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Writer, Retreat Leader, Resource Creator
A good friend recently asked about my resources and my use/lack of use of inclusive language, so I thought I’d post some thoughts on why I choose to (or not) use gender-inclusive language.
In my resources, I always try to use gender-neutral terms for God. Many of the names of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures are not necessarily loaded on one gender–Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, The Almighty, the Ancient of Days–these are wonderful names for God, right in our Bible, that are not necessarily male or female. And while Jesus often refers to God as the Heavenly Father, especially in John’s Gospel, Isaiah often has references to the Heavenly Mother, though we water-them down with similes and metaphors, such as “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the children of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15) So at times, I will use both father and mother language for God. Rarely will I use one without the other.
However, when it comes to Jesus, I tend to use “he” and “his.” It’s pretty hard to argue (though I have heard some who’ve tried) that Jesus was not a man here on earth. Jesus was born of Mary, a son given to us. I can try to be gender-neutral but for me, it is more personal using the pronoun. So I use “he” and “him” referring to Jesus. Actually, I often capitalize and use “He,” and “Him,” just as I use “You” and “Your” and “You’re” in my written prayers. Since we are corporately addressing the Holy One, I tend to use capitalization to emphasize that. However, in all of my reading, not a single Bible version uses capital letters for pronouns–that’s something we do as human beings out of convention. It’s something I choose to do because it makes it more personal for me. It’s something I’ve done since I began writing out my prayers in my journals during my teen years.
You may have also noticed that I use the word “kingdom” to refer to God’s reign on earth–sometimes I use reign, but most of the time I use kingdom. Both of those words, however, are loaded with a power-down hierarchical model that we in democratic societies, at least in theory have abandoned. We don’t live in a kingdom, we live with a democratically elected government. At times I use “Family of God” or “Body of Christ,” both biblical images that indicate more of a communal nature of relationship. However, at the same time, thinking of Jesus’ day and the ideal kingdom would be one ruled by love. Therefore I still find meaning in using the terms kingdom and reign when referring to God. I’m also living in the Bible belt right now and “kingdom of God” just slips off the tongue in church-talk.
To be completely honest, the language I choose for my reflections and resources is simply language I am comfortable with. I know many people (my husband included!) who use my resources and change some of the language here or there to fit their needs better or to reflect their theology more clearly.
But let me be clear: inclusive language is incredibly important. Language has been used to keep others on the outside and to lift up insiders for too long. Think of the dichotomy of clean/unclean in Jesus’ day, how righteous the religious leaders felt who were called “clean” and how the “unclean” were despised, poor, sick, widowed, hurt, oppressed, imprisoned, and outcasts. Jesus calls us to the margins to bring in the outsiders. We need to be careful in our language that we do not unintentionally leave someone out.
So at times I choose language that is more familiar and comfortable to me, and at times I choose language that challenges me to think beyond my comfortable boundaries and borders. In the same manner, I choose to challenge language when it is used to keep others out deliberately; when it is unintentional, I pick my battles. As one woman in her 70’s attending my Bible study in the first church I served once said to me, “I never felt excluded when being referred to as part of mankind, or part of man. I always felt that meant everyone, everybody.” For her, there was no exclusion. For me, I hear centuries of excluding women from ministry, women from professional life, women from choices and freedom. But I come from a different generation with a different education and different values. As long as she is not trying to exclude me or others, let her celebrate being part of mankind! I’ll still use humankind whenever possible to refer to humanity, all of God’s people, but that is my choice.
I choose my battles on inclusive language carefully, because I know I’m not perfect with my language. I know that at times I unintentionally exclude others from the grand conversation of God and life due to my choice of words, words that I am comfortable with. Sometimes I do need to be challenged; other times, I might just roll my eyes. All in all, I remember the words of perhaps my favorite verse in the whole Bible, Ecclesiastes 7:20: “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” We’re all going to make mistakes with our language. Let’s learn from those mistakes that we can and should, but let go of the others.
Release Date: October 8th, 2019