How Shall We Speak?

When we think of justice-making, we usually think of taking action–like joining a peace action network, sending messages to elected officials about legislation, marching for peace and human rights, or organizing in our communities to make life better, safer and more just. We do not often think about the words we use–but we should.

Since 1973, the United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of efforts to promote awareness about gender-inclusive language and official policy for UCC publications. The words we use reflect the world in which we live, and words can also shape that same world, for better or for worse. Whether we are talking about God or each other, words can limit or expand our abilities to include or exclude others.

In 1993, the UCC Office for Church life and Leadership created the Inclusive Language Covenant stating the UCC stance on inclusive language and the barriers that can be created by using outdated expressions and imagery just because “it has always been done that way” and “it has been tradition!”

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3:28). With these words, the Apostle Paul breaks through the imperfections, inequities, and historical particularities of his world to a startling vision of human unity in Christ. Like Paul, thoughtful Christians today are still concerned about the various barriers of nation, race, power, and sex that divide the human family.

In particular, many Christians who have reflected on both Jesus’ reconciling ministry and Paul’s interpretive words are today questioning their churches’ traditional use of “exclusive” language–language, that is, which uses masculine imagery and terms to describe “normative” or general human experience, or language that implies God is a “male” deity with solely masculine attributes.

Such language, it is felt, not only alienates and excludes increasing numbers of individuals from meaningful worship; even more, it subtly sanctions and perpetuates a culture, both secular and ecclesiastical, in which women and others have systematically been ignored, subordinated, and denied positions of authority.

The UCC inclusive language covenant strive to use language in such a way that gender, race, ethnicity, age, physical ability, educational attainment, financial status, and national origin not become word barriers to persons as it recognizes that all are created in the image of God and are included among the people of God.

What is sought is language to include male, female, and gender-neutral images of God, taking particular care so that they do not inadvertently suggest that God is exclusively associated with one gender. (Examples:  “God in God’s wisdom” rather than “God in his wisdom; “people” rather than “men” “humankind” rather than “mankind;” “forebears” rather than “forefathers.”)

It is clear that the problem of finding appropriately inclusive language for use in the Church is a complex one, full of literal and emotional roadblocks. It is a problem that will not be solved simply by addressing God as Mother or Father or by changing hymn stanzas here and there.

The structure of liturgies, the casual forgetfulness of daily conversation, the limitations of language itself all present formidable obstacles to verbal equality. What is finally at stake, however, is the full affirmation of all God’s human creation–not just half of it.  Such an affirmation will inevitably require, in the words of Christian Century editor Jean Caffey Lyles, both compassion  and compromise.

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