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29 November 2013

Beyond the labels

Beyond the labels

Pope Francis. Image: Casa Rosada via Creative Commons

Pope Francis has done it again.

This week he published an exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), to his followers in the Catholic Church. In it he said: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.”

There's something refreshingly unsettling about this Pontiff. He certainly isn't clinging to the security of life behind the powerful and secretive walls of Vatican City. His humility has been clear right from the papal announcement where he chose to wear simple robes and immediately asked millions across the world to pray for him. He chose to stay in a hostel instead of the official mansion residence and travels largely in a Ford Focus, rejecting the papal limousine where possible.

He has not been afraid to challenge hypocrisy and injustice within the religious, political and economic structures of the day. But beyond these macro-engagements on the world stage, or through Twitter, it is his encounters with individuals that has characterised his papacy so far. He has joked with journalists, washed the feet of prisoners, kissed and blessed those with disabilities and lived among the poor.

Pope Francis speaks of Jesus often and encourages a personal relationship with him. Again in this week’s exhortation he said: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark on a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church's journey in years to come.”

Growing up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland I am fascinated by this man and especially hearing him talk of evangelisation and being born anew. Many Protestants here were told from a church pulpit that the Pope was the anti-Christ. Yet this man challenges me deeply both in how I look at him and how I look at others.

You see, I label people. Not as the literal anti-Christ so much, but try as I might not to, I do label others who claim to follow Christ: sound, liberal, fundamentalist, happy-clappy. And it's not just me or confined to the Church. A brief reading of the headlines this week shows some of the labels society places on others: prostitute, druggie, slave, alcoholic. We take someone's action or aspect of their personhood and use that to define that entire person. We constantly use labels to separate ourselves and to define 'us' against 'them'. In doing so we dehumanise the image of God in others, reducing them down to a word.

I can't escape the fact that when I look at the way Pope Francis rejects labels and encounters individuals I am reminded of Christ. Jesus looked at people through God's eyes, literally. He refused to put labels on people, seeing the holy humanity of each person made in the image of God. When we encounter Jesus and become his followers he takes our labels away. This is part of the 'joy of the gospel', a new identity in Christ. We are given new life, new relationships with God and others and a new identity beyond our labels.

I am not a Catholic, I don't believe all the Pope believes or all his Church teaches. But seeing beyond the labels, I see a humble man made in the image of his maker with a practical love of Jesus. I can only hope others see that in me.

So here's the challenge this weekend. What labels have you put on yourself or on others? Is there someone you need to take out of a pigeonhole? What's stopping you seeing people through Jesus's eyes?

David Smyth is public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland .