Nicknames can be hard to shake. Once a moniker sticks, it can be almost impossible to break free from its effects. Don’t believe me? Take a moment to think about the disciple Thomas. How do you know him? By what nickname or moniker?
“Doubting Thomas” — this is how most of us know him. Whether it’s a fair label or not, nothing else in his life seems to matter as much as that one moment following Jesus’ resurrection.
Scholars have suggested that Thomas wasn’t asking for anything more than the other disciples had received. After all, when Mary showed up with a story of the empty tomb, they didn’t exactly take her word for it either. Rather, they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Similarly, Thomas was merely asking for the same evidence that the other disciples received—a tangible, firsthand witness of Jesus’ resurrection.
What about the other ways that Thomas is described in the gospels? Why are they so quickly brushed aside? He is referred to as “the twin,” but rarely is he celebrated on twin day. When Jesus makes up his mind to head back to Bethany to help Lazarus, the other eleven disciples object that it is too dangerous and he should wait. Thomas is the one who speaks up and says, “Let’s go, too—and die with Jesus.” Yet, I’ve never heard anyone refer to him as “Thomas the Courageous.”
What is it about the human condition that we are almost instinctually tempted to reduce people to one single, over-simplified descriptor? Intuitively, we know that human beings are complex creatures and cannot be reduced to one position or one action. Yet, we do it all the time.
“You’re one of those (fill in the blank)—ers.” As if a whole person could be summed up by their opinion on one issue. Or, we do something similar with people’s actions. Too often, we want to summarize an entire life by their actions on their worst day — liar, thief, gossip, addict, murderer, adulterer, etc.
The primary reason we do this is fairly obvious. It is so much easier to dehumanize the other if we can ignore the complexities of their life and reduce them to the embodiment of one thing or another. It’s so much easier to work for my enemy’s defeat if I can forget that they are a person.
As one writer put it: “Once we stop seeing another person as a child of God and him or her instead as the personification of a sin or position, it becomes easy to enjoy the energy of disdain and self-righteous opposition.”
It is much harder to remember, however, that we are all more than the sum of our worst mistakes. Likewise, we are all more than our greatest accomplishments. As people of faith, we must always resist the reductionist urge to caricature others and reduce them to something less than human. After all, the very future of the church (maybe even our entire civilization) hangs in the balance.
Steven Norris is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Griffin.