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Troy Jackson Headshot

Beyond the Limits of Labels

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A few weeks ago I had the great privilege to help launch a new faith organizing initiative in my home state: Ohio Prophetic Voices (OPV). Over the two-day event, over 150 clergy and faith leaders, including African Americans and Caucasians, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Evangelicals, participated in a call for Christians to work for racial and economic justice in the public square.

We were thrilled a national reporter chose to attend and write about OPV. His article, titled "Obama Could Have a Prayer Among Ohio's White Evangelicals," included much that reflected the heart of what OPV aspires to be: Christians coming together to speak out and organize around Biblical justice issues in our state.

Still, the article suggests that OPV is little more than an attempt to get white evangelicals to vote for Obama this November: "The meetings that (pastor Chris) Beard attended were officially nonpartisan, and there was no mention of either Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. Still, they were part of an effort by liberal groups to mobilize religious voters, union voters and others before the election."

To be fair, the reporter uses a common approach in an election year: viewing efforts from faith groups to engage in the public square through a partisan frame.

Still, as the director of this new initiative, I categorically reject this frame for OPV. This is not primarily an electoral effort, but rather a long term organizing strategy to bring greater justice to our communities. On November 7th, the day after election day, our work will have just begun. We are determined, in this election season and beyond, not to carry water for any political party, candidate, or ideological agenda.

Instead of taking our cues from party insiders, cable news, or the blogosphere, OPV will engage most deeply in that space where, as Frederick Buechner so eloquently puts it, our "deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." As followers of Jesus, this space will flow from Scripture and a deep engagement in the lives of people in our congregations and neighborhoods.

So is this possible? A major legislative achievement in our state affecting people with felony convictions gives us reason for hope. A powerful partnership between the legal expertise of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the leadership of returning citizens through Cincinnati's HELP program, and the powerful faith organizing of OPV partner the AMOS project helped bring a major criminal justice reform bill to fruition in Ohio.

An article in the Columbus Dispatch noted "It was a rare thing -- liberal black female Democrats from Columbus and Cleveland working with conservative white male Republicans from Springfield and Cincinnati on a bill that one sponsor said 'changes lives.'" The bipartisan bills passed by margins of 27-4 in the Senate and 96-1 in the Ohio House! Governor John Kasich will sign the bill into law in a few weeks.

This is the type of work that is possible as OPV partners with others in our state for justice and transformation that reflects our faith in God, our love for people, and our commitment to the God-given dignity of every human being.

Of course society will continue to typecast us, to label us, to call us conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. The Apostle Paul once wrote, "Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." The pattern of society is to label and thus minimize.

Author Madeline L'Engle said it well in her book Walking on Water:

"It seems more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on a label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love someone is to call him by name, and to open the wide gates of creativity. We forget names and turn to labels... If we are pigeonholed and labeled we are un-named... to name is to love. To be Named is to be loved."

We need a lot less labeling and a lot more naming in our nation over the next five months, and over the next five decades! At OPV, we will not allow our work for justice to be reduced to labels and views of the world that are unable to imagine creative faith-filled civic engagement that is not bound to broken political parties and ideologies.

Instead, we commit to embodying renewed minds as we learn the names and faces of our neighbors and friends. We will join those who are hurting and suffering injustice as we struggle together so we can be "restorers of streets to live in." (Isaiah 58)