“Oh, people know what we mean.”
“You’re being too sensitive.”
It is hard to be corrected on the words we use, or words we’ve always used, without feeling defensive. Yet words are incredibly important, when we are trying to convey the love of the Word Made Flesh. Jesus chose his words carefully, and even accepted correction. When he equated healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman to throwing the children’s food to the dogs, the woman repeated the slur back to him, with her claim that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table (Matthew 15: 26-28). We might imagine that what changed Jesus’ response immediately afterward was part better theology, but also part hearing his own word, and how it devalued the person in front of him.
To be heard by those around us, to have Jesus’ mission understood when we speak about it, we too need some correction in our word choices. We can start by asking how something sounds to members of marginalized groups.
A friend and colleague who struggles with fertility will not use the words “barren” or “infertile” even if one of them is used in Scripture, because even those who have not yet birthed children are fertile in many other ways. Their lives are not barren, but filled with nurturing relationships of all kinds.
A post on the light/darkness imagery of Isaiah 9 on the Disrupt Worship Project blog led our Bible study to question how the good/bad meanings assigned to light/darkness throughout Advent could subtly reinforce prejudices in a primarily white congregation.
A friend of mine who is gay once jokingly corrected me when I proposed directions by saying, “I think we should go straight for awhile here.” “You can go straight, but I’ll just go forward,” he said with a smile. I feel that nudge from him anytime I hear phrases such as “follow the straight and narrow.” I know that is describing a path, not a person, but our brains make associations with words, and in that use, “straight” is definitely equated with “right.”
If my right to say whatever I want is my highest value, then I can pay no attention to what words mean to anyone but myself. But if I want the good news to be heard through me and understood by others, then I had better ask more frequently, “Does how I’m saying that obscure the meaning for someone? How can I be better understood?”