Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Acting in Faith: Language
distributed 4/11/14 - ©2014

This Lent, Eco-Justice Notes is exploring a variety of ways that we can act in our community and the world -- individually, as congregations, or in other settings.

It is a word with such offensive power, such a horrendous history, that we -- in the US, at least -- have a euphemism for it. "The N-word" used to be a common way to refer to people of African descent. Sometimes it was voiced with malice, but for a long time, for many people, it was just a word, spoken without much thought or awareness.

In most settings now, the N-word is never spoken. Those who do use it these days are making conscious choices about the explosive epithet. Indeed, the word is so tied to conflict that, in 2011, a revised edition of Mark Twain's classic novel, Huck Finn, was released that substituted the word "slave" for over 200 occurrences of the N-word.

Words have power. Power to stir our deepest emotions, and power to shape the way we see our world. So if the intentional activist can use another powerful medium -- money -- to work for social change, then words, too, can be a form of activism.

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It is not just in the realm of race and ethnicity that language has been contentious. Just a couple of months ago, Facebook provided some options beyond male and female for gender self-identification. Their new list has 51 terms, each with powerful connotations for the folk who have claim it. Facebook didn't make the change just for fun. The vastly expanded language was demanded by those who did not feel included in the binary M-F option. Their pressure on the social media giant has opened up countless discussions about the wide range of gender identities, and provided legitimacy to new categories.

In the 1970s, women took the lead on reshaping language. Activists announced that it was no longer acceptable to refer to competent, mature women in an office as "the girls." In the religious realm, I heard of a seminary where students carried small bells to class. When a professor used non-inclusive language -- speaking of "mankind" or using "he" to refer to God -- the students rang their bells. Most of the faculty made it through their behavioral conditioning fairly rapidly, and adopted newer terms (and more gradually, the inclusive thinking that went with the words). This was a coordinated, strategic initiative tied to a broad struggle for equality.

The language that we use shapes the way we relate to the people around us. The words that we use define how we think about ourselves and the world. Being clear and adamant about language is a form of social action. It is one way of acting that may be especially appropriate in churches, where we use words so much, and where we should be addressing the relationships and concepts that are hidden or clarified by language.

One problematic word is "nature." I've often suggested to church groups that they use the word "nature" less, and speak instead of "God's creation." Creation is a term that is all-encompassing, that definitely includes people, polar bears, palm trees and protozoa -- all of us, together. "Earth community" is another expansive term that reminds us of the connectedness of all things.

It is important to be intentional about that inclusive language. For many folk, nature is "out there" somewhere, and is made up of all the stuff that is not human or human-shaped. With that bifurcated mindset, many folk speak of "people and nature" as the two distinct groups necessary to create a whole. The US EPA, for example, says that "Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony" -- as if humans are not part of nature. As I've written about the stunningly beautiful photographs in wilderness calendars, "the full beauty of nature is ruined if people are present. Within this iconography, 'nature' and humanity occupy completely different realms."

If we are trying to build an awareness and an ethical perspective that humans are part of the web of life, then language which easily splits people and nature is damaging. It is time to be intentional about replacing "nature" as a common word in churches -- in sermons and prayers, newsletter articles and websites, classes and bulletin boards.

There are many other words and concepts where language shifts are a strategic part of changing hearts, minds and institutions.

  • For many years, there has been controversy about whether "stewardship" is an appropriate word to describe environmental responsibility. With lots of careful definition, the role of steward can be one helpful way to think of creation care. But without that stringent background, the term is often taken as one of selfish human dominance and authority over "nature." The jury is still out on good options here. "Co-creator" is an as-yet obscure theme with some different implications. There is a need for new language which speaks of a human role within Earth community, instead of as an empowered outsider.

  • In many environmental discussions, "conservation" and "efficiency" are used almost interchangeably. They have very different meanings, though, and conservation should be the leading concept in theology and ethics. The conceptual tool of efficiency is all about using resources. Conservation can draw us toward preservation for the sake of the inherent worth of the "thing" -- a creature or the land. Dealing with endangered species, for example, calls for a moral and ethical approach, not an economic one.

  • Some emails back and forth with a friend in Illinois this week point out the need to add terms to our ordinary language. She reported that a member of her congregation's Care of Creation group objected to the term "eco-justice." He found the justice language "off-putting." I'm not sure why he had that strong reaction, but justice is an essential component of our work for God's shalom. If we only talk about renewable energy and clean water, we'll hide the travesties of toxic wastes that are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color, we'll miss the injustice of climate change impacts that are most damaging in the parts of the world that didn't create the problem, and we'll be ignoring the profound matters of intergenerational justice as we leave a damaged and degraded world to the future. Keeping terms of justice and rights in close connection with environmental health and sustainability is essential for a full understanding of the cause.

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It is a good thing when we are each careful about the words that we use. But choices about language become a form of action when we move toward social and institutional change. Church hymnals have been revised for language that is inclusive in race and gender terms. Media won't use the "N-word." Those changes happened because of well-organized advocacy.

Take action for eco-justice language in your church. If there's a "green team," talk about what words you want to highlight, and which to avoid. Meet with the pastor and worship committee about language in sermons and prayers. Monitor bulletin boards and newsletters, and be vocal in pointing out terms that are used carelessly, and the ones that are missing.

Words are powerful in shaping how we understand our world and our relationships. Advocacy to have accurate and inclusive terms used by institutions and in society is an honored and powerful form of action. Use it!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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