You know, language and words have a life of their own. Some words can change meaning drastically, taking on so much weight, baggage, and connotation that they become nearly unusable unless prefaced by a huge contextual aside to clarify the meaning. The common example here is “thong.” Now, a certain age group will see that word and picture a sandal to be worn on the foot. Before then, a group would have seen a strap to tie town luggage. Now… well… the artist Sisqo had a very particular type of underwear/swimwear in mind when writing his famous “Thong Song.”
That said, there are so many other examples of words that have changed or evolved over the course of history. English is a living language, meaning that new words are added and definitions can change over time as words are used. I ran square into this my first time through “The Lord of the Rings” as the Hobbits and others would regularly refer to bundles of sticks as faggots. Now, my middle-school brain had a hard time with that one – until the context clued me into what was actually being said. I have since come to discover that this particular word which is a slur used for a particular minority group, also had connotations with smoking.
Some words have subtle meanings to certain groups – which would be referred to as coded language. You may have heard the term “dog whistle” to describe some of these terms – the metaphor being that these words are indistinguishable to anyone without the code or specific knowledge.
For instance, the term “Nazi” has a very specific meaning. We, as Americans, have probably overused the term for a joke’s sake (“grammer nazi,” for example) but that may have been an attempt to degrade the power that the Third Reich held for a short, but devastating period of history. The term “Fascist” also has a very particular meaning, also bandied about a bit too much and has probably degraded in its descriptive power over the years. Now, individuals and groups who ascribe to the social policies of Nazism and Fascism would prefer the terms “alt right,” “white racialist,” “white nationalist,” etc. America didn’t do as good a job ridding the world of these groups as originally thought or celebrated at the end of WWII. (And on the other side, America has such a checkered past with “communist” that the word hardly has a meaning in today’s society. It could almost be defined as “enemy of the U.S.” for the way its used in common speech.)
That said, there are some coded phrases that are used, even by well-meaning people that tend to mean something other than the textbook definitions. I’m a believer in clear communication. If we’re going to speak to one another, let’s try as best we can to use the same meanings so that we can both walk away with the same impression of a conversation. Let’s take “urban” for example. Urban can mean, simply, “of the city.” However, it’s often really just code for “black,” as is “inner city.” Take a moment and think about the picture those words conjure up for you. Do you see a diverse group? Or one color of skin? And the word “diverse,” what picture does that draw in your mind? Is it multicolored? Does it include lighter and darker shades? Does it include age, gender, or ideas? What about the word “immigrant?”
Take this verse, for instance, and replace the word “stranger” with “immigrant:”
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34 (JPS)
Or maybe replace “stranger” with “refugee.”
The problem with the world is that it tries to paint human beings as objects, often using language to accomplish tat goal. In some ways, we are fighting against our own minds to keep this from happening. Between racism, sexism, porn, abuse, politics, and misconceptions of religion, the idea that human beings are all made in God’s image gets lost. People are not problems… they’re people. It’s very easy to sit or stand in a place of privilege, and point a finger at a group, dehumanize them and see them as an object, or a problem. It’s much harder to look into the eyes of another human being and see the face of Christ there.
There is a sentiment often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though it has been stated many times in many eras, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This, sadly, has often been the case in history. Jesus, though, did the opposite, he approached the individual, dealt with the human aspect of any situation. He praised a Roman for his faith, interacted with women, welcomed foreigners, and accepted people as they were. (He never left them there, but did accept them as they were.) Jesus didn’t see numbers, he saw human beings.
Until we see others as people, as being made in the image of God, we will be lacking that love of God so crucial to life in the Kingdom. As long as we see numbers, problems, statistics instead of faces, stories, and suffering, we will ultimately miss the work God has set out for us.
Our language needs to reflect God’s love. We should all look at our language and ask what we mean when we discuss with others. When someone challenges us and points out our racist language, we need to be humble submit to one another in love and change our habits.
Your children listen to what you say and what those you respect say. What are they learning about how to speak with others? Are they learning love? Respect? Peace-making? Humility? Are they learning to speak of others as human beings, loved and cherished by the God who made them? Or are they being trained in the world’s mindset – to see people as numbers, statistics, problems?
May we speak truth, love, and peace to our children.