Words Matter

Submitted by FatherAthanasios on Thu, 12/18/2014 - 08:47

With the recent public outcry and racial tensions in America lately over a few (in my opinion) overly publicized legal cases, I have decided to say a few words on the subject, because words matter. Language is a very important element in any society as it defines how members of said society “agree to interact” along personal, social and business transactions. In fact, within the history of the Church, many deep theological arguments were waged over nuances in language. Some arguments, such as the “nature” or “natures” of Christ, resulted in centuries-long schisms with the Christian Church. I use this simply for the sake of example since this post is NOT about theology, but sociology.

In the recent racial outcry expressed in numerous protests and riots throughout America, it has become obvious to me that we are experiencing a language barrier that is so great, only the grace of God and genuine Christian love will ever guide us through the muddy rivers of racial tensions in America. One such barrier I have noticed is the term, “white privilege” currently being bantered about. Reactions to a post by a close friend of mine have been violent and plain old ugly. Using the tensions surrounding Ferguson and New York City as a framework, the author attempted to point out how many of our Churches experience a “tone” that might not be welcoming to members outside our “natural” circle of members.

The author’s points about our Churches are quite accurate, even as I have experienced them in 21 years of lay and ordained ministry. Many of our Churches are NOT welcoming, and anyone suggesting otherwise is just not making an honest assessment. But that alone shouldn’t be enough to create such violent reactions. I figured there had to be more to the picture, so I did a little reading on the term “white privilege” and realized we indeed had a language issue.

“White privilege” is what I would call a politically “hot” term, in that it is used in most cases to express a level of guilt and shame against white members of the ruling class. What the term attempts to convey is the reality that predominately white society has functioned, many times subconsciously , to favor white people and some might consider “white culture” if there really is such a thing in 2014. To deny this reality of any society, whether it is white America or Asian China, would simply be dishonest at best and ignorant at worst. I will state here that I am NOT referring to intentional favoritism and policies though that is undeniably part of our history as well. That would be for another blog post especially since the term “white privilege” also makes that distinction.

As Orthodox Christians I believe a better word to convey the same reality might be, “humility” since it is neither politically “hot” nor racially descriptive. From an Orthodox Christian point of view, humility is objectively acknowledging our current reality, and accepting that God desires more for us and from us. It is also a term that looks inward rather than outward, and calls EACH of us to repentance no matter what our starting point is. Humility, used from this point of view would convey the realty that our American society, being predominately white has certain subconscious realities that give white members of our society an advantage. But that is only our starting point. It also conveys that white members of our society, if they are acting with Christian love, would not desire for non-white members of our society to be overlooked, and therefore reach out to non-white neighbors etc to bridge the gap.

But humility doesn’t stop there, because it also conveys to non-white members of our society that many of these subconscious advantages are neither intentional nor historically reversible. We cannot rewrite history but we should study it and learn from it. If we learn anything from history, it might be that racial tensions are painful. To simply allow the pendulum to “swing the other way” to give non-white members of our society their fair share of advantage, is only to expect the pendulum to eventually return, leaving pain in its wake in perpetuity. Just as white members of society, if they are acting with Christian love, would reach out to non-white members, similarly non-white members of our society, if they are acting with Christian love, also would not want to cause pain and suffering.

The point of Christian humility is that as Christians each of us understands our sinfulness and we each desire to repent and grow closer to God where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3.28)

If we really want to make improvements in American race relations, a good starting point would be to stop using terms that “in themselves” enrage either side. It also means that both sides, desiring to be on the same side, must acknowledge the reality of the every side. We live in a the greatest society on the face of the Earth, which depends wholly on ever member of society acknowledging the value of the other, no matter which race, economic class, or gender he or she may be. That is nothing more than humility.

I must also admit that one of the most difficult virtues of Christian love is to allow for free will. God doesn’t take away our free will at any time, even allowing us to deny and hate Him. Neither can we, nor should we even try to, take away anyone else free will. That means, some will choose hate and racism. Humility allows for that too, since our love for God and each other acknowledges that some will reject love, and there really is nothing we can do to change it, but love them. If we see it in ourselves, we have been given the chance to repent.

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