The Words We Use: How Kingdom Issues Trip Over Political Vocabulary

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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner. 

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” —Romans 14:13

There is a sobering reality facing the Body of Christ today. Injustice, racism, sexism, inequality, bigotry, poverty, and homophobia are topics on an innumerable list of issues that need the healing touch of Christ through his hands and feet, the Church. These are Kingdom issues that often stall because we trip over stumbling blocks—the very words we use. Kingdom issues are at stake, but we only have political vocabulary with which to engage them.

While teaching ethics in rural Alabama, the word “liberal” was a very loaded term. It was triggering. Upon hearing it, many bright students would recoil as preconditioned associations entered their minds. This brought up an interesting dilemma: that the words we used to communicate about important social topics skewed the perception of the topics themselves. When our course reached the unit on governing theories, I would preface that when the term “liberal democracy” was used, it meant a democracy that values liberty. Not a democracy run by liberals. While talking about economics, we prefaced that the term “conservative” meant attempting to limit risk, not an economy run by conservatives.

This is a conundrum that seems to extend into almost all discussion on social issues, because political vocabulary has interconnected and interlocked ranges of meaning that trace all the way back to the party primarily associated with it.

For example, many people oppose initiatives of diversity because in their minds, diversity = Democrat and Democrat = abortion. This is a demonstration of the powerful associative powers words carry. They can evoke feelings and memories of hateful speech on social media. They can remind us of difficult family members that have destroyed relationships. That can evoke anxiety or concern over the future. The words we use can have a powerful formative effect upon our communal lives together, which is why we need to have caution regarding the stumbling blocks they might present.

For example, for some, the term “social justice” can trigger people into thinking of far-left radical progressive agendas. Far-left progressive agendas trigger thoughts of abortion or communism. Consequently, for many, the term “social justice” equals communism. This unfortunate association creates a detrimental stumbling block because, simply put, social justice means having our social lives, communal lives, social patterns, and expectations produce greater flourishing. There should not exist an adversarial relationship between people in God’s kingdom and what social justice intends to achieve.

In the same way social justice might trigger some, terms like “individual liberty” might trigger others. The term “individual liberty” might trigger thoughts of far-right conservative agendas. Far-right conservative agendas may trigger thoughts of repealing public assistance such as health care. Thus leading many people to equate the term “individual liberty” to no health care.

A firebrand term today circulating today is “defund the police.” What this is not advocating is eliminating the police, full stop. The power of word association has created a cognitive connection that connects “defund the police” with total anarchy, and this is a false association. This term merely means directing police efforts and resources toward violent crimes and dangerous situations while freeing up resources to invest in other valuable services such as addiction treatment and mental health. This restructuring can be advantageous in helping to end police brutality because police officers will be relieved of work better suited for other professionals.

The conundrum remains, though, because these are not optional conversations. Achieving social equity and justice are not an optional endeavor for Christians. Social inequity is part of the fallen nature of this world; therefore, it is something the body of Christ is to help redeem. So how can we talk about the reality that injustice exists in our communities and that God expects Christ followers to provide systemic justice to all of his children regardless of their ideological affiliation?

We might consider, while speaking about non-optional kingdom issues, the associations people attach to terms we use while speaking. When we use a politically loaded term, we can paint context about how we are using the word in order to avoid deepening division through miscommunication. Conversely, when we are listeners in moments where someone is speaking on kingdom issues, we need to consider that the speaker might be using terms that carry loaded meanings for us as well. If we can diffuse some of our presuppositions regarding political terms, we can create more space for the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts.

At the heart of it, we often want to dismiss people who are exhibiting their anger in ways we don’t approve of. If we are put off by their expression of anger, we look for an excuse to also dismiss the cause of their anger. Words people use while expressing anger are easy targets to undermine the feelings they are expressing. In matters of kingdom justice, these feelings can feel threatening to the comfortable majority. To avoid feeling guilt, we subconsciously seek rationale to dismiss things that might implicate us, and the words people use provide the ammunition with which to dismiss them.

Paul’s words in Romans 14 at the beginning of this article, while cautioning us to avoid being stumbling blocks to each other, are situated in the context of the amazing hope Christ brings to the people in Rome. Christ’s ministry of reconciliation values the relationship above the agenda. The message above the words. The matters of the heart, which the mouth tries to articulate. When people are truly valued, defensive posturing and rhetoric become largely irrelevant, and if we can listen to the heart of issues that plague our communities today, we might hear the voice of Christ through the voice of our neighbor.

About the Author

Ben Lepper, Ph.D., is the administrator of Intersection Ministries, a CRC/RCA church in Holland, Mich., as well as an instructor of gospel literature at Cornerstone University. He currently resides in Hudsonville, Mich., with his wife Zurisadai.

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Comments

I quite agree that many words in this arena of life can be ill-defined and used, both deliberately and otherwise, as a means to mischaracterize the positions and postures of others.

At the same time, I think we live in a time, at least in the US, where there are very real differences in our population as to how we should live with each other, especially politically.  And some of those large differences are actually embedded, fairly understood, in some newer words and phrases.  For example, "social justice" is in fact used by many (most) of its advocates to have meaning beyond what this article suggests. 

And "defund the police" has been confirmed by some of its major player advocates to mean just that ("defund the police means defund the police"), even if many or most of the fans of that posture/position might accept, as a neccessary compromise, something less than total "abolition" of the police.  Others (they call themselves "abolitionists") quite literally want the to abolish police, even though many or most of them realize it will take time to get there.  Hey, Karl Marx envisioned the abolition of government, then Lenin decided government (and a lot of it) was needed, albeit temporarily, to usher in Marx's idea of utopia.  The fact is, Marx's idea (human society without government) was a faulty idea, but he really meant it.  In the same way, I think most of those who say "defund the police" mean just that, even if that idea is, like the abolition of government, an incredibly faulty one that, if implemented, will cause great harm to all.

And then some words and phrases are intended to create ambiguity and confusion.  The phrase "black lives matter" is one of them.  The truth of the phrase is quite indisputable, but yet the political and cultural postures and positions of the political organization of the name that uses those same words (Black Lives Matter) are quite disputable.  

Thanks for the article.  Words indeed are always a challenge.

Excellent article! One further difficulty is that folk are often so deeply imprinted with the emotional connotations of certain words that even when we explain what we mean, they don't really hear it.  I struggle with this when teaching foreign relations, eg. We often call the system set up after WWII "the liberal world order" (ie, policies that encourage nations to adopt democracy, respect for human dignity, and free-trade), which for some listeners is doubly triggering, since it sounds like the "new world order" they've seen conspiratorial videos about, only it's worse, because it's "liberal"!  I struggle to find alternative terms.

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