James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
A professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia by the name of Dennis Danielson has taken on an unusual retirement project. Danielson decided to examine curricula and student handbooks from educational institutions across Canada.
Danielson reviewed these documents looking for a particular word. Late in his career, he had started noticing that this word was appearing over and over. And he had a hunch that he would find it similarly repeated across the nation. The word that he did indeed find in one context after another was the word inappropriate.
Certain conduct when writing an essay is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your fellow students is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your professors is inappropriate.
Prior to his retirement, Danielson was a professor of literature. He was and is, like me and like many people in this room, someone who loves words. And he was and is, also like me and like many people in this room, someone who knows that words play a huge role in creating our understanding of reality. How we tell a story plays a huge in creating reality.
When we use the word waterboarding – waterboarding sounds like some kind of sport, like it might be fun – to describe simulated drownings that sometimes turn into actual drownings, that shapes how we think about the actions of our country. When we use the term collateral damage to talk about accidentally killing civilians in a bombing raid, that shapes how we think about war. When we talk about an allegation of sexual violence and our words focus primarily the harm that might be done to the alleged perpetrator’s future or how the incident in question happened decades in the alleged perpetrator’s past rather than on the trauma of his victim, those words shape how we think about justice.
Danielson’s thesis is that the educational documents he reviewed are doing something similar, that their heavy use of inappropriate in lieu of words that would have been common a generation or two ago – words like wrong or immoral or in a church context, sin – is shaping how we think about right behaviour, about just behaviour, about loving behaviour.
Inappropriate is a word that has a bland, conditional, equivocal, punch-pulling flavour to it. “Plagiarising your essay is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “plagiarising your essay is wrong.” “Engaging in vicious gossip is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “Engaging in vicious gossip is immoral.”
Now, I understand how we got to where we are. (I think I can safely use the word “we” here – while Danielson’s study focuses on Canadian educational contexts, but my guess is that it is not a stretch to say that American syllabi and employee manuals newspaper articles use inappropriate as early and as often as Canadian contexts.) Words like wrong and immoral and sin have a pretty long history of being used in a poisonous way, especially here within the church.
I have an acquaintance who says that it is almost impossible for her to hear the word should (as in, “you should clean up your room”) without all of the guilt of her conservative church upbringing crashing over her like a wave. That’s not an accident. These words are used by people in positions of power – people like pastors – to induce shame and the off balance state and the compliance that comes with shame.
These words are used as well to shut down debate. “Homosexuality is wrong” is a statement that doesn’t invite a whole lot of conversation. Or let’s track back a generation or five: “Women having the vote is wrong” or “Ending slavery is wrong.” How do we respond to statements like that?
I guess what I’m saying is that I get the instinct to excise these words from our vocabulary. Reaching for inappropriate early and often, by and large, is a choice that comes from a place of good intention.
However, it is also a mistake.
One of the most important things that the GLBTQ community and that other marginalised communities have taught to me is that we are not required to cede the meaning of words to anyone, including to people with power or privilege. The GLBTQ community has said, for instance, that we refuse to allow words referring to gay men to be insults or to be diagnoses. That is not and must not be cannot be what those words mean.
Inspired by my GLBTQ friends, I’ve wanted to ask the question: Do we want to cede control of church words and/or moral words to people who use them in a screwed up way? Does evangelism need to mean aggressively pushing your faith on people who just wish you would get off of their porch? What if that word meant loving Jesus so much and finding so much freedom and joy and meaning in following Jesus that you want everyone to have what you have found?
And could words like should, like wrong, like immoral (or for that matter right or moral or grace) function not as triggers for shame, not as devices for shutting down debate, not as perpetuators of patriarchy but, rather, as catalysts for moral clarity?
The problem with inappropriate and its wishy-washiness is that all but invites one of the great rejoinders of our time:
That’s just your opinion.
Whatever the moral question is that may be before us, your response to it is just your opinion, it is one opinion amongst many, all of which are equally valid. And sometimes that’s okay, I guess. But sometimes it really isn’t.
I remember vividly my professor when I was in first-year university doing a thought experiment with our class. Imagine, he said, that there are a row of babies sitting on the floor, babies of every gender, every colour, every everything. And now imagine that I walked down the row of babies, kicking each one in the head.
Would any of you think that was okay?
No! Kicking babies is wrong. It is evil. That is not just my opinion. Such an action would be categorically, unequivocally evil.
Taking children away from their parents at the border is wrong. Selling guns that meet three-quarters of the test for being assault rifles to the general public is wrong. Snipers gunning down unarmed protesters as they near the Gaza Strip border is wrong. The way that human beings treat God’s creation is wrong. Allowing people to sleep on the streets of Portland because the rest of us more or less like things how they are is wrong. Marching through the streets of America with a Nazi flag and a Tiki torch is wrong.
In his marvellous sermon last week, Corbet talked about Jesus as teacher and, in particular, about Jesus as asker of questions – sometimes a great teacher will ask a question that just opens everything up, that changes everything. This week we see Jesus using another tactic of the great teacher, and that is he employs the strong moral language that we have been talking about, accompanied by a strong moral image.
Sometimes Jesus says to us, to his students, You brood of vipers not You people who are behaving inappropriately.
So, the disciples are walking along. Jesus has just told them that following him means taking up their crosses, but they have no idea what this means. We know that they have no idea because the text says so – they did not understand what he was saying. We also know that they have no idea because, talk of the cross notwithstanding, they start arguing about which one of them is the greatest. James says to Peter: I am way more holy than you. And Peter says: Are not. To which James replies: Am so.
Are not. Am so. Are not. Am so.
And Jesus interrupts them and he says:
What are you guys talking about?
And they immediately clam up. They are like, O crap. He heard us.
Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they were talking about. And so he says:
They sit down and Jesus sits in the middle of them. And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last. Not “it would be appropriate for the first to be last,” not “This is just my opinion, but maybe the first could be last.” But the first must, must be last.
And then a child runs into his arms. And the two of them sit there for a moment, in the middle of the disciples, Jesus holding the little girl or boy.
Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.
So, whoever welcomes the one without power or status or money or fancy words, welcomes me. And this teaching is underscored by where Jesus and the child sit, here in the middle of the circle of disciples. Is this the place where the teacher sits? Maybe it is. But remember that Jesus has just been talking about the cross, so maybe the circle represents something else. Because the middle of the circle is where the one who gets stoned by the mob stands, it is where the first martyr, Stephen, will die in a few years’ time. The symbol backs up the words: I am with those on the margins, I am with those who suffer violence. If you are my disciples, you must be here too, you should be here too.
The institutional church has worked pretty hard to make words like wrong and immoral and sin refer overwhelmingly to sexuality and then to make that into a source of shame. But the example of Jesus is that sin refers to something way more important than that. Maybe we could venture that sin is another way of saying selfishness. Sin is refusing to be last, refusing to serve. Sin is when we abandon Jesus and the child in the middle of the circle. It is when we say that I am safe where I am and I’m going to stay here.
We need words that talk about our calling, about our mortal duty as disciples. These words have been used in defence of a bent theology. But we don’t need to let that bent theology own them.
It is wrong, it is immoral, it is a sin to hang back on the edge of the circle. It is right to stand with Jesus, that is something that we should do. It is right to stand with the child, to be Jesus’ arms and hands holding that child within this hurting world. And here is the good news: when we say yes to that calling, when we risk stepping into the middle of the circle with Jesus, when we risk becoming last, we will find God’s freedom not only for that child but God’s freedom for ourselves.
 This argument is profoundly indebted to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.