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Inclusive Language

May 29, 2012

“Inclusive Language” Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost B © 5/27/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Some years ago, a religious journal ran a little humorous item in which the reader was given a list of terms and invited to test whether he or she could use them all in a paragraph of 100 words. If the reader could do so, it was a sign of qualification to serve in the ecumenical church bureaucracy, in other words, to be an executive. The required vocabulary included “solidarity,” “global,” “co-creator,” “networking,” “marginalized,” “patriarchal,” and several others. I’m not sure whether I should be ashamed or proud that I could and can actually use most of the words!

Every profession or trade, of course, has its own particular vocabulary and jargon which often mystify the outsider, the uninitiated. So we find ourselves asking that a specialist in a field speak in “layman’s terms” or “use plain English.” Even if they do not intend to, sometimes people exclude others by the way they speak.

Language can create barriers. And that should convince us that how we speak with and to each other is vitally important. Words not only reflect reality and perceptions, they shape them. The ancient Hebrews believed that the word carried with it the power of accomplishment. They were right. Consider the time and effort that goes into finding just the right words for a treaty or other legal document or a sensitive note to someone. Think of how the wrong word at the wrong time can change a relationship, maybe forever. Reflect on the pain inflicted on a child who is verbally battered, continually told she is “stupid” or he is “no good.” Yes, words can be empty and idle and worthless. But they can also be full of power, moving people to action or changing the way we see reality, for good or ill. If we doubt their power for evil, we have only to consider the ranting of a dictator or a terrorist leader that leads to a Holocaust or a 9/11. If we do not believe words can move a society to greatness and goodness, we have only to remember sentences like “I have a dream” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Because the task of the Church is proclamation, the power and place of language in human life is always an issue for us. Like any other human institution, the Church sometimes builds walls and excludes with words, on every level from the national bureaucracy down to the local congregation. I once had a sign on my office door in Kentucky inviting people to come in. I had written it in four languages: English, French, German, and Bureaucratese. The last one said: “I celebrate your empowerment for ingress.” It was, of course, a slap at those in the church who use stilted, overly-sensitive language. But before we start talking about “those people” in the national office, how much of the worship and proclamation of any community of faith would make no sense to someone with no prior background in the Church? We are mistaken if we assume everyone has even a basic knowledge of Bible stories or knows what a “doxology” is or relates with anything but puzzlement to concepts like “justification” or “the Trinity.” Or even if our words are crystal clear, we couch the gospel in terms that identify God and Jesus with a certain class, age, race, gender, and culture. This despite the richness of images for God in the Bible and the urging of the Scriptures themselves to break down walls. So we exclude in another way.

We can wring our hands and say “Oh, ain’t it awful how things have changed” or we can put ourselves in the place of the postmodern seeker or someone left out, and try to make the Word understood, the service “user-friendly,” and broadly inclusive. We don’t give up gospel truth when we do that; we simply put it in a new package. All language in the service of God needs to be language in the service also of people God loves. It has to break down barriers, move people to open up, be a bridge into truth, a guide into encounter with the divine. Whether in individual conversation, in liturgy or in a council meeting or Bible study, language in the church needs to be consistently life-giving and life-affirming, rich with images that lift us to God, encouraging exploration of truth rather than shutting down conversation and questions, imparting wholeness and peace, and worthy in every way of the One called “the Word of God.”

Efforts to use appropriate and helpful language in worship and for the gospel are our groping for a contemporary way to express the truth of the Day of Pentecost. Namely, that the proclamation of the gospel ought to be in language people of all sorts and backgrounds understand. Luke seems to go to great lengths to emphasize the diversity of the crowd in Jerusalem. He has Peter preach on a text that promises salvation to young and old, slave, and free, in fact, to anyone who calls on the name of the Lord. The promise of God is to all people everywhere, whatever they do, wherever they live, whoever they are. The promise of God is to me. The promise of God is to you.

This Pentecost language, this gospel talk, is inclusive language that transcends barriers in order to gather up a people who in the power of the Holy Spirit will praise and serve and love God, made known in and by Jesus. When we speak it, we ask folks to become part of a community of faith and hope and love. We call them to share a vision and dream a dream of a new world. The differences remain, but they become occasions for celebration rather than conflict. The gifts given are many, but they are used by each one for the good of all. The miracle of Pentecost is that communication is possible again. On that day, God gave language back to humankind. He gave it back as the way we tell the truth. He opened our ears to hear what another may be saying.

Our generous God still gives us gifts like that. We don’t have to live behind walls of hostility and silence in our families, our church, our town. We don’t have to talk to each other only in angry tones or have a “conversation” that is really no more than a veiled attempt to get someone to see our way. We don’t have to berate and belittle and dissect every sentence to see what the speaker really means. Instead, we can listen and learn and love. Really talk with each other, using words that act like hugs instead of fists, that become steps on a bridge instead of bricks in a wall, the blade of a plow planting a crop instead of a sword seeking to kill. We can say the things we think and feel. Truly communicate.

Those ancient tongues of fire can sit on each of us today; the wind of the Spirit can blow through our lives, creating a world as fresh and new as the heavens and the earth on the first day of all days.

Wouldn’t we like to live in a world like that?


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