Archive for May, 2010

Our Words Reveal Our Hearts

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

The Bible makes much of our status in this world as “strangers and aliens,” and the use of these two words — direct, specific, and unvarnished with sentiment — is to convey two crucial pieces of information that describe the Christian’s status in whatever geographic, political ground they walk on.

“Strangers” means that we can expect to be treated as “the Other” in our interaction with the world, those institutions and policies that are under Christ’s Lordship without knowing, or caring, or even evidencing, that they exist at the pleasure of our Sovereign. With that comes suspicion, strangeness of custom and manners, and an at-odds position with what “the locals” are familiar with.

“Aliens” clearly demonstrates that we are not from around these parts — whatever the location of our birth, our new birth in Christ Jesus supersedes our geopolitical citizenship, and the place of that birth is both heart and Heaven. We have become citizens of another place, and this world is not our home. It’s not the place of our spiritual birth, nor our destiny, nor our inheritance. We’re just passin’ through.

But those of us who exist in this physical world as strangers and aliens — as the recognized, predestined Other next to those around us who, once-born, are at home in the world, often cooperate with efforts to divide the human community further, and the ways we do this, the words we employ, can easily mimic the language of this world — ugly, offensive, and needlessly war-mongering coming from those called to be peacemakers.

“Sodomites” is an example. It’s Biblical language, true, and there is a linguistic history of describing males who engage in sex with other males as “sodomites,” although that history is somewhat reckless, focusing as it does on the same-sex nature of the Genesis account of the crime of the Sodomite men, instead of on the gang-rape aspect or, as the prophet Ezekiel points out, the gross indifference to hospitality and the grotesque acceptance of poverty equally manifested by the men of Sodom. Today, though, “sodomite” is used with glee by Christians who care not one bit about the wince-inducing ugliness of the word to 21st-century hearers, and who delight in the literal, linguistic accuracy of the word without any concern for the effect its use has on the peacemaking goal of the Gospel. It’s a perfect example of exulting in “rightness” over righteousness, and its use over equally accurate words like “homosexual” or “gay” makes the hateful, dismissive, hard heart of the speaker abundantly clear. As is usually the intent.

In the debate over immigration policy, the words we use to describe the immigrants at its center are equally revelatory. When we’re discussing human beings, the labels and descriptors we use are important, and Christians ought to strive for speech that demonstrates concern, respect, and honor for the people our words describe. We have an imperative to speak with accuracy so that we can be understood; we have a stronger imperative to speak with respect so that we can be understood as Christ-followers. “Illegal alien,” while strictly accurate — it describes the not-legal immigration status of foreigners, who can and have been called “aliens” throughout history — is also indicative of a hard heart towards those it describes.

No person is “illegal” in their personhood, but only in their immigration status — a status defined by not having those documents that demonstrate their ability to legally enter, live in, and continue living and working in the United States. Further, as is the case with “sodomites,” the evolution of language is such that words that are strictly accurate but now carry additional, usually ugly, meanings can be jettisoned in favor of other accurate descriptors. The people who cross over without the correct papers are here to work — the absurd contention that they’re “taking all of our jobs” is, after all, at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. If, then, the people we are describing are here without papers, and if they’re here to work, why wouldn’t the Christian choose “undocumented workers” to describe them? It’s at least as accurate — as if that were really the point — as “illegal aliens,” and it doesn’t announce dismissiveness, disdain, unnecessary divisiveness, and un-Christian disrespect for people we can easily understand as “the least of these.”

Our words do more than describe; they reveal our hearts, and in a debate as incendiary and ugly as the immigration debate, it’s imperative that we use words that speak peace as clearly as they speak truth. “Illegal aliens” is what we call people with whom we feel no kinship or identity, for whom we feel no concern or respect. It’s “right” without being at all concerned about righteousness, which, sadly, is an accurate description of much of the evangelical world’s approach to morality both public and private.