I know you. I know all about you. I know that you are Catholic and you are Jewish. I can therefore make decisions about the kind of person you are. I know that you, over there, are Mormon, and you in that corner are atheists, which tells me all I need to know about what you think and how you live.
It cues me in to your degree of goodness and moral character, and informs me if you need to live in fear.
As a society of people living in towns and cities across our nation, we regularly do this to one another: We call groups out as sinners, lazy and dirty while we shake our heads and feel sad for those we know are deviant, immoral and lost. It has become a prevalent habit which people of all stripes and shapes rehearse.
Two months ago, my story about how I moved from the culturally acceptable name of Christian to the provocative label of atheist was shared in the News-Sentinel. It has been a unique experience to realize how many people in the area now know me since my name change.
You know, I should be afraid: that I am arrogant, dangerous, lost, without any good in my life and unable to do anything good with it. You know God mourns for me, and Jesus winces at my betrayal.
When you and I play this "Name Game," we throw judgments over people we have never met. We allow our prejudices and assumptions to classify everyone around us and decide if they are acceptable or unacceptable, good or bad, and if they can or cannot be part of our good society, now or ever. We cut each other out of our collective human picture, resulting in one that is fragmented and open to hate and intolerance.
The problem is that you don't know me. The invisible moniker hanging above me does not tell you who I am. I admire Jesus. I teach his story of profound actions of justice and equality and his words of passion to end poverty and value women. I love ritual, meaning making and finding meditation leads us to claiming our goodness.
I am not afraid. I no longer worry about if I am good enough for God or anyone else. I celebrate that I am naturally good and have in me the power to make more good for myself and others. I claim this for you and everyone else.
Simply because you identify as a Christian, agnostic, Buddhist, secularist or other does not mean I know your story, your joys or challenges.
The Name Game does not actually help us know one another. It divides us into categories which then become prisons of low expectations and judgment, giving permission for mistrust and discord. Our ability and willingness to work together is inhibited, and we all lose.
It is time for us to honestly and with intention get to know one another beyond the preconceptions and biases attached to these labels.
How can we in the San Joaquin Valley make deliberate choices to gather beyond our comfort zones for the sole purpose of recognizing our common humanity and goodness? How can our city leaders facilitate such gatherings? Can our churches, temples and mosques join in hosting an event? Will our academies of learning and intellect open their classrooms for a diverse group of people to come together?
In the end, there is no more powerful label we can assign to ourselves and one another than "amazing good human." When we all choose to practice and rehearse the idea that we are naturally good no matter our other names, brands or titles, we will have the power, creativity and capacity to address the problems that face us.
We will change the world.
AmyJo Mattheis, formerly of Lodi, is a former ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a graduate from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She is a former Peace Corps volunteer and the author of "Religion Made Me Fat."