In the Field Beyond Labels

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(Courtesy of Ian Lawton)

One of my favorite scenes in the cult movie The Blues Brothers is when Jake and Elwood and the band impersonate The Good Ole Boys at an out of the way bar called Bob’s Country Bunker. They look around suspiciously and ask the owner what sort of music they usually have. She says, “Oh, we have both types here- country and western.” When they start playing the blues, the audience hurls insults, food scraps and bottles at them.  Eventually, in order to preserve their lives, they play a version of Rawhide to pacify the crowd.

A lot of the distinctions and labels we put on people and movements are about as insignificant as the difference between country and western music. Like the crowd at Bob’s Country Bunker, we get our noses out of joint when people don’t fit our categories and expectations. If only we could see beyond the surface differences to the universal spirit that unites ALL. The good news is that it’s often no more difficult to find common ground than improvising on a classic old tune like Rawhide. Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. When you hear music that resonates, it doesn’t matter what language or who sings it, or what they call themselves, you have immediate recognition that you are in the company of kindred spirits.

Last week I spoke in London, Ontario at the Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity. I met many kindred spirits, and it wasn’t hard to get beyond their funny accents and Loonie currency to the unity of a shared vision. As an Aussie, I even heard some phrases I haven’t heard since living in the US. Canada and Australia share the chocolate Smartie for example, which incidentally is far superior to the American M and M, eh? But that’s another story.

There were many awesome conversations and new friendships. The only problem with conferences like that is the energy focused on labels and definitions. Is it Christian or is it a new form of Christianity? Is it really Unitarianism in disguise? Is it secular humanism in sheep’s clothing?

Life is too short and there is too much need in the world to spend time arguing over definitions. My preference is to spend less time defining who we are, and more time being who we are. The problem with overly defining who you are is that you can end up clouding the real issues in trivia, arguing over whether the music is country or western. Sometimes the consequence of this sort of labeling is even more extreme, like this classic old story.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.

“Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Are you religious?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”


“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist or Reformed Baptist?”

“Reformed Baptist.”

“Me too. Are you first reformed or second reformed Baptist?”

“Second Reformed.”

I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.

It’s fitting that the new incarnations of denominations are often called 1st reformed, 2nd reformed etc. All they are doing is reforming. There is little transformation taking place. They may be rearranging the deck chairs on a style of spirituality that is sinking. We don’t need any more reformations. We need more transformation.

It’s much the same in politics. (read on for more about labels and politics)

Liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? Tea Party Republican or centrist Democrat? Where do the categories and labels lead us? How do they help the world? Arguments between and within political parties are often as insignificant as debating the difference between country and western music. The titanic is sinking and it doesn’t matter at this point what you call it or how you arrange the furniture. It’s going down.

This is part of the wisdom that I’m learning from OWS. It’s only loosely defined. There’s plenty of room for individuality and authenticity. At rallies, you tend to see a broad mix of age and ethnicity. It’s not a left or right movement, a Democratic or Republican agenda. It seems to be sitting with a vision of something much larger than any of those labels can even point to, and its well beyond reform.

So what’s the Rawhide that can keep the doggie called world order moving? In this case, it may be the shared frustration at corporations gone wild. Some are angry about disproportionate corporate power and wealth inequality. Others are angry because the banks took government bailout money, making a mockery of the whole notion of a free market. No matter your opinions, the market is no longer free. Its tightly controlled by a few.  The new order emerging will be more inclusive than what has gone before it, both in terms of who it serves, and also in how many perspectives it includes. And it doesn’t matter an iota what it’s called if it works. That’s a branding issue that will come later.

It’s in the space between the labels that the best human interactions take place and in the space beyond definitions that possibility dwells. We can genuinely connect from a place of openness and without defense. We have so much more in common than our labels can even hint at. The poet Rumi described it like this-

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense

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