When Language Leaves People Out
In religious studies, religions can be loosely categorized as universalizing faiths and ethnic faiths. Ethnic faiths are for a specific people in a specific time and specific place. Shintoism and Judaism are good examples. Shintoism doesn’t go around looking for followers, trying to appeal to everyone. Nope. It’s for Japanese people by Japanese people. In Judaism, it’s a big challenge to convert because this rich faith is so bound up in its people, shared heritage, and language.
Universalizing faiths are based on values and ideas intended to be spread & shared & appeal to everyone (or hope to). Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. These faiths are adaptable to individuals & cultures that stretch far beyond their geographic or ethnic origins.
Sometimes these universalizing faiths can get so caught up in their own little “in groups” and “out groups” that they leave people out: the seekers, the skeptics, the discouraged, and the eagerly interested.
In my own experience, I see some ways that Christianity can get bogged down by local flavor so much that it stops being relevant in our time and place. Am I talking about the theology? No. There is so much good and faithful theology in Christian tradition and it’s totally not my job to rewrite it. I’m a practitioner not a theologian.
It’s the approach.
While some in the Catholic faith are TOTALLY FREAKED OUT by Pope Francis because they might think he’s trying to rewrite a few thousand years of history, it’s more a softening of language than a softening of the message. He puts things in layman’s terms because he’s speaking to laymen. He’s talking to people who feel really left out, disenfranchised, and alienated by all the Catholic culture instead of the Catholic faith. And wow. That’s such a brave thing to do.
It’s also an idea that Jesus and the early church were all about. Peter & Paul had rock solid faith & theology but they looked to translate it into the culture & time where they lived. In Acts 17, Paul talked to the Greeks by starting with philosophy (to the philosopher crowd) and the pantheon of gods (to the non-Christian religious crowd). He acknowledged their great faith and wasn’t there to prove a point, alienate them, or put down their beliefs. He was proclaiming the Gospel in language and a cultural identity they would understand. Paul also talked to Jewish audiences in synagogues in words they would get without ever straying from the Gospel. So this inclusive language idea is nothing new.
I’m going to be really real here. There are countless times in my life where I’ve felt alienated and left out by my faith. It’s often unintended and done in a truly ignorant/innocent way. Sometimes it’s targeted though. And that hurts.
I must not be the only one who feels this way. I come from a pretty out there perspective & think of things in unique and unorthodox ways. When I talk to people around me who come from all different kinds of backgrounds & perspectives, I’ve heard this kind of alienation too. A confusion. An exclusion.
The thing that makes me saddest is that it’s often unspoken & so many well-meaning people have no idea they’re leaving people out. For the well-meaning of us, how do we stay true to the heart of our faith & be approachable & inclusive & kind in our style? I’d like to lay out a few examples when I’ve felt a little bit of friction and distance to hopefully get you thinking about ways you could lighten up a little. I hope they’re useful!
As always, I’m in no way flawless. These are reminders to myself to always keep it real and to always speak to others in love. Here goes…
This portmanteau of Christian and “ese,” meaning a lingo or special language, is so common I’m not the first one to mention it. It often manifests as comforting language that is either really vague & general or so specific and niche that only the most “in” members of a faith get.
If someone around me is in the grip of sorrow & despair, I don’t know that saying “well, all things work together for good” or “Jesus take the wheel” are very helpful. The first is scriptural, sure, but am I saying it because it’s easy and a reflex? Or are we in the middle of looking in the Bible for answers & really digging in? I could also say “well, offer it up” or ask someone to think of “salvation” and “the last things” or even “eschatology” and leave a lot of people going “huh?”
Those things are great. They are true and solid. But if you’re coming from a non-Christian upbringing or a community that doesn’t trade in theological discourse, it can really bury the message. I try to speak in language anybody can understand and it’s more helpful than you think. I believe my faith IS universal so why not seek to make it sound like that? To a grieving friend I can just listen. I can be there. And if a conversation opens up I can talk about things in plain language, with thought and heart.
+ the not so subtle dig
There’s a time to be a little blunt in faith matters and there’s a way to put it that calls people out on their stuff without putting them down. When I bailed on church for years, one day my priest looked me right in the eye and said, “We’re here Saturday afternoon and four times on Sunday. We’re here in three languages. You don’t have an excuse.” Whoa. That hit me in the gut and was EXACTLY what I needed to hear. This direct message came from love & a desire for shepherding. Plus, my priest knew me & knew what I needed to hear. That’s great & the mark of a healthy back and forth relationship!
What hurts is when a Christian speaker, author, or friend calls you out on who you are, not what you do. Calling me selfish for this or saying I should be ashamed of myself or I’m failing isn’t super helpful. That language is specifically exclusive and doesn’t lead me to repentance. It leads me to feeling really distanced and hurt. Words matter. I try not to let my words get in the way of a really good message. I try not to call strangers out harshly or I don’t call them out at all. Maybe they’re strangers to the faith because they’re hurt and people have used barbed language to subdue their behavior & get them in line. So, I try to be real & lighten it up.
+ doom and gloom
Are we in the end times? Maybe. But even Jesus doesn’t know the day or hour when this planet comes crashing down. So, l do my best to not dwell on it. Focusing solely on pain, suffering, torment, long-suffering-endurance-until-blessed-heaven is a really easy way to get people to tune out and not hear our message of hope. Pope John Paul II said “we are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.” Heck yeah it is! That kind of language makes me want to love harder, live better, and spread the good news. And it’s good news for a reason.
Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God but most of the time it was the kingdom of here and now. Not the kingdom of the end times or even the end of our lives. I don’t hear Him saying, “Life is suffering. We toil until we die. If we’re good and holy enough, maybe someday you can get to heaven where we can play harps with angels!” No way. He said “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and He told people to love and appreciate and hang out with Him here and now. He wants to partner with us and build us up in joy. Not scare us into obedience. He also doesn’t tend to deal in doom and gloom. Because He absolutely never despairs. Never, not once. If my language is that much of a downer, maybe I’m slip-sliding into despair. And that’s a sad place where nobody wants to live. Come into the light! Let our language reflect hope and spread goodness and love.
+ saints and rosaries and scapulars
Yes, I am a Catholic. I love my faith. I’m a better person for it. But do I really dig into Catholic culture sometimes and forget there are other people on the planet? Yeah, probably. There is a time and place for talking about super-specific-to-your-faith things. If I’m a Mormon & the first things out of my mouth are garments and endowments and recommends and funeral potatoes, people outside of this really specific faith just get lost in the weeds.
Of course, if someone directly asks, “what specifically has helped you in your faith? What are some things I can do?” I might mention the Divine Mercy Chaplet because it’s like the greatest thing ever, but it’s never my lead in. I try to be mindful of really specific faith practices when talking to civilians. I also try to be aware when I’m falling more into the trappings of my faith than the guts and glory of it.
I like to keep it simple. Going to mass. Participating in sacraments. Serving people. If quoting saints and collecting miraculous medals ever takes my eyes of the simple gospel, then I have to really think about where my heart is. Those things are SO COOL and helpful and holy but they’re not all there is to my faith. TLC said it best “don’t go chasing waterfalls.” Or crying statues. I must keep my language and practice loving and simple and let that specific stuff be an invitation for digging deeper, not leaving people out.
+ missing the point
Is the point of my faith to win an argument? To bolster a political platform? To tell my friends and family to get in line or else? To frighten kids? To preach the religion of me and what I think? This is something I think about a lot. I can let myself become way bigger and more important than God and His relentless reckless awesome love for us. Sometimes I have to take a step back from talking about faith to really remember who I am, Who I live for, and what I’m doing here.
If what I’m doing and saying leaves anyone out of the kingdom maybe I need to re-examine my message. Because there is only one message in my heart. It’s “You matter. You are loved. You are heard and known. You are worthy and have dignity. You are wanted and desired by the God of the universe. Personally and individually. Yes, you.” I really have to lead with that. If it takes me shutting up for awhile in conversations about religion or politics or culture, maybe that’s a good thing. Because Jesus was a great listener and listening is an act of love.
+ shaming people who aren’t us
Yeah, there can be a specific look and feel for members of any faith. That could look like modest clothing, skin that’s never seen a tattoo needle, a heteronormative lifestyle (look it up), or “positive and encouraging” light rock on the radio. That’s cool! Being a little vanilla isn’t bad at all. It’s kind of sweet and different and admirable. But it doesn’t excuse us from hanging out with people who look and feel and act totally differently.
I say this because it’s a particular sting I’ve felt over and over. I have a lot of things about me that are WAY out of the sweet little Catholic girl package. My background, my choices, my DNA. Not a lot of it fits. If you know me personally, you know what I’m talking about. And my friends and loved ones? Lots of tattoos and piercings and rainbow bumper stickers.
There’s a time and place for theological differences and theological truths. Of course there is. Is that time always now? And what about people who are really different but it doesn’t show? Hidden sin, maybe a hidden desire, or a hidden diagnosis. Are we mindful, always mindful, of our audience? Do we know or just assume?
Jesus hung out with some pretty unusual people: samaritans, tax collectors, hookers , the physically unclean, the differently abled, adulterers… He loved every last inch of them and died out of love for each and every one. His love knows no limit and knows no voting record or gender or hair color or fandom. And that’s a statement of fact. He IS love.
We are each called to obedience and repentance and a turning toward righteousness, but leading with that leaves a lot of people hurt and confused and left out. I’ve done my fair share of hurting and leaving people out. If that’s you, I’m sincerely sorry. I’m learning and making mistakes but I don’t have an excuse. I’ve assumed people are like me a lot and have said some pretty tone deaf and hurtful things in the past (Shame is an Ugly Word). But I’m working on it.
I’ve also been a target from time to time. And that sucks. Don’t assume I’m like you because I go to mass every Sunday and carry a holy card in my wallet. (It’s Michael the Archangel if you’re wondering. I need a tough saint for my life.) Let’s listen, ask questions, celebrate the diversity of humans and of God’s kingdom. We should stand in awe of the fact that God can love when we can’t. “The faithful” aren’t just one thing. And loving people leads them on all kinds of faith adventures and good challenges than they could never imagine. Judging just shuts them down.
You know why I’m going to the trouble of saying these things? Because God put it in my heart to be a little bit unusual. To feel left out a lot. To feel like I belong on the island of misfit toys. To not really fit in any community. He gave me that gift to help me speak to lots of different people and love lots of different people. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, let that compassion lead you to bring other people into your circle of friends and loved ones. Be grateful you’re one of the weirdos.
If what I’m saying convicts you because you’re part of the in crowd, cool. Let’s talk. I love you too. God loves you more. I’m gonna mess up the message but He never will. Learn to lead with love and let everything else follow.
We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song. Let’s tell absolutely everyone this good news.