As mentioned last week, even though labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are great to a certain extent because they help us make sense and categorize our world around us, there is a nasty side effect which almost single handedley eliminates all of its positive attributes. Namely, it’s the terrible side effect of “characterization.”
A characterization is a negative judgment about someone that influences what you say and think about that person. A characterization is an incomplete picture; it is one that attributes a negative quality to a person or group. It is a label that seems complete to you at the time. I believe that many of the conflicts in our churches stem from caricatures that we create in our minds regarding the “other side”.
Characterization is more than a negative judgment about someone or a group’s behavior; it is a frozen, negative judgment about them that silently attacks them, like stealth character assassination. When we freeze our negative judgments this way, we don’t even know we are doing it. Such judgments prevent us from recognizing the sum total of that person. Because you’ve already judged the person or categorized a group, your perception filters out everything that doesn’t fit in with what you’ve already decided that person/group is. Then, whenever you hear the label or see the person whom you have characterized with your label, you tend to notice only those qualities that fit your judgment.
I remember when I was interviewing for a position somewhere, someplace, and the question was asked of me, “Do you consider yourself liberal or conservative in your views of…”
If I were to have answered in either camp, it would have immediately created an impression which would not be completely true of me. You may say, “Well, but don’t conservatives act like so and so?” or, “Don’t liberals tend to love such and such?” These questions miss the point: a characterization is different from simply describing someone’s behavior because it arises out of a background of dislike or hate.
So instead, I answered, “Yes, all of the above” laughed, and moved on to share my main problem with that. “Whose standard is my conservatism or liberalism being compared against?” I responded. “The problem with that question is that everyone thinks that they are the balanced ones and base their definition of those titles based on that fact. I won’t pigeonhole myself into those categories because I am both and neither.”
Characterization along these superficial lines can be especially damaging to a church’s unity (or any group in general) because other than creating silent rifts and polarizing sides, sometimes characterization also involves a strong urge to persuade others to similarly apply the negative label we are providing. This, in turn, leads to gossip.
Gossiping Builds Characterizations
A specific type of talk we all participate in that can cause great harm to our personal relationships is gossiping. Gossiping really serves two roles:
1) To make the gossiper feel okay by putting someone else down.
2) To foster an intimate connection with another person (not the person being gossiped about; to form a connection with the person that is being gossiped to).
Ironically, a longing for closeness and validation makes us want to attack those who are not present. Now, I don’t claim have the answers to fix all of our church’s problems (that would be Jesus). To help remove characterizations, I find it extremely helpful to remember the following sentences whenever I encounter the urge to want to characterize someone in a label:
- Do I recognize that this person is bigger than the vibe I am getting in this moment?
- Do I recognize that I’m bigger than any of my own temptation to label this person?
- How would I respond or act if I were going to die tomorrow?
- What would I say if this person were on their deathbed right now?
Other interesting approaches that I’ve heard have been:
- Imagine the person being loved by someone, such as his mother.
- Find something admirable about this person or group. For example, is he/she passionate, single-minded, or talented? Does this group focus on something you tend to neglect?
- Think about a context in which this person/group would be an asset.
We leap to conclusions all the time and don’t think it matters. We make judgments based on so little information! Too easily, we make unkind judgments about situations that we just don’t understand. At some point you have probably negatively labeled or characterized someone or a group, and the same has been done to you. If so, the best advice that I can give is the one found in Colossians 3:13:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Just as forgiveness releases the one doing the forgiving and love is felt by the one loving, if you are not getting the respect you desire, chances are you are not being respectful. Check to see whether you are negatively judging the person. If so, repent, ask the Lord (and maybe that person) for forgiveness, and move on. When you begin to change what you say and do behind the scenes with the labels you associate to people, you will not only see improvements in your relationships, we will see improvement in the way our church handles the challenging dilemmas we face.