“Words are things, I am convinced…
I think they get on the walls, they get in your wallpaper
In your upholstery, in your clothes and finally…
Into you” - Maya Angelou
Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. How many of us have mouthed this phrase to ourselves like a mantra in hard times, or given them as advice to a youngster? We use the phrase specifically because we know it isn’t true. Because we know that actually, words are powerful.
Yet we consistently throw them around as if they were meaningless. What if we took our words seriously? Would we be able to keep pretending, for instance, that using exclusively male language for God was not also communicating that something about maleness was inherently God-like?
“In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was with God and the Word was God…through [the logos] all things came into being…” – John 1:1, 3
Remember learning about the Inuit language in which there are about twelve different words for snow—and thus an increased capacity to understand, to see, twelve different kinds of snow? From my Cleveland upbringing and a slough of NYC winters, I could point out maybe three different kinds. If I had twelve different words, would I be able to see more?
I imagine myself, a little girl growing up in a church full of exclusively male leadership and male language for God. Can she see the divine in herself—or is that possible reality closed off to her because she has no language for it? And when this little girl, 20+ years later, finds herself to be an ordained clergy person, will she be able to understand that as a part of her identity? Or on some level will a lack of language hide it from her?
“Dear God, are boys really better than girls? I know you are a boy. But try to be fair.(signed) Sylvia.” – Taken from a child’s letter to God
About three years ago around this time of year, I was lucky to get involved in a conversation between many wise women who work in denominations and their women’s organizations, in seminaries and churches, who were concerned about the way words were being used. Most of them had been active in the “original” inclusive language battles in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They had worked hard to write articles opposing male-only language for God, they had passed through denominational and seminary policies that required use of gender-neutral words for God and for people: chairperson instead of chairman, brothers and sisters instead of simply brothers, and the repeated use of the word God instead of any pronouns at all (For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only…etc.)
Each of these women, about 20 of us on a conference call, were deeply troubled at the state of the usage of inclusive language in churches and seminaries today, after all these policies and regulations were in place. Instead of an improvement, they had seen a decline. Students brushed off the concern for inclusive language as the pet project of one professor, not a central justice issue for people who would become leaders of faith communities. Pastors and people in charge of denominations used inclusive language when they felt like it, or remembered to do so—which was not often.
That was the problem identified on our phone call; when folks were just handed a rule or a policy, they were not apt to understand why it was important to follow. We needed a way to not just tell people what kinds of words to use, but to help individuals understand how much was at stake in the language they chose—how the words we use can reinforce the very systems of injustice we say we want to dismantle: patriarchy, racism, ablism, heterosexism, and on and on.
The other problem we saw was the problem of neutral language. When pastors talked about God and Godself, we all found ourselves continuing to picture a male, often white, God. The neutral language did nothing to equalize or change; it only masked the systems of power rampant in Christianity. Instead of neutral language, we determined, what we needed was more language. More words, images and pictures of God. A greater diversity. Instead of simply “inclusive” language, we needed something expansive.
Out of this conversation sprang Words Matter, a project based in storytelling and conversation with awareness and awakening as its goal. Words Matter gathers a group together and then asks each person to tell the group a short (3 minutes or less) story about a time when they noticed the power or importance of words. Every time I lead this process, I am surprised again that everyone has a story. When we give the prompt, we are careful to specify that these can be stories of hurt or of healing, but the vast majority of stories I hear are those of pain. They are stories of not belonging, of being unworthy, being left out, being discriminated against.
The hope of Words Matter is that once we understand our own stories and can truly hear others’ stories, we might understand in a real way how words matter, and we might change the way we do things as a result. Words Matter imagines our communities of faith not as neutral, politically correct gatherings striving to be inoffensive, but as wildly dynamic and vibrant places where we use more words, more images, and more stories in an effort to speak to the hearts of so many different kinds of people who gather with us. Places that spark our imaginations and allow us to see more, different realities, like learning new words for different kinds of snow.
But I caution you. Once you start to open yourself to how words impact people’s lives, their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing, living in the world can become deeply troubling, and it is quite difficult to un-see. Perhaps you will start to see these connections and get excited, and try to tell someone about it! Here I caution you again. It is so easy—so easy—to put together a pamphlet telling people which words they should or should not use and then to distribute it. But getting people to understand in their core how words they hear and words they choose themselves are participating in systems of injustice, and how these words could potentially be words of life and healing—that is a difficult task. As far as I can see, our only choice is to try.
It is with this caution that I invite you to join me on this journey. Words are powerful. Words are things. Words shape the way we understand the world. Let’s use them together, to build a reality with more, more access, more possibility, more belonging, more welcome, more acceptance, more affirmation. More. Can we do it together?
Learn more about Words Matter by visiting www.wordsmatter.org.
Rev. Meagan Manas is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) She currently serves in a validated ministry as Justice and Peace Staff Specialist for Presbyterian Women, and is Program Coordinator for the World Day of Prayer USA Committee. Meagan lives in Brooklyn with her husband Dan, and cats Marge and Arthur, and is interested in eating food, communities, and thinking about how to make religion good for people.