different issues: progressive, illegal, choice, etc. The key is to identify them so that when we hear one in conversation, we recognize it as such, and are then able to refocus on the conversation. Otherwise, we hear only what we expect to hear rather than the nuance of a person’s story and perspective that might open us up to new possibilities.

So how do we have these conversations?

In 2007 the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a set of guidelines to help us talk about controversial matters. The guidelines were based on John Wesley’s concept of “Holy Conferencing.”


For Mr. Wesley, holy conferencing was a “means of grace” like prayer, communion and works of mercy. The guidelines the bishops issued are below.

  • Every person is a child of God. Always speak respectfully. One can disagree without being disagreeable. As you patiently listen and observe the behavior of others, be open to the possibility that God can change the views of any or all parties in the discussion.
  • Listen patiently before formulating responses.
  • Strive to understand the experience out of which others have arrived at their views.
  • Be careful in how you express personal offense at differing opinions. Otherwise, dialogue may be inhibited.
  • Accurately reflect the views of others when speaking. This is especially important when you disagree with that position.
  • Avoid making generalizations about individuals and groups. Make your point with specific evidence and examples.
  • Make use of facilitators and mediators.
  • Remember that people are defined, ultimately, by their relationship with God — not by the flaws we discover, or think we discover, in their views and actions.

This year as we approach another United Methodist General Conference and U.S. presidential election, these principles are as important as ever. Let us keep them in mind so that we might seek not to build more walls but rather see these important events as opportunities for honest conversation, growth and deepened relationships with God and with one another.

Jay Godfrey is a seminar designer for the United Methodist Seminars on National and International Affairs, or the Seminar Program, at the Church Center for the United Nations, a program co-sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women. The interactive educational seminars help groups study complex social issues from a perspective of faith.

Posted or updated: 2/29/2012 11:00:00 PM
response cover
Tara Thronson of the Southwest Texas Conference speaks on a petition at the United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth. May 2, 2008.