The Linguistics of Humanity: How Words Can Hurt and Heal

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Post author Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross is Co-Chair of Equity for Women in the Church, Inc.  Rev. Sholes-Ross was ordained through American Baptist Churches, USA, and called as the 30th pastor of First Baptist Church of Pittsfield, Massachusetts in November 2013, as the church's first African-American female pastor.  She is a former board member of The Alliance of Baptists. 

During a recent religious community meeting, with area clergy and lay church workers, I was intrigued by a presentation and the conversation which ensued regarding a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in December 2017, When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean? A powerful discussion was initiated relating to the linguistics within the study, and how words are always significant to receivers and reviewers of words. So of course, I thought about Equity for Women in the Church, and our passion to eradicate certain patriarchal traditions in the religious settings. 

Are we not advocating to reduce, no remove, such traditions that have hindered women called by God to become senior pastors? We consider the time in which texts, such as 1 Timothy 2:12 that stipulates women should keep silent, were written and the agenda behind them. We know how badly the words of these texts hurt, and how they continue in this 21st century to perpetrate injustice toward women in ministry. There are times when we, as “Equity” advocates are preaching to the choir, when our advocacy is minimized when we, too, are not concerned with how “our” words can truly heal or hurt. Are we doing enough beyond our passionate movement? So, I will not spend time refuting I Timothy 2:12; it’s not needed, but what is needed is an introspection regarding our use of “all” words. It is documented in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament Scriptures that words can heal and hurt. Hopefully this piece will challenge us to reflect upon our own use of words in all given situations.

Since comments were allowed during that presentation I referenced the importance of bringing into any conversation a person’s contextual history, inclusion of current perspectives, along with an unambiguous understanding of those factors. All must be infused into how words are delivered and received. Impossible, right? During prior community meetings I have been known to use female imagery to reference God…usually it’s ignored or tolerated, but I maintain the advocacy. Anyway, I kept referencing that to ensure that people find some connection during a conversation, especially during this social media age, that the use of language must be inclusive and respectful, and not just tolerated.

That’s when the discussion led to my “aha” moment—an epiphany. “What if we, as human beings, will actually consciously work on the words we use and how we use them with others and even to ourselves?” Yes, “freedom of speech” is important; one’s right to think independently is critical. But, what about the importance of having caring hearts for “all” of humanity and being respectful even when there are differing ideologies? We are losing our caring hearts in America with so many of us wielding hurtful words that may take a lifetime to heal.

The Bible, with its offering of religious information, can also be viewed as a book of history. It offers support that Bible writers, in ancient times, perceived that the use of words was significant as exemplified in Proverbs 18:21 which states, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat of its fruit” (NRSV). The Ancients understood something of importance.

When words come from our lips during conversations or from our fingers through social media and technology, they may be ill-considered, even crude. Yes, death of one’s spirit can come about with hurtful words. For example, telling a child he or she may not amount to anything because of where they are from is speaking death to that child’s spirit. Think about it. Even familiar phrases can be hurtful to some, such as the phrase “You Guys” when there are women in the midst of the addressed group. Are we not then continuing patriarchal traditions? Currently, it seems that people, especially some religious people in America are promoting a lot of hurtful words across situations and issues, as well as amongst various people and ethnicities. Are we eating negative fruit repercussions with our words? Do we all need an intervention to examine our choice and use of words? Lately, have you truly listened to words offered you, and were they hurtful? Were the words unnecessarily critical or condescending? How did this make you feel? Yes, death and life can be in the power of the tongue…and now, in the 21st Century, with fingers and “send” buttons. But just as hurtful words can wound, words of encouragement can be life changing and healing. 

A New Testament Scripture states, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way…” (Ephesians 4:15, NRSV). Many of us have problems with one’s “truth.” And, even if there is a misconception regarding one’s personal truth, it is definitely not spoken in a loving manner, and so we are not growing in human kindness and respect of others. The time has come to take a realistic look at ourselves and recognize that words are important. Be the person whose words, however presented, offer healing instead of death and hurt. Be the person who seeks truth, whose words are not merely shaped by your dislike of people who do not look like, act or think in ways that you do. Yes, speak truth, but allow that truth to come from a person infiltrated with love towards humanity. Have a lasting positive impact upon another person.

I am also encouraged when I read Joel 2:28, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy…” (NRSV). Maybe, we as Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. must challenge people to examine the use of their words, whether in a conversation, church setting, text or Twitter; in all venues. I want my words to humanity to be healing and not hurtful; however, I am imperfect. So, when mistakes are made, I am willing to accept responsibility and make amends. Also, we must meet people where they are so that positive interactions can take place. For example, many of the members of the church in which I serve are mainly used to patriarchal imagery and language. However, during worship times I have been known to say “She and He—whatever your comfort level is to reference God.” During sermons and prayers, I reference God by other names, “Holy One, Redeemer, One of Light.” But also, I am becoming more mindful in other settings my use of words to others, and even to self. Are you ready to take on an additional challenge regarding your use of words that can possibly aide the Equity movement? We must be models for others. Some may think this is not a critical matter, but we must assure them that it is. Have you given up watching the news or unfriended or blocked someone on your social media outlets? Why? Maybe it’s because the messages are hurtful and they crush your spirit.   

Are you a healer or do your words hurt people? Maybe it’s unintentional, but then it’s your responsibility to do a self-examination and figure out what is hurtful and fix it. Maybe this piece will assist. Let us be bold in our advocacy on behalf of Equity For Women in the Church, but also let us have a caring heart, and express that care through the use of our words in various settings. Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. is an organization focusing on healing and justice for women in ministry. We hope all will connect with us and receive healing as we grow as a people in community.