A Time I Got Labelled

I was in a pretty heated conversation online. Stirred up emotions on the internet — who’d have guessed, right?!

This time, it was about an aspect of what my opposing debaters viewed as a core element of their doctrine (I won’t name it because that’s a distraction to my point). When you’re in a conversation about something one party sees as core, and the other does not, there are few productive options for conversation to proceed.

In this particular instance, it turned to labelling — I got called a liberal, in the sense of theological liberal.

This is a useful example to parse out, because it’s about ideas more than it is about core, unchangeable aspects of my personhood, yet its principles go deep!

I felt like it was intended as an insult (and I still think it probably was). But it did two things to me, which I think are entirely remarkable:

  1. It gave me an option to leave the conversation on the presumption that we shared no common ground (and in the moment, I relished that possibility)
  2. It gave me the idea that I have a tribe out there somewhere.

This exercise in labelling simultaneously othered me, in a way which I was very (gleefully) tempted to internalise, and suggested that there is a tribe I could affiliate with out there, elsewhere.

In two different ways, a label spoke to my identity.

Labels do (at least) two jobs, every time out:

  • They provide us with a place to belong.
  • And they infer we don’t belong here.

A label I adopt, embrace and own is very different than a label which is pushed on me. It might even be the same label — it usually takes on a different tone when it comes from outside the self than it does from within the self.

Of course, that works differently if the label bears a weight of shame as I internalise it — it is a horrendous thing we do to ourselves to internalise a label we feel shame about, and not confront ourselves with some necessary options:

  • if I haven’t earned the label, ignore it,
  • change what I do/say/think that might have earned me the label,
  • change how I view the label!

We also need to consider how we project labels. All throughout history, labels have been used to announce “other!” Many examples of ways in which people refer to themselves are rooted in others’ perceptions — often these words embody prejudice.

In fact, many of the everyday labels we use are co-opted and re-purposed by the people who’ve been their intended target.

This in itself is a subversive act of redemption.

Facing all the complications and terrible history, some have asked why we don’t get rid of labels entirely. Well, this post goes some way to answer that — labels give shape to affiliation and community. They help us build a shared understanding of the world around us.

But I believe that they also need to be held loosely, used with intentionality and awareness.

Labels can do some beautiful work of identifying and connecting. But they can be even more efficient at identifying and isolating.

When we use labels without sufficient consideration, we can send messages we don’t intend. Our human nature tends to presuppose a label comes with stigma and separation.

If that’s not what we mean, then we need to keep our welcome candid, vocal and on-record, consistently.

Knocking on the Knocks on Individualism

The collective Christian psyche is conflicted on the topic of individualism.

It’s often tied to words which carry equal baggage: consumerism and materialism. There is a regular, nearly constant, declaration regarding individualism, that people just want what they want (e.g. ease, comfort and novelty), and nothing seems to be good enough for them.

First, it makes sense that there would be conflictedness. There is biblical support for individualism and collectivism. Like with other aspects of the considered life, it is irresponsible to simplistically dichotomise those in the formation of our worldview.

My first knock is that this complaint is clearly the manifestation of said speaker’s individualism. People who aggressively point the individualism finger seldom acknowledge how inherently hypocritical that is.

A lot of griping would be undermined with a little bit of Golden-rule self-awareness:

  • How would you like to be spoken about like that?
  • Can your ideas successfully withstand the kind of scrutiny you’re exercising?
  • If someone else approached you with the attitude you’re exhibiting, would you think it helpful?

There is an odd quirk in this: scripture tells us that we must die to self. That means that our shallow, greedy desires should not be the core drivers of our lives. Unfortunately, I believe that people often apply this to dying to their self-awareness, instead of their selfishness.


The same Bible that insists on dying to self, also talks pretty earnestly about standing alone. It’s simple human nature to get those switched.

Here’s another knock: Does God love individuals? Or does love only get activated when people achieve a sufficient mass that they become worthy of God’s attention?

There is a deep, functional reason why this is so serious. People are told to be advocates for their faith. But their individual self has been so subordinated, and even demeaned, that they have no inner confidence left with which to share. Indeed, many churches embrace a model of faith-sharing that says that it’s the pastor’s job; you simply bring people to church, and the church will do the rest.

In my experience, pastors actively, vocally resist this perception.

They can’t do all of this engagement and contextualisation — they know it, and they tell their people so. But resisting it is futile when the entire architecture of church is set up to propagate this mentality.

Here’s the challenging truth (#UnpopularOpinion): You are the only true advocate for your faith.

You’re it! Whatever you believe, however it’s come to you, whatever influences have been introduced to your consciousness, and however you prioritise them — they are uniquely yours. Your uniqueness extends to what you value, what you do not value, and what you do and do not believe.

You are on the hook.

You are in the hot-seat.

You are responsible to test your ideas, to think and dream and remember as richly and articulately as you can.

If there’s anything true about faith, there must be revelations — even small, seemingly innocuous ones — in individual’s lives.

If there aren’t revelations, then it either is not true, or it cannot matter very much.

So, not only is this permission, it’s impetus — study and reflect on your own story. And share it. And recognise that by sharing it, you may be opening yourself up to alternative interpretations of your story — some of which you may even feel are worth internalising.

For people who follow scripture, we’re used to thinking in terms of fixed and rigid.

That’s unfortunate, because I believe scripture itself argues against that. I’ve come to think that Jesus said “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” — not because kids are gullible and trusting (as I was taught), but because kids are curious, and their minds are malleable.

Big difference!

We should love community. But we should not love community when it prevents us becoming who we should be, or twists us into becoming who we should not be.

Indeed, I’m coming to believe that we can only really, truly love a community which is made out of individuals.

It takes space, allowances, candour, freedom, engagement, honesty, challenge and lots and lots of humility. Hey, who wouldn’t love a community like that?

Good, Goods and the Good

There is something essential about consuming. In consumption, as in all aspects of life, there are ditches we can veer towards: too much something, and too little something else. It’s important to pay attention to the too muches and too littles.

But what happens to the tone of this discussion when we start to think about the act of creating?

It changes, right? Generally, we celebrate things that are created. We endorse expression, meaning, creativity and purpose. That spans the gamut, from food, to clothing, to cars — creativity encompasses everything within capitalism’s order of supply and demand.

But let’s push outside of our capitalist model, if we can.

What fascinates me is creating good. I don’t mean creating well, though that’s usually implied. I don’t mean creating a good (or service), though I suppose that’s usually implied, too.

Let’s take a quick look at ‘the good’ in the philosophical sense.

Instead of creating and consuming goods, we should focus on creating and consuming good. Just for starters, good is rooted in values:

  • capacity for awe & appreciation,
  • ability to connect,
  • nudge to better understand our selves,
  • drive to better understand our world.

Every culture defines good, and those definitions often transcend their cultural paradigms.

That is so critical: we get mashed into categories and labels and identity, and from there are eager to see the worst in each other.

We should be looking for the best.

There are lots of adjectives under the banner of good, for example noble, true, generative, generous. The good nudges us toward a better future, and helps us set a course to get there.

Of course, not all consumption is good. That should go without saying. But when the only economy that matters to us is the one made out of dollars and cents, we are entirely impoverished.

The futile bickering between sociopolitical ideals is silly. Nobody’s living up to their ideals, so it all amounts to hypocrisy.

It’s like squaring off along a fault-line, and competing for the prize of best fracker.

But if we would just bend down to dip our buckets into each other’s streams of good, we could be rich beyond riches.

Why Conversations About Privilege are Clumsy

In short, most conversations about privilege boil down to trying to ‘school’ other people with one’s own perspective.

Attempting to impose one’s understanding and will on others like this is itself most often clumsy, and we’re only getting started!

In this topsy-turvy era, an accusation of privilege can be a way to subvert it, and declaring one’s own powerlessness is an act of power.

Bottom line: the conversation is clumsy because it’s handled too simplistically. Here are two factors which would mature this dialogue:

Privilege is Contextual

The label “white privilege” is a misnomer, which attempts to keep this about race. Race is an important aspect, but in this conversation, it’s missing the real point. We should start using the phrase majority privilege. In a democracy, majority means power. If we don’t want democracy to become a monolithic juggernaut, we need to be aware of its margins, its cracks and its gaps — real people live there! Additionally, every demographic or subgroup has a different internal majority, which brings me to the second point.

Privilege is Never Static

Privilege is power, and like power, privilege is dynamic. It’s the ability to make autonomous decisions, without having to face needless pressures or prejudices that result from being different. The thing is, there is a lot of ‘different’ in our world, and what becomes popular — and by extension, unpopular — changes all the time. Privilege and power move unpredictably, and they can be subverted unpredictably as well.

Heedless of these complicating factors, the level of the current discourse attempts to reduce the whole issue to a supposed binary:

“You’re either with the propagators of privilege. Or with the victims of prejudice.”

And each turns into an accusation by the other. Which becomes a counter-accusation. And then a counter-counter accusation.

How can you defend yourself against an accusation like this?

For example, if someone of a different race called you a racist, how would you deny it? Do you think those denials would stand up in your accuser’s mind? Honestly?

Having seen a lot of people’s attempts, my determination is, generally speaking, denial doesn’t cut it.

Making an accusation is taking power.

Accusation is violent communication. It tends to spark a violent response, and the level violence often escalates, quickly! Effectively, accusation narrows your options of response to three:

  1. Fight. Argue. Deny. Defend. Counter-attack.
  2. Withdraw.
  3. Ask questions.

None of these options are particularly great. Asking questions is really the only one with a shot at a productive outcome, because it has a chance to keep the conversation going. The problem is that you have to forgive or ignore being labelled — no matter how unfair you think that is — before you talk.

The point I’m making is that accusation itself thwarts generative conversation. If our predisposition didn’t start with a combative posture, we’d have a better chance for change. This doesn’t mean we have to ignore the feelings built into this. Fear and anger are real!

I’m not saying “Be calm.” I’m saying “Be smart.”

Let’s just knock it off with the accusations, altogether. I think the true goal here is actually more nuanced. Despite what’s happening in popular culture, we are not looking to grow the ditches, and try to catch more people in them.

That’s a counter-productive goal.

Instead, I believe in trying to grow the road between, until it’s wide enough that we can all walk together.

Barrier-breaking conversation just doesn’t happen in a toxic environment. The goal cannot be to provoke shame on either side of the privilege divide. It should not be to hone our weapons of accusation and denial.

The exercise is to lower barriers and foster understanding within the diversity that would strengthen us…if we let it.

Can Rescuing a Word Reclaim Hope?

Everything I’ve ever done
Everything I ever do
Every place I’ve ever been
Everywhere I’m going to
It’s a sin
— Pet Shop Boys

“Mentally ill” is used so often for people who do bad things because we’ve lost access to the real word:



There is a reason for this. Evil has become over-used. When “evil” hides under every doily — as per my example from the Pet Shop Boys, above — then the word is quickly sapped of all power, and even meaning.

To coin a cliché, when everything’s evil, nothing is.

It’s time to reserve evil for when we really, truly mean it.

There is another reason we may be tempted to use “mentally ill”. It is othering: “I could never do anything like that, because that person is fundamentally different than me!”

However those who have been diagnosed with a legitimate mental illness are taking umbrage with the default assumption that a mental illness is behind mass violence. It sets up further fear and prejudice, which can cause massive damage to already compromised mental health.

Additionally, trained psychologists are telling us that despite our desire to give something this antisocial a label, mass-murderers don’t necessarily qualify as mentally ill.

“Mentally ill” is both too broad and too narrow.

(There are, I recognise, different definitions of mental illness being used by trained professionals than what is in the common parlance. Considering the sweeping implications of prejudice, labels and policies, perhaps it’s time to be responsible and precise with our language, over being witty, flippant or glib.)

So, evil it is, then.

Using evil is scary, because there is actually nothing holding any of us back from it. Like blowing through a red light, there is no cosmic or physical restraint.

After every mass shooting in the US, I’ve seen religious people claim that it’s because of the nation’s godlessness and embracing moral relativism. But very, very few people’s definition of moral relativism extends to mass-murder. This is once again irresponsible speech.

We each have impulses to be evil. What holds some people back, and causes others to act on them? That’s a scary question, because the answer is scary: not much.

We are each capable.

I can’t make policy for America. And obviously I can’t change its violent history or even its current culture. So I won’t try.

I will suggest something different: instead of futilely wringing our hands in fear, we need to really begin to formulate robust answers for what evil is (without overreaching), and how it applies to us.

And in order for that, we need a robust understanding of the value of life.

Relying on intuition & instinct isn’t working, and the inevitable shocked gasps, and predictable “thoughts and prayers” aren’t solving anything.

By “a robust understanding of the value of life,” I do not mean mere words and ideas — there is too much intellectualising going on already.

I don’t even mean action, exactly.

I mean lifestyle.

Live your life as a constant testimony to the value of life. If you’re living deeply, richly, as in-tune with the greatest human values you have available, that is a dream worth cherishing.

Certainly worth living for.

And, as the name of this blog hints at, perhaps even dying for.

The Brave, Perilous Act of Communicating

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. — Oscar Wilde

When we think about communicating, we often think in terms of transferring ideas. But in real human communication, there is no transfusion, or transplant or hard-wired data link.

Using the word ‘transfer’ conjures an inaccurate and indeed deceptive conceptual model. It suggests a perfect copy. But that’s never how communication works.

Rather, in communication, new ideas are formed in another person’s brain.

This is critically important; it means that the process is not as simple, tidy or controlled as our language insinuates.

The brand-new ideas we’re forming in each others’ brains are not necessarily aligned with the communication being received.

  • First, there’s environmental noise. We may not actually receive the communication clearly because it’s interrupted or interfered with en route.
  • Second, there’s internal noise. This describes the clutter of thoughts in the mind of the speaker, and in the mind of receiver. A thought might be expressed poorly because it’s rattling so hard against so many other thoughts. And it could be interpreted poorly for the same reason.
  • Thirdly, there is interpersonal noise, which boils down to the relationship between the sender(s) and receiver(s). There are all kinds of unpredictable aspects of this that we cannot control, and often aren’t even aware of. They all influence us in how to believe, position or prioritise the incoming communication.

And even in the absence of noise, we may still arrive at a disagreement — there is a huge spectrum between agreement and disagreement that we often fail to acknowledge. (Especially in the apparent contemporary quest to impose polarisation to absurd extremes.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that communication failed.

It might just mean that people are different.

And we have to learn to appreciate the diversity with curiosity, grace and tact.

Yet to assume that people disagree with us because our communication is poor is a tragedy. When — with a little awareness, care and humility — we could do so much better.

The Unexamined Want

It’s glib. But it happens. A lot! Conversations deteriorate quickly based on this simple assumption:

“You just believe that because you want to.”

This is cut from the same cloth as the Courage Fallacy.  It opines that others’ beliefs are easy, perhaps systematic but above all convenient. The truth is that we humans believe a bunch of things we’d rather not, and do not believe a bunch of things we probably wish we did.

There is no more confusing place to examine desire than when it comes to beliefs.

There is a mysterious division between what we think and what we want to think, and how we know the difference. Being that this is delicate and confusing internally, it is disastrous when it is reduced to simplistic accusations externally — for example, when preachers accuse each other of only preaching for what “itchy ears” want to hear (as per 2 Timothy 4:3).

Nearly every side of every issue could turn that into an indictment against the other, and there’d be a ring of truth to it. But how do we ever know that what we’re saying is not for itchy ears?

  • Because it’s somehow harder to believe it?
  • Because it just makes sense?
  • Because it matches intuition?
  • So we always trust our understanding?

It isn’t at all easy to parse this out.

Yet all too often, this is the level of discourse that exists between ideological camps right now:

Not only can I declare my speculation about your beliefs as fact, I can declare my speculations about how your arrived at those beliefs as fact.

Our world is full of this phenomenon, across the gamut of arbitrary aisles we’ve built for ourselves. In this we have yet another level of depth that the Golden Rule gives us. If we don’t want our beliefs sneeringly guessed at and dismissively gainsaid then, well, we probably shouldn’t do that to others.

We can’t change everyone’s minds, and we can’t fix terrible reasoning that abounds in our world. But each of us can make small differences among those close to us. Each of us can be a bastion of wonder, curiosity and peace.

We don’t get there by projecting what we think we know about each other.

We get there by asking.

And listening.

The Transfer Model is Flawed

We often imagine that education or communication is the transfer of an idea from one person to another, or others.

That’s not accurate — there is something far more complex going on.

Communication creates something new. It actually forms a new idea in someone else’s mind. The new idea is not a pure carbon copy of the original idea — while hopefully similar, it is literally an entirely new thought.

This is critical! If we have the concept of communication wrong, we’ll cause ourselves all kinds of problems.

Just as we can never tell for sure if everyone sees green the same way, or if we’ve just each independently learned what “green” is based on our own individual colour reception, so it is with ideas.

Ideas don’t exist in isolation.

They interact with the self that hosts them. Just for starters, they are influenced by mood, memories, associations, relationships, fears and hopes. The more complicated the idea, the more connections it provokes.

Beginning to conceptualise communication as something new may begin to heighten the respect and care we give to it, rather than tacitly assuming “we told them so they know”.

Without dialogue, we can never know if the ideas that our ideas inspired are compatible, or even similar.

So then, we should always strive to be clear from the outset. But we also need to realise that the beginning is only the beginning. We can only be sure that we’ve been clear when we start to recognise the ideas which come back to us.

A Radical Welcome — Part 2

Radically welcoming isn’t a phrase used by the churches I’ve attended. They’re mostly earmarked marked by a selective, cautious welcome. People are watched warily to see if they agree/disagree with various truth claims, or align with certain behavioural standards, before they’re called insiders.

Jesus’ welcome blasted right through people’s sensibilities and identities. He challenged their rules, traditions, expectations, affiliations and experiences.

Churches now often use a marketing approach to fine-tune their welcome:
“People who look like our current demographic(s) would love to join us.”

It’s easier to form and express solidarity with a group who looks, thinks and talks like each other.

But that wasn’t Jesus’ words or practice.

And if we’re following Jesus, that should at least give us pause.


The Mainstreaming of the Niche

The rallying cry for arts to be in church is being heard in many places. It has become (almost…?) mainstream. Even saying that the church used to be a centre and a patron of the arts — and should be again! — is mainstream.

We can’t get anywhere productive until we consider the reasons why the church doesn’t have this place in the arts now. (And perhaps the reasons why it did –some of which aren’t so pleasant.)

Here it is: faith has been reduced to a set of premises. It’s been boiled down to a (supposedly) logical argument. This is “preaching”.

It’s not just words. It’s a certain genre of words.

And then along comes art. Art doesn’t interest itself in logical arguments. It explores life on a much bigger canvas. It reflects on the absurd, the grotesque, the unpredictable, as well as the noble, the beautiful and inspiring.

Feeling and thought; real and imagined.

This isn’t where the established church loves to camp. The church, in its current iteration, still loves to make sweeping declarative truth statements. Art doesn’t fit easily into propaganda. Not for long, unless an artist is getting paid somehow.

If we think that we can solve the divide by upping the appreciation of art, and purchasing a handful of art pieces, that will only make the divide deeper.

In the broad strokes, art is exploration. 

The church hasn’t (re)discovered that this is its purpose. At least, not yet. It’s still stuck trying to do stuff which is concrete and tangible.

This isn’t to dismissively imply that there aren’t artists in church. Or to imply that what a church does is somehow not “real” art. Rather, it’s to recognise that the church isn’t typically warm to the concept and process of art, just its fruits.

The church cannot be a patron of the arts if its artists are still largely misunderstood and unwelcome.

If art is merely another way to express the same tired, superficial, certainty-infused messaging of the church, most artists will not participate. Those messages are old. They do not reflect the growing clamour of perceived and intended meanings within our culture. Therefore they cannot speak to our culture’s needs.

These are aspects of art we’re going to need to be comfortable with:

  • Not every artistic endeavour is worthy of attention.
  • Not every journey arrives at an important or even meaningful destination.
  • Nothing is guaranteed to have a singular interpretation.

Indeed, we’re going to have to get comfortable with this unsettledness regarding many aspects of human creativity.

I think we can. And I think we will. But only if we begin to grapple with truth in a deeper, more candid way than we’re currently known for.