Mankind, Womankind, "In All of Us Command" & Why Words Matter
This week the news has been once again colorful to say the least. I have been particularly interested in the discourse on gender-neutral language that our country has become engaged in with the passing of Bill C-210 that changes two words in our national anthem from “in all thy sons” to “in all of us”.
What has interested me most is the backlash against doing so in a country that is so forward-thinking, an imperfect nation yes, but one that largely embraces the mosaics of multi-culturalism, multi-faith, multi-socio-economic diversity so that this bill would seem so natural for us pass and hardly divisive.
More specifically I have observed people of faith, including some dear friends and acquaintances, taking great offense to this change. And I am genuinely curious about this. What part of our understanding of the mission and values of our leader Jesus would cause us to take offense at opening up the table to everyone and speaking in a language whereby everyone would be able to see themselves as welcome?
Perhaps it is because of tradition that we are having difficulty letting go of something that has been deeply ingrained, taught and recited for a long-time (although O Canada was only officially recognized as our national anthem in 1980, less than 40 years ago).
I understand that personally and yet collectively as a nation of others do we not have to be open to change and adaptation? The words we used 20, 30, 50 and 100 years ago evolve as does their usage and application as our societal values change and evolve. Anthems,policies, laws and ideas should not be exempt from us examining their language and intent and how they hold up against a nation that has grown and changed so much since it’s inception.
And maybe that’s the point of contention, when our personal values clash with our collective or community values, we are not altogether sure what to do, or where we fit in.
And I get that. I really do.
I have to ask…why does this really bother you? What values for you and I are threatened when language becomes expansive or we move from male-dominated language to either feminine-dominated language or gender-neutral language?
I would invite you to sit in this for a while.
Interestingly, "O Canada" actually started out as a gender-neutral song. According to The New York Times, the second line was originally "True patriot love thou dost in us command." It's not clear why, or at what point, the lyric was changed. (This statement needs to be fact-checked folks).
Curious, isn’t it?
This tension runs deep in our evangelical churches as well. The dissatisfaction with many women and men in regard to the ongoing male-dominated language preached from our platforms and sung in our pews is simmering and spilling out into our seminaries, universities and colleges and dare say, even our churches? Scholars and theologians doing deep exegetically and textual criticism are being looked at with renewed optimism as they inform us of original language issues, intent and context of much of the ancient scriptures and how we can understand them in an inclusive way without denigrating the authority of the texts. They recognize that “careful writers avoid language that would universalize one element of humanity to the exclusion of others.”
But does it even matter?
Let me tell you a story about why it does.
Last year I led a bible study at my church Sunday mornings and again the same study with my beloved young adults collective on Tuesday nights. I chose a series because of the content of the material, some really good stuff about juicy faith ideas – adoption, sanctification, identity. But I knew the writer and speaker, an American pastor from Texas, was not egalitarian in his theology or practices and while I had never actually heard him speak (DVD teaching), I looked at the book and study guide and found it scripturally and contextually sound.
Or so I thought.
Each week, without fail, he managed to speak from the texts and apply the learning to exclusively male/ female stereotypes, emphasizing the male language of the translation he used and gearing the applications of the scriptures to men, “hey guys…my brothers…dads…men when you are at work…when you come home from work and your wife…now listen here brothers…men your role is…women your man needs you to…”.
At one point someone asked me if his church was actually just men. Actually. Just. Men.
It was exhausting listening to him talk from such a framework as I was constantly inserting female and gender neutral language into the teaching material to balance the messages he was delivering. Not to mention how utterly demoralizing it was for the women (and the young men as well who were #notbuyingit) in our group who quickly realized that they were excluded from this successful, influential pastor’s vision of who was welcome to the theological table.
What we say matters.
How we say it and the words we use, they matter. Gender dominant language impacts those who fall outside of it.
So I ask you again, to consider, when we enlarge the table, when we choose words that convey our inclusivity and commonality as shared humanity rather than single out one gender over another, who actually loses?
Don’t we in fact, all win?