Language matters. It has power. How we use language matters. It has power to wound, to comfort, to offend. What we think we’re saying isn’t always what other people hear. Language is tricky like that: complex, slippery, beautiful, dangerous…..
Sometimes the church is brilliant with language. We use it to elevate, to inspire, to transform. Sometimes the church is terrible with language. We use it to hurt, to divide, to oppress.
I discovered something yesterday about the language I use. I have a colleague – a wonderful godly woman, a Licensed Lay Minister for 25 years, a true saint – who finds the word “Mass” offensive. I only realised the extent of this yesterday. “Please don’t use that word,” she said, “it really hurts me.” I could hear the pain in her voice.
And so I will try not to. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with saying “Mass”. I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly part of my natural vocabulary, and I imagine remembering not to use it, at least around this particular colleague, will be difficult. If I’m honest, I don’t see why she finds it hurtful.
But that really isn’t the point. My colleague, my friend, my sister in Christ, has told me that something I do is hurting her, so I will try my very best to stop doing it. Not because I think I’m doing anything “wrong”, but because I love her and don’t want to hurt her.
And my point is? We need to listen to each other, to hear how our language is heard by other people. We need to be willing to give up words we think are good or right or beautiful if we discover that they hurt or exclude. We need to be ready to sacrifice the language we love for the people we love more.
This isn’t a pro-censorship argument. I’m as much in favour of freedom of speech as anyone. I have every right to refer to “Mass” as often as I like, in the full knowledge that it will offend my colleague. But I will choose not to.
This isn’t a pro-censorship argument, it’s a pro-humility argument. The humility to listen to someone else’s pain, and realise that it trumps our own preference. The humility to be willing to change by putting the “other” first. It’s one of the ways in which we can bear with one another in love: by listening when someone tells us they are hurting, and not questioning their right to that pain, but doing what we can to avoid causing further hurt.
It’s all the more important when the language we use comes, whether we realise it or not, with the baggage of systemic oppression. If someone tells me that something I’ve said has offended them because it was racist, my instinct might be to say “no, it’s not”, because I didn’t mean it to be. But in that knee-jerk reaction, I’m effectively dismissing their pain, refusing to listen to how I’ve hurt them. By saying “no, it’s not” or “I didn’t mean it like that” or “but you know what I mean”, what I’m really saying is “my desire to be right is more important than your pain”.
It’s the same with misogynistic language, and homophobic language, and probably a whole host of other things besides. What sounds ok to a person of privilege (a straight person, a man, a white person) can be deeply hurtful to the person they are speaking to, who doesn’t share that privilege (an LGBT person, a woman, a person of colour). It’s all about perspective.
And that’s where the listening comes in, because language is not just for speaking, it’s for listening too. We have to learn how to listen to each other if we are really to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And when that listening reveals that we have, intentionally or otherwise, hurt someone by the language we use, we have a choice. We can try to drive our point home, to use our linguistic arsenal to “prove” we were right all along. Or we can look and listen for the ways we can use language to serve Christ in the other, to repair damage and heal wounds.
Language matters. We have a responsibility to think about how we use it.