Defying labels

In the week since the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, much has been written in remembrance of his life, his manner on the court, and his legacy. Even in the midst of such commentary and the almost immediate speculation about the process of nominating his successor, there arose a story that I had never heard: the infamous friendship between Scalia and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

They'd met on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, and despite their polar opposite ways of interpreting the law, became fast friends. Together they celebrated New Year's Eve with each other's families, enjoyed a love of opera, and, even once, shared a ride on the back of an elephant in India.

Reading Ginsberg's comments at the death of a dear friend, whom she called her "best buddy," I was moved by the ways people are drawn together beyond simple labels. Sometimes the oddest of couples can make the best of friends. And so it was with the two justices seated at opposite ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum. What could have very well kept them apart ended up strengthening their professional and personal lives, not because they ignored the labels that identified their ideologies, but because they chose to embrace them as a part of who they were and to embrace each other as more than just a label.

There is a lesson in that for us as individuals and as institutions. As Mark Shields, the PBS political commentator, has said, "You can tell the health of an organization by whether they are looking for heretics or converts."

It's all about how we choose to label — about what we allow to define our relationships and interactions.

We create labels because they make us feel secure and help define the world around us. A label qualifies whatever it is placed on. Qualification isn't necessarily a bad thing. For Scalia and Ginsberg, labels reflect part of who they are. They didn't deny their positions, but they also didn't let them stand in the way of a deeper relationship.

In a world full of labels, it can be easy to choose sides: Democrat or Republican; progressive or traditional; conservative or liberal; male or female; gay or straight — the options are endless. Yet, in everyday life, if we're willing to hold our labels and the bias that often come with them lightly, labels can become more of a help than a hindrance.

That process, however, takes the courage to be brutally self-aware and honest with ourselves and the world. It requires us to recognize the fruit that is borne — both good and bad — from how we qualify/label others.

For this reason, in 2013, the Jesuit weekly America took an editorial stance of prohibiting the use of labels such as liberal, conservative, and moderate in writing about factions within the Catholic church. These words "describe factions in polis, not members of a communion" the magazine's editors wrote. Such terms would be prohibited "when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context." The move was a bold statement on what the church hopes to be and the power of labels to divide. For some, the move seemed to be wishful thinking in the face of realities of division in the church, a body not always in full communion, while others wholeheartedly embraced the groundbreaking policy as a way of defying the labels that divide us.

There's no denying that labels come naturally to us as humans. For all of history, humanity has employed labels: black, white, slave, free, Gentile, Jew — the list goes on and on. Even early in the life of the church, labels came into play. The question of who could belong to the kingdom of God hedged on the labels used in the early Christian community, and even Jesus faced his own labels and the presumptions they brought in dealing with the Canaanite woman who pleaded for "the scraps from the table" to heal her daughter.

At their best, the labels we place on people or situations signal a desire to understand. The root of that desire (and that understanding) is where prudent judgment is required. After all, at their worst, the labels that we use exclude and demean the other in our lives.

It's helpful then to consider where the labels we use come from and where they are leading. Do the labels I apply to an individual come from a place of openness and care or do they come from a place of, or desire for, classification, distinction, and perhaps bias? Do I label others because I long to understand them more fully or because I've already decided that I know them?

Labels stick. So, we have to be careful how and where we put them. We have to be open to allowing our labels to be lifted, reformed, and redefined. Our relationships with others, with ourselves, and with God can only profit from this flexibility. To allow ourselves such flexibility is truly an act of humility, recognizing we only know (and can know) so much.

How many times have we presumed to know someone, only to discover that we could only grasp a piece of their story, a part of their full person? And whether that piece is positive or negative, in our judgment, we can only be enriched as much as we are able to see beyond the labels we place on others.

Of all things, the loving relationship between individuals at polar opposites of the U.S. Supreme Court helped exemplify that.

We don't do justice to anyone by confining them to one label or another. The true work of justice is to label others the way God does: with love.

Using labels in this way allows us to see ourselves and others as capable of loving and being loved. It draws us together in unity rather than dividing us through judgment, defying the divisive nature of labels and defining relationships in terms of love and care.

That's perhaps the greatest gift we can give and receive — to freely enter into relationship, without being bound up by unnecessary labels. That's a radical position, but perhaps, in a world that's so bitterly divided, love is the only label we really need.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]