The Case for Inclusive Language

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I remember it like it was yesterday. A friend and I were walking from our high school, through a white working-class neighborhood to catch a bus home. This was often a perilous walk, as it was on this particular day. Within a few blocks of our journey a couple of young neighborhood boys began throwing rocks at us. There was no doubt in our minds that it was our black bodies that triggered the rock throwing. Just as we began running to get out of the range of fire, a woman stuck her head out of her front door and shouted at the boys, “Stop throwing those rocks, leave them ‘n—–s’ alone.”

Though it was the woman’s words that protected us from the pain of the boys’ hateful actions, it was my mother’s words that fortified me against the hurt of the woman’s disgraceful invective.

As we were growing up, my mother often repeated to my siblings and me, “You are a sacred child of God’s. You are created in God’s own image.” Because her children were growing up in a society in which we would be deplored and marginalized because of our blackness, my mother knew she had to shield our self-worth from the racial taunts and slurs that would come our way. She did not want the dehumanizing tactics of white racism to have a hold on us. And so, she instilled within us an affirmation of black faith, which as Howard Thurman best states is, “You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves, you are not ‘n—–s’; you are God’s children.”  This was an essential message. For, as Thurman says, the person “who knows this is able to transcend the vicissitudes of life, however, terrifying.”

Our language for God matters in a world where people are subjugated and vilified because of their particular racial, gendered or cultural identities and sexual expressions.  While language can never capture the fullness of who God is, it can and should point us to the God who is revealed through God’s very creation. For as Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made . . . (Romans 1:20).  In other words, it is through the richness of divine creation that we can see God. Thus, how we speak about God, that is, our theological words and symbols, should strive to be as inclusive of that creation as possible—thereby opening us to see the God that is revealed through a richly diverse humanity.  Put simply, our language for God can help us to recognize the unique ways in which each human creation reveals God and lead us, therefore, to respect the sacred worth of every human being.

In this regard, through its inclusiveness, our language for God can serve as both a divine affirmation and call. As it affirms that all are created in the image of God, it challenges us to act like it, thereby moving us forward to a time when none of God’s children are disrespected because of their color, gender or any other unique attribute.

As I now think back on that day walking home from high school, I am grateful for my mother’s words that affirmed our sacred humanity. Yet, I wonder what words about us and, most importantly, what words about God deprived those boys, and even that woman, from seeing the God that was in us.

Our language for God matters.

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, is author of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. She was a member of the House of Deputies Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation.