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Inclusive Language

May 16, 2016

“Inclusive Language” Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21 © 5.15.16 Pentecost C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every profession or trade has its own particular vocabulary and jargon which may puzzle the outsider, the uninitiated, the non-specialist. When Susan worked in publishing back in the day, I heard about “leading” (pronounced “led-ing”), meaning the space between rows of type, and “widows,” which in typography are not bereft women, but little words of less than four letters at the end of a paragraph on a line by themselves, so there’s too much white space. I’m still sensitive to both when I do the bulletin. When she became manager of a real estate firm, I began to hear terms like “pocket listing” and “flipping houses,” “MLS” and “the HUD.”

Religion has its own technical language, too, of course. Today when we celebrate Holy Communion, I will invite you to say the litany called the Sursum Corda and the Great Prayer will include an anamnesis, followed by the epiclesis. I could speak to you about hermeneutics and how to trace the trajectory of a pericope of text. We could talk about hamartology or heilsgeschichte.

So we find ourselves asking that a specialist in a field speak in “layman’s terms” or “use plain English.” Sometimes, of course, people mean to mystify. Families speak in code, making references that only insiders understand. Governments, corporations, and the military keep secrets from enemies. And using jargon may be an ego trip, meant to impress, as in a cartoon I once saw. Two people are talking in an elevator, while a third overhears. They’re speaking in incredibly complex, technical language. When they exit, the one who overheard says to himself: “I wonder if they talk like that when they don’t have an audience.” But even if they don’t intend to, sometimes people, including preachers, 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 who is hurting or with whom we want to reconcile. An author searches for the right beginning for a novel. If we read “It was a dark and stormy night,” we know we’re in for a turkey. 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 when the door was closed against the noise down the hall. 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, politically correct 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’re mistaken if we assume everyone has even a basic knowledge of Bible stories or knows what a “doxology” is (much less the words to it) 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, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit with a certain class, age, race, gender, culture and historical era. 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, as in William Tyndale’s vision of translating the Bible in a way “the ploughboy could understand.” 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, male and female, 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 reversed the Tower of Babel and 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, our nation. 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, love and live. 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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