Last Fall I was invited by the editor of the Brethren in Christ journal for the practice of reconciliation, Shalom!, to write an article on the theme of Belonging. I chose to focus on language, and the following is the article as it appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Shalom!. I loved the opportunity to think deeply and write about this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts in response to the article, so comments are very welcome! I’ve also included some questions at the end that I found myself asking after I revisited this bit of writing.
Language and Belonging
By Abigail Long
SPENDING ANY TIME studying literature or learning a language reveals clearly that humans are linguistic beings. It’s deep in our ethos;we have a fundamental need to express meaningfully, be listened to deeply, and receive response to our expression. It’s also a big part of the glue that creates and keeps relationships going.
Expressing our desires to have relationships with each other also goes beyond simply explicit playground-esque requests. “Let’s be friends” often comes more subtly than that. While living in Korea a year ago, one thing that made me feel like I belonged was the willingness of a church member to weekly translate the services for the three or four English speakers in the group. On top of this, other church members who didn’t know much English at all also still made a huge efort to have conversations with us. That action communicated love, letting us know we were wanted and valued members of the congregation. That simple extension of welcome meant just as much as someone saying plainly, “You belong here.”
I saw this again recently in news articles about volunteers in Sweden and Germany who are setting up free language classes for thousands of refugees making their way into Europe. Their reason? They want the refugees to truly feel part of society there. The decision to welcome someone into your own language community or to spend time learning another person’s language communicates value of those people or that language.
Language has power then to deeply answer our need to connect with each other and belong. However, as with many great goods, when administered incorrectly it has profound power to cause harm. Language unfortunately also often becomes a force of exclusion.
We have little trouble identifying the more blatant forms of exclusion through language; we know no one intended to foster feelings of belonging with signs in shop fronts like “Irish Need Not Apply,” “White Only,” or “Speak English in America.” We can easily disapprove of that kind of racist and exclusory language. It is difficult when that exclusion is more subtle, and perhaps isn’t even intended. I have often heard the complaint, “you can’t say anything anymore without stepping on someone’s toes!” It’s an exaggeration which expresses the deep frustration of many of us. We want to know how to use language to genuinely welcome people and not subtly exclude others, and still refrain from language policing-overkill that makes us feel like we can’t communicate clearly.
An example of this familiar to the church might be the debate over the use of gender neutral pronouns instead of male-centric ones in the Bible where the context denotes the whole church, both male and female. Many of us grew up hearing and reading male pronouns used as a way to speak about humanity in general, so interaction with the biblical text in that way probably isn’t much of an obstacle to experiencing Scripture deeply. In contrast, many other readers have grown up during a time where more care is taken with gender pronoun specifcity. A woman might fnd that a verse declaring that peacemakers will be called “children of God” rather than “sons of God” instantly communicates. Neither party wants language to distance them from the text.
We see more potentially painful kinds of distancing in other areas. For example, terms like“illegal alien” are perhaps accurate in the exact meaning of the words, but the intent is distance; they say, “you don’t belong, you’re not one of us.” It seems to me that avoiding this distancing is one of the things people are attempting when they advocate overly careful language use. While moderation is definitely important, perhaps their sentiments deserve some consideration.
I would like to suggest that as lovers of Christ and lovers of peace who value others greatly, the language we use with each other should reflect this. One of my favorite children’s books, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, illustrates this idea well. In the story, two of the characters, Meg and Progo, are Namers. Namers call things by their “true names”; they “help them each to be more particularly the particular [person, thing, star] each one was supposed to be.” In one scene, they rescue Meg’s despised principal who is in danger of being Un-Named by the Ecthroi, the forces of evil they battle throughout the story. Though she dislikes the principal greatly, Meg is finally able to muster up enough love to name Mr. Jenkins, and the result is striking: “Meg named you– …It means you are a part of whatever is going to happen.” Mr.Jenkins belongs because Meg told him, in love, who he was. It’s a story that as Christians should sound quite familiar: “…I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine” (Is. 43:1b).
I think that it isn’t just poetic metaphor when the Gospel of John tells us that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Could it be that we are tied together through language because God bound us to himself through an “in-the-flesh translation”? Jesus teaches us how to speak the language of God in a human body; he shows us how to be. Jesus is the ultimate Namer; and our role is to mirror Christ. The first chapter of John goes on to tell us that the Word-Made-Flesh is full of two things: grace and truth. That is our pattern: being full of grace, communicating love and value to those we interact with; and being full of truth – speaking truth like Jesus, who is truth. Like Christ, we must be incarnate users of language who work to bring others closer to each other and to God, showing them what it means to communicate in the language of the kingdom of heaven.
How can I “Name” my students in love, but do so that also helps maintain order in the classroom so that learning can happen well?
How can I “welcome” a student into a language classroom? What does a welcome look like in that context?