Broad Brushes: The Ease & Problem of (Mis)Labels
In my journey through the Message, one thing I was continually bothered by was the swift leap to labels.
It’s not that this problem doesn’t exist elsewhere; let’s be honest, it’s a widespread part of being human. You see these issues being played out in a range of human interaction and governance; from the broader spectrum of world religious practice to racial tensions and political/social partisanship. People like to label – it’s easier to do than breaking things apart and putting them in a thoughtful place.
In a group like the message, belonging to “the truth” involves a regular practice of actively separating sheep from goats and wolves. The entire premise of the message is being “called out” (elect) from the rest of “them” (denominations). “Those” people – whomever they might be – were quickly piled into a heap and characterized in whatever way supported and justified the narrative of “us”.
When I first came into the message, I was coming from the ‘outside’, and so my perception was that the message was a work of bringing me out of “them” (anything that disagreed with the message), and into the truth (the message). The focus seemed to be a distinction between the message and the denominations; we were the true church and they were the false church. But as time went on, it began to feel a whole lot more inward specific. The denominations were a non-issue by now; they were all spiritually dead. But who among “us” held more truth? There were churches of all kinds within the message, many of whom split away from other message churches. Many preachers routinely preached against other message groups.
The terminology of the labels might differ between groups or individuals, but they were routinely done. A church who leaned more to the more “to the letter” of the message, and all others would become “modern/informal/backslidden/denominational”. Another church who leaned more to the spiritual things, and all others were “formal/cold/lukewarm”. Perhaps the easiest way to categorize other groups was according to their pastor or circle of preachers they associated with. Often the first question was “who is your pastor?”, and that was all the information required to form a label.
Brush Strokes: The Work of Discerning
I am an artist; I learned to paint many years ago and went to art school. Working with oil paint is a pleasure; and it’s amazing how much ‘realism’ can be accomplished with effort. To achieve realism, the outcome of the painting correlates to the amount of effort you take in the details. The broader and looser the strokes, the less realistic the outcome. It’s called “impressionism” when you paint with broad strokes; you don’t gain realism, you just get an “impression”. To get a highly realistic picture; you paint detail upon detail with small, careful strokes. Much like painting, realistic discernment is an act of accurate detail: the more insight into the details, the more the possibility of creating an accurate, realistic picture. It takes far more effort and time.
It is human nature to leap to assumption and to apply labels with a broad stroke. In my opinion, the reason is quite simple: we are lazy. The time to do the work of discernment, and to become informed is too much to ask. Therefore, Americans are arrogant, Canadians are polite, Democrats are liberal, Republicans are religious and so on.
“They and them” are no better than “us and we” – if a broad brush is used. And this is a problem, because often the “truth” doesn’t have to apply, and instead we will regard other people by a label rather than by their actual story, perspective and motives.
Labeling is Dehumanizing
I am a former message believer, and I do believe the message embodies characteristics of cult tactics and systematic undue influence. I believe through experience, observation and extensive time learning about abusive culture/group dynamics that there is an widespread problem with emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual abuse that occurs – and which is inherently nurtured by the Message system. The system of the Message promotes and protects itself through fear and phobic indoctrination – and being able to see the problems and respond to them honestly is compromised by these tactics common to all cults. That is my opinion, and those are the tones by which I would use to paint a picture of the Message.
HOWEVER – to apply a broad brush to the whole is to dehumanize the people within, and to categorize everyone by the characteristics I mentioned. Do I think all people are abusers? Do I think all people are suffering? Do I think people are foolish, uncaring or unloving? Do I think all people are dishonest? Do I think they are lazy or disinterested in “truth”? Do I think all people wildly mislabel, as I’ve been talking about? No!
Many other people who’ve left the message have shared their opinions with me too – and just because we share a common perspective does not mean I am required to adopt their opinions, attitudes and ideas. I am not responsible to know why they’ve concluded what they have; I consider it my responsibility to own my opinion based on what I have taken the time to learn. Just because they tell me something doesn’t mean it’s so. It’s not enough to say “they’re message believers”, therefore they’re all dishonest and foolish. I know I had my own story of why I came into the message, why I believed, how I believed – but also why I had a problem with it, what triggered my concern, why I decided it was flawed and why I had to leave. Each individual has their own story – and labeling their experience will have little benefit.
The danger is forgetting to see past labels or characterizations, and to abandon the importance of listening, communicating and understanding. Not all people, churches, ideas, applications of teaching share the same views. Not all situations or experiences are the same. Just as I don’t want to be labeled, I don’t want to label someone else – whether they are members of an opposing view or otherwise.
Why is This Important?
I feel strongly that this is a powerful aspect of moving forward in a healthy way. It fosters a negative dialogue in your mind and with others when you lock into a label; the negative stigmas and mantras you repeat begin to colorize all your thoughts, opinions, words and attitudes. Negativity is caustic and unhealthy – and formulates an unproductive path for moving forward in life. You’ll begin to embody the characteristics you claim to despise.
At the end of my message journey, I began to despise how we considered anyone non-message to be lesser; either “serpent seed”, “secular”, “denominational”, “deceived”, “blind”, “laodicean”, etc. The last thing I wanted to do was carry this attitude and propensity into my post-message life.
To refrain from labeling is not the same as accepting or agreeing. It’s not an abdication of forming opinions about certain groups, and recognizing their characteristics. To be wary of “labels” fosters a level of integrity and interest which has a purpose of truth. After careful observation and learning, you may find that “the label fits”. But you may also find that you learn something you didn’t expect; the key is being honest in your listening, your thinking and your interest in finding the truth.
I used to label all churches outside the message as “denominational”, and thereby people in their churches as “denominational Christians”. What does that even mean? Do I have a single clue about the people in the church? Have I learned about their story, their experience, their faith? Why that church? In the same way, as a message believer, when I would hear that someone went to ‘Bro. Donny Reagan’s church’ – I would immediately assume highly of them. Whereas when I heard someone went to Branham Tabernacle, I would think less of them. Why? Because I had pre-assigned stigmas to the labels attached to their pastor/church/practices. Neither of those things mean anything – except that caring enough to actually learn beyond what pre-judgement could provide.
When I began to attend my first church outside of the message, there was a man always sitting on the front bench wearing a basketball jersey, backwards ball cap and tattoos all over his arms. My instinct was to apply stigmas, stereotypes and labels. Where was his suit? A ball cap – in church? But I was learning; and when I heard his story – I no longer saw the packaging – I saw someone who had been through exceptional circumstances and made something amazing of his life.
A person may be black, white, red, brown, yellow, Pentecostal, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, democrat, republican, communist, new age, married, divorced, single-parent, homosexual, beautiful, disabled, rich, poor or whatever else – your label will mean nothing until you look past it, and become interested in the truth of their story.
This is a practice in life which will take you further to being more aware, more caring, more connected and more interested in truth. As a former message believer, it’s something I’ve had to learn and practice – to my own discomfort. I’ve listened to opinions that I wouldn’t have given a breath to in the past. But it’s a most wonderful, powerful thing to embrace. It will be another catalyst for “healing” apart from the message – because you don’t have to let bitterness and sweeping negativity apply to all things in the past. You can understand; and understanding is powerful for yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Excellent article, as usual. I struggled with this in the message – usually felt like fighting them when other groups were labelled uncharitably. And still struggle with my own labelling looking back sometimes at the folks we left behind. Thanks for the thoughts. 🙂
Thank you, Nathan – nice to see you! I do think labelling is something we all naturally do. Humans are very much a “path of least resistance” creature. But I think self-awareness is a good place to start; some people would only go so far as to argue “but I know I’m right” about their own labels. 🙂 Conscious awareness of your thoughts and being willing to be critical of your own thinking are tools you can work with.
I appreciate the feedback!