Language in the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality can be particularly challenging. The challenge comes for a few reasons. First of all, the language seems to change rapidly and it can be hard to keep up. Secondly, language means different things to different people – so what works in one context can be quite alienating in another. Thirdly, in a culture of PC (political correctness) there are different motivations behind our use of language. To unpack that a little more, some people want to be up on the latest language usage just for the sake of being with the times. They might not really think too much about what is behind the particular language they’re using. For others the idea of PC language is inherently problematic – the whole idea is frustrating to them. Sometimes this is because of a true yearning for authenticity in language which a PC environment can be perceived to hinder. Sometimes the frustration simply arises from a selfish laziness that resists language review and the willingness to revise and adopt language that is more suitable for the context.
I have increasingly seen language as one of the unique points of service that New Direction can offer to the Christian community. Not because we have it down pat and perfect – but simply because we are in conversation with a very diverse cross-section of the same-sex attracted and lgbt group of people. We have access to different thoughts, opinions and usage of language as it applies to sexual minorities than most pastors or leaders would encounter. So we condense some of these matters and try to communicate them as clearly and concisely as we can.
Recently I was confronted by some fellow Christians for using what they termed to be the language of secular gay activist groups. I become concerned when this kind of dichotomy is perpetuated. When we begin to make divisions between sacred and secular I believe we get on pretty thin ice. I come from a tradition in which one of our foundational understandings is that every square inch of creation belongs to God. Language is included in this. So there is no language that cannot be claimed as useful in God’s economy.
My rule of thumb is to choose language that is descriptive. Describing something is like using an open ended question. It has the potential to open the conversation to talk about what that description means to a person. What is interesting, however, is the prevalence of presumption that language is prescriptive or definitive – even when the one who utters the language explains that it is intended to be descriptive. Such assumptions create a polarized climate in these conversations. So when, for instance, someone presumes that a person who describes themselves as gay has made being gay their primary identity and the definition of who they are it is a misuse of language to justify their own assumptions. Such presumption is like a closed ended question in a conversation. The assumption has already been made so there really isn’t anything to talk about.
A friend told me about a meeting down in the U.S. in which they were discussing alternative language for the word gay. Now it is no surprise that I think such discussion is completely out of touch with what it means to be contextually present. I think the apostle Paul in his visit to Athens models for us the wisdom of using the language of the people and culture around us to make connections and open conversations about life and faith. The idea that we have to be afraid of or avoid the word gay seems to me to simply perpetuate polarity – and such polarity hinders our ability to be conduits of shalom in the neighbourhoods and communities in which God places us. Apparently, some of the options discussed in this particular meeting revisited mainstreaming the word ‘sodomite’ or the more general ‘unnatural vice’. I think such language is not only unhelpful, but completely misses the reality that we are called to love our neighbours, regardless of who they are or what they do, and our language must nurture connection not alienation and offense.
Such a discussion may seem extreme, but there are other much more moderate attempts at language that still miss the mark. It struck me that in the last two days I have heard the same language usage from two different leaders and felt I should raise it in this post. Both of these leaders embody the kind of generosity that New Direction seeks to model and promote. They both have plenty of lgbt people in their lives. So when I heard this particular use of language I knew that it came from a genuine place of trying to speak in a manner that could build bridges. In fact, it was a description that I had used a few years ago in my attempts to be more value-neutral and descriptive in my language. At the time, though, I had some gay friends explain to me how they heard what I was saying and the impact it had on them. This helped me to understand why it wasn’t helpful language and how I might revise it to better reflect my intentions. The word was ‘alternative’. I had used the phrase, “alternative sexual identities” to try to describe the reality that I see that people experience sexuality differently, that there are individuals who do not fit into a heteronormative box and that their existence needs to be acknowledged and honoured. However, my gay friends told me that when I used the adjective “alternative” it implied that there was some choice in the matter. Alternative didn’t just mean different – it meant a chosen difference – and this is not what my gay friends experienced. Their sexual identity wasn’t an alternative to them – it was an intrinsic part of their sense of personhood and how they navigated the world of people and relationships. My intention was not to communicate the idea of choice – so I had to revise my language. It seemed, at the time, that the adjective “diverse” seemed a more accurate description of my intentions. In the conversations I had this week, I heard the phrase “alternative lifestyles” and because of my conversations with my gay friends, I cringed a bit. Not only is the word lifestyle generally unhelpful in this conversation – but coupled with ‘alternative’ just made it worse. The man who used this phrase intended respect – but clearly was unaware of the way it could imply the opposite. The other usage was “alternative sexuality”. Again, the intention was to communicate in a manner that was respectful to those outside the heterosexual mainstream. But once you hear how the word ‘alternative’ sounds to our lgbt friends it is a relatively easy modification to say ‘diverse sexuality’.
In my seminars with pastors I emphasize the importance of precision in our language. I recently read a blog post by an evangelical leader in this area of ministry. He used the phrase, “active in the sin of homosexuality”. The intent in the post, as far as I could tell, was to confirm to his readers his clear commitment to and conviction of his belief that sexual intimacy is reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. The challenge comes with opening the potential for confusion with his use of the word ‘homosexuality’. What does it mean, exactly, to be ‘active in the sin of homosexuality’? Some people would see homosexuality and think of sexual attraction. Does that mean actively experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin? Does it mean if you’re tempted it’s a sin? Or does it mean if you lust it’s a sin? Some would think of sexual behavior. Some would include fantasy and masturbation in that category of sexual behavior. Some would restrict sexual behavior to physical interaction with another person of the same sex. Some would include physical affection. Others would only apply this to sexual behavior leading to orgasm. By not being more precise in the use of language there is greater likelihood of being misunderstood, misinterpreted and disregarded.
One of the weaknesses in the church is that we tend to use insider language. We tend to be focused on speaking to those who agree with us. The challenge is that when we do this in the public forum we contribute to a sense of “us and them”. But if we are to live as people on mission with God, to embody a life posture of being “living letters” of the good news of the gospel, then our language needs to be accessible to anyone. Does our language convey the reality that God’s heart is to reconcile all things to himself? Does it convey that his essential essence is love? Does it convey that as his followers, we deeply love the world we live in, we deeply love the neighbours around us, we deeply long to be useful to God in extending his invitation of love and reconciliation to all?
Language matters. Let’s use it to open doors and break down barriers.