Your Racist Language

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.

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Darn These Feelings!

I recently watched a ballet performance. I do not understand it. Ballet, to me, is like listening to someone tell a story in a language I don’t even recognize, let alone understand. I have not studied the vocabulary of dance to know what the performer is trying to instill or draw from me. As an audience member, I will be honest with my ballet friends and say, I will clap and cheer, but that applause will come from a place of profound appreciation of the physicality and flexibility it takes to perform at a high level of skill in the ballet world. I can appreciate the hours of practice, hard work, memorization, and rehearsal it took to put that dance on the stage. But please, at this point in my life, do not ask me what it meant or how I felt… because I don’t even know.

This experience reminded me of an episode of Invisibilia that I listened to recently. (Yes, you’re all going to be pulled into another of my podcast ventures again.) This episode was on emotions. One of the researchers interviewed in the course of the show presented her findings that emotions are not innate, but taught. That emotions are “concepts” – ┬áideas that our brain uses to explain what’s going on inside of our body when introduced to something around us in the world. She referenced the fact that there are cultures and societies in the world that have markedly different emotions and reactions from one another to similar experiences. Because these “concepts” of emotions are learned, what we experience inside our bodies can differ dramatically from someone else, but it also means that emotions may be much more under our control than we may have thought previously.

When we have words and concepts to understand the world around us, and inside us, we can respond better to what’s going on in the world. A trained musician understands the language of music and can hear what the composer is trying to convey through the piece being played. A professional dancer can watch and feel what a dancer is communicating through their body and movements. A writer can see the subtle allusions and puns hidden throughout a piece of literature. And someone who has been raised to understand emotions and how to respond to them is better able to control themselves in emotional situations. In other words, to understand something, we have to have a vocabulary to explain it. That vocabulary may be actual words, but it may be a collection of experiences as well – such as dance, music, and even food. My favorite example of this was pointed out in the Cracked Podcast in several episodes: the Greeks had no word for the color blue, which meant they probably didn’t see blue – their description of the sea was often “wine colored.” On the other hand, some Eastern European languages have multiple commonly used words for the color blue linked to different shades, and so they, on average, are able to see more shades of blue than other groups. With the “concept” comes better understanding and the ability to see, sometimes literally, the world better.

I understand that emotions have become, in the last few decades or possibly the last century, something of a taboo subject for society, especially for men. Despite this, our historical and literary record is full of men and women who are strong, capable human beings who understood emotion and were able to show that emotion even in positions of leadership. I wonder how children today view emotions or if they receive training at home in how to handle them?

Do they hear that it’s normal to be angry, but that we should not lash out because of it? Do they understand that sadness, grief, and joy all may warrant tears, and how to work through loss or gain? Do children hear about shame, guilt, conviction, and how each of those differ? Do children understand the difference between happiness and contentment? Do children know what to do with boredom and excitement? What about fear?

Without training in emotions and how to develop healthy relationships with them, we cannot expect children to be able to handle stressful scenarios later in life with as much grace and resilience. A stoic personality may be able to cope for a while, but trauma has a way of destroying whatever stoicism a person may have.

What kinds of conversations do you have at home about emotion? How do you model emotions and reactions to your family? How do you explain emotions when they happen and how to navigate through emotional moments?

“Oh yeah? Bless you too!”

In the beginning God created… and he spoke… and it was. And he said it was good. (Or in the case of one of our adorable little ones at church, “It was dood.”)

We all have a sense of the power of words, but sometimes I think our modern minds have tried to over rationalize things. “Sticks and stones” and similar sayings play down the effect words can have. The individualization of America has taught us that we shouldn’t care what other people think… but we still do. (Which is why people say that phrase to begin with, to create a persona of aloof courage, all the while painfully nursing the wound. Much like me getting hurt doing something I wasn’t supposed to when I was younger: “I’m ok. It doesn’t hurt at all. Oh, sure, my leg always looked like that.”)

Ancient magicians in Egypt and Greece had a healthy respect for words. They believed words themselves held power, creative power given to humanity by the gods. We often associate words with magic with spells, incantations, hexes, curses, etc. All of these are words – words that are believed to have the ability to actually impact the physical world. And, albeit in a strange way, they latched onto a truth about the world.

Words do have power. They have the power to heal, hurt, encourage, depress, inspire, or manipulate. Tones have the ability to change the meaning of entire phrases, and can undermine even the kindest of words.

James, the brother of Jesus, took some time out of his day to write a book of wisdom, of practical religion. You know what he spends nearly a whole chapter on? Words. James 3 is a whole treatise on the use of our words. Paul talks about it. Proverbs has many verses on words and how to use them. Our own experience shows us that words can have powerful effects on the people around us. And in all of human experiences there are two opposite ends of the spectrum.

Negative first, since I like ending on a positive note. The curse has been for most of human history feared and taken as the utmost offense. And back in the olden days, they really knew how to curse. Nowadays most cursing involves a simple 4-letter Saxon word and a pronoun (you.) Curses could be long, calling down poor crops, poverty, sickness, pain, and many other undesirable effects. And here is where James says is the problem with Jesus disciples using this. How, he says, are you seriously going to let such an awful thing come out of your mouth? Your mouth is supposed to be a life-giving spring connected to the life-giver Himself, and you’d allow such hateful sewage be sprayed onto another human being, who is also created in the image of God?

On the positive side, think about that image of a spring of water. A spring refreshes, heals, cleanses, and cools. That’s the goal of the blessing. The blessing is a prayer for goodness, health, wealth, gifts, and many good things directed at another human being. There are some wonderful blessings in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. We even see God blessing humanity with fertility, authority, and responsibility. Paul includes a blessing or two in each of his letters to the churches.

If you’ve never considered what the blessing could do, I’m recommending a book. This book is titled The “B” Word. Catchy title, huh? It’s written by Robert Strand, a pastor and writer. In it, he uses Scripture to highlight the benefits and the ins and outs of blessing someone, especially children. See, he has a tradition in his family of blessing every grandchild when they reach the age of 13. The entire family gathers together and each member prays a blessing over the child. The effects of these blessings has been a wonderful thing to watch unfold over the years as these children live into and experience the fullness of the blessings they may not have understood at the time.

So, what’s the point? Well, consider changing your language. Instead of, “[insert word of choice here] you!” Maybe try praying blessings over others. “But, that’s ridiculous,” you say, “that sounds like weakness and extremism!” Maybe, but the man I follow, Jesus, did that very thing while soldiers were beating him and while the crowds jeered and mocked him. Saying a blessing over someone who cuts you off in traffic instead of cursing them seems like a small step in the light of Jesus’ example.

How does your language reflect your walk with Jesus? Do your kids hear blessings from you, or only criticism and curses? Do your children hear you bless others or curse them? What’s one situation this week where you can intentionally make an effort to control your words and use them in Jesus’ name.