I have strong feelings about language. Maybe that’s because I am a sometimes poet. Maybe it’s because one part of my calling is to preach–to write and speak and teach about things that I believe are important. I have to choose my words carefully and thoughtfully, so that they truly communicate what I hope to say. At the same time, I have had to make peace with the fact that I do not control these words I use, no matter how much I try to tame them. They have a life of their own, and often contain messages that I never knew were there. Anyone who’s spoken publicly knows that inevitably someone will come up to you after you speak and either argue with or compliment something you did not even think you said. The truth is, no matter how carefully we choose and craft our words, most of the message comes from the listener.
That said, I have a really hard time with some words. I asked a gentle question over at Brother Terry’s blog about his use of the word “God-haters” for those who do not believe as he does. Now, you should know right off that this is not about Terry. I happen to like him a lot and I know when I go to his blog I am going to be in a different theological world. In spite of our differences, Terry has always been respectful, even loving, to me. So this isn’t personal. It’s truly about the power of language.
What I don’t understand about using the word “God-hater” is the impulse to villify another. Now I know that in Terry’s faith tradition, God has real and powerful enemies. I understand this intellectually, though I don’t happen to share that worldview. But I have never understood the impulse to be angry at “sinners” and to use language that makes them seem intentionally evil. (We’ll save my views on evil for another post, ok?)
In part, I don’t understand this because when I read the Christian Scriptures, I see just the opposite attitude in Jesus. When it came to the “lost,” Jesus was compassionate, forgiving, and very slow to judge. Centurions, Samaritans, tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery…Jesus healed, called them forth, and forgave. The only people he seems to have consistently rejected were the hypocrites–people in religious leadership who seemed intent on protecting their own power and prestige.
The Jesus I see in the Gospels judges only one kind of people: those who judge and demean others. It seems to me that the people who think they know who is a “God-hater” and who is a “God-lover” are on thin ice if they hope to practice the faith that Jesus practiced. Jesus saw that even the boldest sinners often still long to be close to God. He drew out their nascent faith and made it clear to them that even though they were imperfect, God would still have them. By extending loving welcome, Jesus made them realize it was possible for them to change.
What does this have to do with Unitarian Universalism? Well, I think we are prone to a similar kind of judgmentalism. We expect that people who don’t live and believe as we do are “backwards” or “anti-intellectual” or “not well-educated” or “self-serving capitalists” or whatever our particular version of “God-hater” is at the moment. Rather than reach out to them, we build a wall of words to keep them at bay. And in so doing, we cause a lot of pain.
When the “language of reverence” issue took hold, I saw and heard some of that pain. Christians within our association told stories of being met with anger, dismissed as idiots, and invited to “go somewhere else if you believe that.” Humanists and secularists were treated as reactionary dinosaurs who had no imagination or spiritual depth. Frankly, we treated each other worse than Brother Terry has ever treated me. And that makes me deeply sad.
Words are powerful. They are sometimes dangerous. They can heal, draw out the best in someone, or do irreparable harm. They can send someone who is looking for a place to grow their heart and spirit running screaming away. Or they can invite them in. The words we use to describe what is sacred to us are, perhaps, the most dangerous words of all. We have to wield them with great care. We have to open our language to the possibilty that someone we don’t understand may know something about what is sacred that cannot be contained in words we are comfortable with. To invite them to the table, listen to their story, and make room for the words they use may well help us all learn what we need to learn to save ourselves.