Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Power of Naming

In one of my course lectures, I was discussing the fact that only 7% of Americans identify as "atheist or agnostic." I compared those statistics with other countries like, for instance, Sweden, where atheism/agnosticism is in the 70-80% range, and Mexico or Cuba, where atheism/agnosticism is in the 7-8% range. Departing from my lecture notes, I made the following statement:

"In terms of its theism, the United States resembles the Third World more than it resembles other Western, industrialized countries."

One of my students is from Cuba. She raised her hand and said, "When you used that term 'Third World,' it was like taking a sharp knife and plunging it into my heart."

Ouch. It's hard to describe how mortified I felt in that particular moment. Anyone who knows my views on theism knows that I hardly considered this particular comparison between the U.S., Mexico and Cuba unfavorable. And anyone who knows me, would know how far it was from my desire to plunge a metaphorical knife into anyone's heart. It was not the content of what I was saying nor what I intended that hurt. It was the words I used.

My student was right to call my attention to this, because words have a power to structure reality far beyond their mere denotations. The words "Third World" speak of a particular relationship between the United States and the nations of Latin America, a relationship which is not pretty.

Recently, Ty Mansfield published an essay in the North Star Newsletter entitled "Beyond Gay. Beyond Straight. Beyond Mormon" about the power of labels. He discussed the fact that we use labels at various times in our lives to empower and free ourselves, but that those same labels can eventually come to have limiting, oppressive aspects as well. The only labels, ultimately, that he claims at this time in his life are "Saint" and "son of God."

Some would say this is naive. Any Minnesotan knows that refusing to use words like "freezing cold" doesn't turn our fair state into a tropical paradise in February (or even March!). The words simply describe meteorological reality, and remind us to put on an extra layer or two when we go outdoors. And yet, I have observed that some Minnesotans use the terms "freezing cold" with much greater frequency than others, and that those who use the words more often seem to obsess more with the negative aspects of the meteorological reality they purport to objectively describe. It is true that words structure our relationships to things, and those relationships can be positive or negative. Words are never neutral.

Ty didn't explicitly draw a comparison between his thoughts on "labels" and the words of Paul, but I immediately did. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," Paul wrote in Galatians 3:8. Paul also wrote: "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:9-11).

Here Paul speaks to all those lines that divide us into oppressor and oppressed, lines between the "industrialized world" and the "third world," lines between men and women, lines between those who are economically powerful and free, and those who are not. And, significantly, between those who claim "circumcision," those who find themselves blessed and pure within the framework of organized religion, and those who are "uncircumcised," those who for whatever reason find themselves outside the bounds of ritual, organized religious purity. There is only one true reality that should structure all our relationships, says Paul: Christ who "is all, and in all." To speak those other realities, and to cling to the inequities that underlie them, says Paul, is to speak (and to live) lies.

My relationship with my partner is not defined by our "gayness." It is defined by our love. Love is the word I claim. The love between us is built on a larger foundation of love, on our Heavenly Parents' boundless love for each of us. If it is not, it cannot possibly last, because if I do not let an understanding of God's love for him structure how I behave in relation to him, I risk becoming trapped in self, letting my own ego become the guide to our relationship. Out of the love that we share with each other, which is but one facet of a multifaceted divine love, love extends to others, to our foster son, to neighbors, friends and family that we love and serve in the world around us. Love restructures the world around us into a community of Saints, a community of Holy Ones who know their natures as Children of God, and who build their lives in the new reality which is God's kingdom.

May we speak those invisible realities, and so begin to live them!

1 comment:

MoHoHawaii said...

Glad to see you posting again!

That "neither Jew nor Greek" passage is about my favorite thing Paul ever said.

If we ever needed uniting, it's now.