Courage in a World of Labels | Sojourners

Courage in a World of Labels

Children's author Madeline L'Engle argues in her book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that our society is addicted to labels and categories. We like to "pigeonhole," she suggests. If we can only categorize someone as a socialist or liberal or conservative or Tea Party activist, we believe we know them and all they are about. Here is L'Engle's beautiful response:

It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name, and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names, and we turn to labels ... If we are pigeon-holed and labeled we are unnamed.

In Cincinnati, Ohio's politics, Phil Heimlich has been one of the strongest voices for social and political conservatism over the past few decades. Heimlich (Yes, in case you are wondering, his father DID invent the Heimlich maneuver!) grew up Jewish and converted to evangelical Christianity. With great integrity, he has always attempted to form his political decisions based on truth and faith.

I have often disagreed with Phil Heimlich over the years. While when he ran for city council and county commissioner, I often voted for him as a man of principle, I had firmly labeled Phil Heimlich. I knew him as a conservative Republican, law and order evangelical. I became guilty of L'Engle's concern: I labeled him and "forgot his name."

About four years ago, he reached out to me, and we had a cup of coffee together, which destroyed all the labels and prejudices and pigeon-holes I had used to minimize and reduce a local Republican politician. Phil blew away my absurd categories. Is Phil a conservative? I suppose. Is Phil a Republican? Definitely. Is Phil angry and passionate about the absurd deficits and debt piling up in Washington, D.C.? Without a doubt! But over the past four years, I have learned Phil's name again. I've been reminded that he, and perhaps all with whom I disagree, are so much more than a label.

Several weeks ago, Phil sent me a personal email with a link to a speech he gave to conservative Baptist pastors in Ohio titled, "Is God a Conservative?" For a half-second, my labels started to kick in. Not this again, I thought. But then I remembered Phil's name, and his depth, and his integrity, so I invested 25 minutes in watching his entire speech. I was blown away yet again by his courage, his honesty, and his faithfulness. I invite you to watch this speech by a "Republican" and "Conservative" and "Right-Wing" man named Phil, and judge for yourself: Is God a Conservative?

Trust me, I know that the rest of the culture will continue to categorize, label, limit, and through pigeonholing, attempt to control. But can all Christ-followers, from all political persuasions, make the commitment to try to remember that we are so much more than our labels and affiliations and perspectives: We are beloved by almighty God!

Let's commit, when it comes to the dehumanizing pattern of labeling, to be "no longer conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds."

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio. To stay connected with Bernard Pastor's situation, visit

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