Words Matter

words Words MatterThis morning, I was reading Kimberly Knight’s blog on Patheos. Today’s entry started out “Words matter.” The word that mattered in this case was “sissies”. To put in context, she was talking about a Lenten devotional her church is using this season. In the Ash Wednesday entry, the author said the Ash Wednesday service was “Worship not for Sissies”. Now, you might be wondering what’s wrong with that. I’ll let Kimberly explain the problem:

“Worship not for sissies” is simply an unacceptable phrase, laden with hetero-normative judgement and projected stereotypes. It is not cute, it is not catchy  and it has no place in a spiritual devotional. It is a throwback to an age out of which I pray we have evolved, are evolving.”

She used some ten dollar words in there, but basically, she’s saying the phrase “Worship not for sissies” sends a message that if a man doesn’t meet our culture’s images of masculinity and heterosexuality, he’s not welcome. And, that’s not good.

My first thought on reading this was “Oh great, another word I can’t say”. I want to be respectful of everyone and their feelings, I really do. But I fear that in the rush to offend others, we run the risk of diluting the language to the point that it means nothing. Just about as soon as I thought that, I realized that’s a fear only someone on top can truly appreciate. The next thing I thought was if I’m “on top”, whoever is below me must be well and truly screwed because I don’t feel like I’m on top at all. But, it’s all a matter of perspective. I’m white man with an income and, in the South, that’s pretty much the definition of “on top”.

If being on top is a matter of perspective, so are the words we use. I’m sure Martin Copenhaver, the author of the Lenten devotional Kimberly spoke of, didn’t mean effeminate men need not apply when he said “Worship not for sissies”. I’m pretty sure what he was trying to say was “This is not cheap or easy and half-assedness won’t cut it”. More than likely, Copenhaver is a good writer who believes one shouldn’t use 11 words when 4 will do (besides, you’d never get “half-assedness” past the gatekeepers). But, one thing any good writer needs to remember is what you mean is, at best, half the equation; the bigger half is what your audience hears. And, if they feel what you’ve said diminishes, belittles or marginalizes them in any way, guess what? They’re right. That goes for the spoken word, too. Maybe even more so, because more people are smart enough to only say stupid shit than write it down.

What I’m saying is that all of us, sissies and rednecks; rich and poor; men and women; Christian, Jew and Muslim, are  People of the Book. And that book that tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Anything that pushes one of us away falls short and is unworthy of us and the God we worship.

  • Kimberly

    Joel,

    Thank you for this honest and searching reflection. I appreciate you exposing your thought process and how you ended up deciding that be careful and intentional can also be powerful, even when we need to censor ourselves a bit.