Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Beyond the Labels and Categories

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Thirty one years of pastoral ministry practice has given me the opportunity to interact with all kinds of people from all walks of life. I am truly grateful for the many lessons learned over the years about the power of ministry as an instrument of hope, love and compassion for people. Despite the many ways in which the larger society labels and divides us into racial, religious, ethnic, religious and other categories, I have long learned that we human beings are far greater and have much more in common than those classifications would lead us to believe.

The practice of ministry has taught me that we are all on a journey to personal discovery; excavating a deeper awareness of ourselves, others and God. We all seek to make sense of our lives by finding value and meaning and by coming to terms with our strengths and limitations. But even here we are more than these things, more than our professions and our vocations, more than the sum total of our life experiences. We are always more and something other than whom others say that we are. If we cannot fully know who we are ultimately, how can others? At best what we manifest gives people a sense of who we are, but never an ultimate understanding of all that we are and all that God has created us to be.

There is a deep and abiding mystery to life in which we search to find ourselves; unearthing our essential purpose as well as our ultimate destinies in life. The spiritual life teaches us that we all are on a quest to find and complete ourselves in this journey. Somewhere there is value in the journeying, power in the processes of shaping and being shaped, discovering and being discovered, revealing and being revealed and of learning and unlearning life’s myriad lessons. The open-ended nature of this journey of discovery has power in that it cannot be manipulated or transacted strictly for social or political purposes but spiritually far exceeds their totalizing grasp.

I have discovered that while the social categories in which we have been placed and ultimately tuck ourselves have some value in helping us formulate and congeal some form of social identity, the classifications themselves do more to wall us off than bring us together. We often cannot discover our true selves or others because we are tightly locked into these neat little suffocating boxes where breathing is limited.  Its walls and partitions grow higher and longer each day and  ultimate purpose is to keep us from the adventures of discovery and the revelation of life unfolding.

Society has programmed and structured us to be cut off from one another; to find more meaning in the boxes; to take refuge in our cubicles; to find an ultimate value in our various forms of separation and ultimately our estrangement and alienation. We can’t discover ourselves or each other because we can’t get out of the boxes. We can’t discard the labelling or escape our sending to the various points of our social destination which usually means somewhere out of the purview of the larger society. We have been “labelled” and “boxed” and “labelled” and “shipped” so that true discovery of self and life and others and God seems no longer possible.

What I have found in the practice of ministry is that everybody is a person; someone of inherent value and worth that often exceeds my debilitating and limiting classifications of them. No matter what they have done or where they have been or what others have said about them, it is merely a description and not an ultimate definition of who they are or what they shall ultimately become in God’s eyes. These trite descriptions also should not us prevent us from discovering who they are because in such searching we learn something not only of them but of ourselves.

One of the worst possible things which leads to our continued alienation is to keep repeating and reinforcing  the various forms of social compartmentalization which ultimately lock us into patterns of behavior and belief that make for our easy manipulation of each other than a mutual discovery of each other. As we seek to build a more meaningful world together, a life beyond the labels and categories will help us all to find greater purpose and value as we seek and discover our true common ground.

One response to “Beyond the Labels and Categories”

  1. Cassandra Salter-Smith Avatar
    Cassandra Salter-Smith

    Thanks for using your gifts for the Body of Christ and your words of wisdom. This article is profound.

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