Fourth Sunday of Advent

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In the past few years or so we have become a country of labelers. And of labelled people. I see labelling people as an intellectually lazy and very mean-spirited form of arrogance. Labels deny individuality. Members of labeled groups are all the same. We have in the past been really interested in the individual contexts that make us to be who we are. And interested in them because they help make us to be the individuals we are – and have the right to be.

Labels based on family origins, on gender, on sexuality, on religious membership or lack of it; on where our ancestors came from. Or on our quirks and peculiarities – and we’ve all got them, have been seen as just parts of who we are. But using them to turn individuals into members of groups is more than mean. It is dangerous. And it is dangerous because group labels, are all about power and control.

By contrast, the people in the Christmas story that we are soon to celebrate are all individuals. Very individual. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, King Herod, even Caesar Augustus is mentioned by name. Are all examples of the mystery of individuality. They can’t be labelled without distorting the singular, individual way they are presented in the Gospel of Luke. Even the sheepherders are real people.

Human, cultural, spiritual realities are always bigger and more diverse than any label we attach to them. And they deserve the right to be and have that individuality.

The most famous religious writer in my generation, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, wrote about being categorized. He was labeled. And he wrote to a Polish poet I knew.  Categories are of very little use, and often to be clearly labelled is equivalent to being silenced.

There is no substitute for giving people the right to be who they are. Jesus said it. He believed it. We celebrate it in wonderful, poetic and happy ways at Christmas. But it is a struggle to live it – and not write people or individuals off, with one of those dismissive labels we’re so good at. In my old age, in order to avoid living with it, I live alone. In order to avoid the cute little anti-Semitic, racist, anti-gay, and anti-different jokes at dinner I live alone.

Respecting individuality can be a discipline. Yet as our history teaches us so clearly the alternatives are lethal. On our news broadcasts every night about life an hour’s drive from Bethlehem shows us, it can be very lethal.