The propensity to label-and-dismiss anyone with whom we disagree has led our nation and our Church toward dangerous cliffs.
About seven years ago I wrote,
“I want to love again.
Time cannot be reclaimed, but increasingly I feel a need to reach back and recapture one aspect of my youth: a willingness to be a little naive, to take people as they are, rather than as I believe I can classify them. It was how I lived before I became very engaged with politics and religion and chose labeling over loving.”
Dorothy Day famously said, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” I think what she had in mind was something along the lines of Søren Kierkegaard’s “When you label me, you negate me.”
When we label anyone, we immediately do them an injustice, even if the label seems accurate. We shortchange their story. We open them up to caricature and to the misunderstanding that comes with it. Labels reduce all of our complexities and beautiful human nuances into easily negated “types” and turn our efforts to communicate with each other into punchlines.”
I wish I could say that in my online writing I have managed to resist the temptation to label others, thus easily writing them off as enemies-wholly-known. Alas, I did trod that path all too happily, until the day I had to face up to the fact that when I pre-judged persons about whom I actually knew nothing, I was, yes, prejudiced.
It was less difficult to stop using labels than I thought it would be. It just meant taking a moment or two to think before writing. I wasn’t alone in my bad habit, however, and now the propensity to label-and-dismiss anyone with whom we disagree has led our nation and our Church toward dangerous cliffs, and though we have gleefully turned each other into cartoons, we will not, like Bugs Bunny, be able to reclaim solid ground from the thin air once we’ve kicked each other off.
Americans are unhealthily divided as a nation, and American Catholics may feel a bit fractured as a Church too, particularly as we watched our countrymen and our co-religionists take sides in all manner of disparate matters, every day.
So how do we pull back from those cliffs toward which we are rolling as we wrestle with each other? Is it too late? Is the momentum already too great to prevent our eventual falling, together, into the dusty abyss?
We are only weeks past the Christmas season in which we celebrated the coming of the Christ, the “Prince of Peace,” but have we internalized what his coming actually requires of us? “Give us peace,” we pray. “He shall be peace,” said the prophet Micah (Micah 5:4). Then he comes, and he is peace, and yet there is no peace, anywhere.
What’s missing then? What are we getting so wrong as to seemingly render all of our Christmas pageantry meaningless?
Our own participation in the princely process of peace.
After the Second Vatican Council, in our parish we often sang “Let There be Peace on Earth,” and I never much cared for it. I preferred to sing Dona Nobis Pacem, the Latin ringing into a roundel of prayer: “Give us peace…give us peace…give us peace.” It’s a very good prayer, indeed, and one we should make daily. But lately, as we all spend more time than is good for us on social media, I have come to appreciate that other, treacly-seeming anthem of the 1970s, especially for its final expression: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…”
Perhaps the only way to prevent a divided entity from falling into full-on war, be it nation or church or parish or family, really does come down to one individual’s act of conscientious objection, and then another’s: a refusal by each of us to keep fighting with every weapon that is each day handed our way; a disinclination to contribute to the further tearing-up of things, coupled with a willingness to speak words of peace to others—even when it is damned difficult to do so, and even if we must speak them through gritted teeth—so as to disarm the other, and then enter into dialogue.
This is the harder, more difficult path. It’s so much easier to be war than to be peace; so much easier to take refuge in hate than to present an openness in love; so much easier to be part of a mob of fury than to cast down a pitchfork and say to those around you, “Wait a minute, what the hell is going on here? I never wanted to be part of a mad and teeming mob, did you?”
If you ask that question, most will say, “No.”
No one wants to be moved along within an unthinking and turbulent mass of energy, and yet that’s what the whole nation, each self-interested “community,” is doing.
When one determines that one has become part of a mob, the question “How did I get here?” must be asked. Then there must be some discernment: Is this where Christ-Who-Is-Peace is calling me, specifically, to be? Is this what Emmanuel-God-With-Us is asking me, specifically, to be?
Some will be quick to bring up Jesus making a knotted rope and whipping the money changers and marketeers out of the Temple; they will use that singular example of the Prince-of-Peace moving like a winnowing blade through God’s house to justify their participation with the fuming hoards.
But the thing is, Jesus—in that one instance of justified expulsion—was acting with an authority that none of us possess and a purity of intention we cannot begin to approach. Also, he never invited a mob to join him in his act; he never sent a mob forth in anger. Indeed, when he did send anyone out into the world, he sent them in meekness, without even a second pair of sandals, and explicitly told them to force nothing upon anyone. “Shake the dust off your shoes,” he said, advising them to trust in God’s own justice meted out in God’s own time (Matthew 10:4).
Boy, is that hard to do—to go where you are called to be, in peace, trusting in God for justice—when we are stuck in our own time, and want results today; when we are so angry, so certain that the others are so wrong, and are just begging for a good winnowing.
Dorothy Day also said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
Those negating labels are the things that invite us to love least. They are tiresome and played-out; they have brought us to a desolate place, one nearer to Satan than to Christ; they are imperiling our souls.
I want to love again. So I will beseech the help of Christ-Jesus-the-Way, to teach me how to go forward.