Say what? Redeeming our vocabulary

I’ve been thinking lately about the words that we use, and about the associations and connotations that are already firmly attached to them. There are many terms and phrases that have been so warped over the years that their meaning has become unclear.

What does it mean when we say, “Muslim”? Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama was notable for me in that it took by the scruff of the neck the subtle and insidious belief that if someone is a Muslim, he or she is connected to terrorism. Contrary to some people’s mistaken assumptions, the majority of Muslims are not extremists, bent on bringing destruction to the West and overturning capitalism and globalization. Can we see Muslims as believers in the one true God, equally committed in their spirituality, and trust that they seek to live out their faith as diligently as we do?

What does it mean when we say, “Christian”? If it’s quoted in the media, it’s usually referring to someone in the Religious Right—an ‘evangelical Christian.’ But most of us at Fuller Seminary would probably identify ourselves as evangelical Christians; and many of us would abjure aspects of the Religious Right’s agenda, or at least their methods. Must we attach a codicil to the words “We are Christians” spelling out exactly what kind of Christian we are? Or can we be people who all follow Christ but have different ideas of what that may look like, and can we value unity in the body over our particular interpretation of Scripture? Can we trust that God works through all manner of people who claim to follow him, and even through those who do not?

What does it mean when we say, “liberty”? Is it personal and individual freedom to do whatever I please? Is it license to pursue my own prosperity, regardless of those whose wellbeing is undercut? Is it about freedom from government interference, whether it be taxes or healthcare or education? Or is it connected with responsibility at all, with a duty to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper?

What does it mean when we say, “evil”? Do we locate it in a person—Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do we locate it in people—al Qaeda or Hamas? Do we locate it in an ideology—big government, being pro-choice, or homosexuality (referring to the sin, not the sinner, of course)? Or do we call injustice evil? Do we call poverty evil? Do we call thousands of African children dying every day from preventable diseases and for lack of drinking water evil?

David Dark writes, “We need media that will help our words (freedom, love, terror, mercy, evil, forgiveness, democracy) regain their heft. When they lose their heft, we’re tools for whatever contagion best suits the stratagems of the prospering wicked. We lose the ability to question someone else’s abstractions, and we’re left with little means to learn or understand better stories than whatever seems to suit our anxious projections of ourselves” (The Gospel According to America, 49).

May we learn to be careful with the words we choose and the words we use.

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