A man who uses a wheel chair called a church and asked if he could attend. “Oh yes, we’re handicapped accessible,” he was told. He said his wheel chair was 31″ wide and was assured there would be no problem. When he arrived, however, the door into the sanctuary was only 30″ wide. Fortunately the church had a smaller wheel chair. He transferred into it and was able to enter the sanctuary. The church thought it was providing equal access. How did the use of language contribute to the church’s mistake?
A woman responding to a call to ministry left a leadership position in business management and enrolled in seminary. After graduation, she began looking for opportunities to serve in local churches but without success. When she sought feedback, she was told they were looking for more leadership potential. Knowing her work experience qualified her as a leader, she began to wonder if she was being judged as lacking in leadership potential because of her gender.
In Luke 14, Jesus teaches about hospitality. In verse 13 he says, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” Then he goes on to illustrate his point with the parable of the great banquet (v. 15-24) in which the one giving the feast instructs his servants to “bring back the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In other words, true hospitality will bless those who cannot return the favor (v. 14). But how do most translations of this chapter contribute to the social stratification that keeps certain groups of people separate and disenfranchised?
These opening stories are examples of how people of faith use language in ways that create conditions of justice or injustice for others and how they can facilitate or inhibit full participation in the life of the faith community. We will explore them further throughout this article.
Language, Power, and Justice
Language is a powerful tool. It facilitates social interaction. It also creates barriers and glass ceilings. People in positions of privilege use language that supports their privilege, often without thinking about it. For example, when I was growing up, I heard men use the word man or menin a universal sense to mean all people, instead of using the word personor human. But the reality I saw was that men occupied the positions of power and privilege in society. The way they used language perpetuated the privilege they enjoyed and reinforced the power structure that ensured that privilege, regardless of how universally they meant to include women in the word men.
What does language have to do with justice? In Micah 6:8, we are required to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” As people of faith, we are called upon to do the right thing, to treat others with compassion, and to maintain a modest attitude. Doing the right thing not only refers to action but also to speech (James 3:1-9). The way we use language can create just or unjust conditions for those to whom we speak. Privileges that power groups take for granted and never have to think about are often denied to others by the way the power group uses language. The use of language in a society is a justice issue whenever anyone marginalized is inhibited or excluded from participation in the power groups’ privileges. Using careless or insensitive constructions of speech can exclude others from opportunities for full participation in community life and promotes unfair and untrue stereotypes. Once our speech pre-judges our attitude, it is easy to keep others at arm’s length, even when our intentions are charitable and well-meaning. This article will explore how language, specifically as it relates to disability and gender, is a justice issue, and how to promote justice practically through careful, intentional speech.
Able-ism and Sexism
If we care about justice, and Scripture demands that we do, then by necessity we must care about injustice in contexts such as the systemic prejudice of both sexism and able-ism (discrimination against those with disabilities). We are all included in the way power is used to include or exclude on the basis of ability and gender.
Sexism was one of the first isms that I personally began to examine and deconstruct. I started my investigation my first semester of graduate school in religion at Baylor University in the summer of 1971. What I learned from this study transferred to other kinds of institutional and systemic prejudice such as class-ism and racism. It was over 30 years later that I began to apply what I had learned to able-ism and the issue of disability. What I have discovered is that all the systemic prejudices share a common strategy of using power to exclude a target group, but they are not all exactly parallel to one another in the way theyexclude groups. Because these systemic prejudices are not completely parallel, we cannot apply the same critique across the board to all of them. In this article, some of the justice issues that apply to disability also apply to gender but in a different way. For example, instead of saying, “All disabled people are welcome to worship,” we use person-first language that states “All people with disabilities are welcome to worship,” because it is more just to emphasize the person than the disability. But because able-ism and sexism are not completely parallel issues, it may not always be helpful or logical to request that, “all people” should be substituted for, “all men and women.”
Nouns and Labels
One of the most powerful tools in any language is the noun. Nouns name things. In a certain sense, naming gives control over the thing named. Aware of this power of naming, the Hebrews shied away from naming God out of respect for God’s holiness and nature. The Hebrews certainly had names for God that emphasized a certain aspectof God’s nature, such as El Shaddai, which suggests God’s abundant and nurturing care. But they were reluctant to use a noun to name God’s self.
Recall the story of the Burning Bush in which Moses asks God, “Who shall I say has sent me?” A common translation of YHWH is the King James rendition, “Tell them I Am has sent you.” However, given what we know about ancient Hebrew, a more accurate translation might be, “Tell them I Will Cause What I Choose has sent you.” God gives Moses a verb, not a noun, as the answer to Moses’ question. God wills and creates the way to express God’s self. God cannot be controlled. In addition, creative expression is not gender-specific but can be expressed and experienced by anyone. The One who sends is the One who actively and willfully creates.
Sound theology informs our use of language. Instead of resorting to labels, we are to respect one another’s creative gifts and inherent worth. Of course, we all have proper names that we use to identify and honor one another. But using a noun, more specifically a label, to identify persons can dishonor and prevent them from expressing their creative energy, their “image of God.” The blind man. The crippled woman. The deaf woman. The mentally ill man. Being blind, crippled, deaf, mentally ill, man, or woman has nothing to do with the creative energy these people have or their will to express it. For example, “Pat suggested that the group review its accomplishments to date and clarify its purpose and goals before deciding on a strategy for membership growth.” From this description do we know if Pat is a man or woman? Young or old? A person of color? Depressed with bi-polar disorder? We cannot answer any of these questions. Does it matter? We might infer that Pat is a careful planner who looks for strengths on which to build strategies. Pat’s creative leadership might not be taken seriously had we labeled her a pregnant 17-year-old Korean adoptee. When we label others, we reduce them to our insufficient perceptions and judgments, which prevents us from welcoming their creative input and receiving them as peers.
Here are examples of stereotyping that prejudges our expectations:
Women are overly emotional so they don’t have good leadership potential, especially in a crisis situation.
The mentally ill cannot be trusted in social situations so they don’t make good public speakers.
Girls aren’t good at math so they should not be encouraged to become engineers.
Dyslexics can’t keep words in proper order so they should not be allowed to read Scripture during worship.
We will never know the creative potential of these people if they are barred from participation. We will never know with what creative voice God has gifted them unless we stop using a label to make a value judgment about their worth.
The name God gave Moses, YHWH, is an invitation to expect creative action that we can neither control nor predict. Proclaiming we are made in the image of God is saying our creative ability is best expressed when it is not reduced to a label. How willing are we to invite the creativity of others when we use a label like handicap? We lower our expectations and openness to others when we think of them and talk about them with language that labels them first and foremost as their disability. “The disabled are always welcome in our congregation!” Are they really welcome when we refer to them as if their essence and primary identity istheir disability? This mindset, when expressed through language, may work to limit our expectations of their creative potential. “People with disabilities are always welcome in our congregation,” is better language.“People are always welcome in our congregation” is best when the issue is disability. When the issue is gender, however, it may be important to say explicitly, “Women are welcome to stand for election as moderator of the congregation,” or “Men are encouraged to help serve the soup supper on Maundy Thursday evening.” In the disability context, person first language is just, while in a gender context, explicit reference to men andwomen may be more just. For both issues, context and intention need to be carefully examined in order to determine the most just word choices. For further examples and helpful hints, please see the charts below.
To illustrate this point, try saying, “The blind in our congregation are always welcome to read Scripture for worship.” If by reading we mean verbalizing the printed words of Scripture from the Bible, then it is obvious that a person who is blind cannot read to the congregation in this manner. When we think of people who are blind as the blind, we immediately assume reading requires sight, and thus we eliminate the blind from tasks that require sight. However, if we say “Volunteers in our congregation are always welcome to read the scripture text for worship,” and a volunteer steps forward who is blind, then it’s the quality of being a volunteer that is important. Once we have accepted the willingness of the volunteer, it becomes a mere accommodation to have the text put into Braille or put into any form that the volunteer can use to read it to the congregation.
Each of us has creative gifts to offer our communities of faith. Yet when we use labels that limit people, the label prejudges our expectations of others, and we do not invite them to use their God-given creative abilities. This kind of pejorative labeling even occurs in biblical translation. In Luke’s parable of the great banquet, translators usually describe each of the invited guests with a noun that links their identity with their disability. The translation is not those who cannot walk but instead the lame as if being lame is the only characteristic these people possess. If we claim to be made in the image of God, then we are persons first and the conditions we live with are simply aspects of the way we live, not our total identity. A more accurate, respectful, and inclusive way to translatethe poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame would be those unable to repay the cost of the meal, those with injured limbs, those who do not see, and those who cannot walk. Though this translation uses more words, it retains the humanity of each invited guest and does not reduce who they are to their disabilities. It teaches our minds to see these guests as Jesus did—as people first who live with conditions that are challenging but not dehumanizing.
To better understand how this thinking works, it is helpful to examine the nuances of terminology as it relates to disability and gender.
The opening story of this article ends with the question, How did the use of language contribute to the church’s mistake? The church used an oxymoron, handicapped accessible, to reassure the caller that he would be able to use his wheel chair in the church building. I hear this phrase used quite commonly by churchgoers in a well-meaning way. But again, it perpetuates the kind of thinking that does not acknowledge the creative potential in each person. Instead, it puts responsibility for lack of access on the person with the disability instead of on the barrier that prevents access. Handicapped accessible labels the person as having the barrier when, in reality, it is the building that is handicapped, because the building has the barrier that does not accommodate the disability.Handicapped accessible thinking says it is the man’s fault that his wheel chair is 31 inches wide, not the church’s responsibility to maintain door widths at standard ADA (Americans with Disability Act) dimensions.
Women also experience this shift. Institutions like the church close doors of opportunity to women by using gender as a rationale to discourage them from leadership. Women are often assumed responsible for lacking leadership potential simply because they are women. This circular logic blames the woman for being a woman. The institution is free to move on without including women in its leadership because it has shifted the responsibility for lacking leadership ability away from its policy of exclusion onto womanhood itself. This sleight of hand is a justice issue for the church, because it overlooks God’s non-gender specific, creative energy, active in the gifts of women.
Human beings use language to conceptualize relations among people and to define power relationships that identify who is included and who is not. Christians are called to love others as God loves, which means we must examine our language use to ensure we are not setting up our thinking to exclude others from full participation in the community of faith because of ability or gender. We know that our mental, emotional and spiritual health is positively enhanced when we experience the nurture and sense of belonging that a welcoming faith community provides. For many, the path to salvation begins with a welcoming word of invitation, acceptance, and affirmation. May the language we use be a tool of inclusion that compels all who hunger and thirst to feast at God’s great banquet.