In my pastoral experience of walking with others – through the traumas and hurts that do occur on life’s journey – words stereotype, pigeon-hole, typecast, flatten, and limit who we long to be, who we know we truly are. As well, in my academic endeavours, I am quite comfortable stating that what we say, how we say it and why we say it create the reality in which we live our lives.
When Jesus wrestles with the challenge that a ‘Samaritan’ woman throws in his way of certainty, she could just as well have been called a ‘whore.’ A harsh and most uncomfortable word we would rather not hear, which ironically still does not fully illustrate the vehemence with which being labelled ‘Samaritan’ carried some 2000 years ago.
We actually prefer ‘Samaritan,’ since it is so far removed from its connotative meaning, we can – in essence – sanitise scripture and insert whatever we want. Jesus – however – keeps us unsettled if we try to follow him as disciples. So, as Jesus himself experienced, those who follow are reminded that the Other will push and challenge us, especially when we might get complacent with what we think is the ‘right’ way to do things or assume we know what God ‘wants.’ In fact, throughout his ministry and the Gospels, which form a central tapestry of the Christian tradition, words are subversively utilised to undermine the power they hold in the dominant Roman culture, in order to create something new: The Kin(g)dom now!
This week, both in Winnipeg specifically and within the larger North American political discourse, the reality of words import and authority to tell our stories has been clearly evident. In the ongoing electoral process in the United States of America, the use of ‘whore’ has been used to silence and undermine political opponents. Here in Winnipeg, stereotyping of women (based on geographic locations within the bounds of the great city we call home) has been grounded in misogyny. The use of labels, which limits female agency, has ranged from sexual identity to sexual promiscuity.
As is the wont of those who benefit from systems of power and oppression, privilege and gender, there has been a chorus of charges that range from ‘political correctness’ to such off-handed claims of being ‘too sensitive’ or people need to ‘lighten-up.’ I indeed wish that such challenges were helpful, I even confess I wish they could be true …
I cannot deny that humour and satire can be used to point lights into shadowed places that sometimes are too difficult to tread. I admit that mirth and sarcasm can sometimes create spaces for political discussions that ideological entrenchment silences. I cannot and will not, however, broker when it comes to the use of stereotyping that uses coded humour to hurt and maim. Whether explicitly referenced – such as ‘whore’ – or in instance when women are diminished, denigrated and limited by such lyrics as, “passed around this great big town and they just don’t seem to care,” there comes a point when we must collectively realise there has been, and is, a shift in our public discourse.
If we stay idle and allow such language to remain unchallenged, then the silent remain complicit. I also think we need to be just as careful not to single out individuals as being culpable – responsible indeed – but we collectively must challenge the discourse that is utilised in our public and private conversations, otherwise we stand upon the precipice of tribalism and intolerance.
As a person who most certainly falls into the category of benefitting from the systems that define who is in and who is out, I also have sat with those who live with trying to actually claim this Easter promise, which Christian are called to share: that we are all loved, that diversity is the way in which we experience the Holy and that dignity is a God-given-blessing. We may establish and create human systems that deny this Holy decree, but it does not undo Creator’s mandate.
As an Easter people, the Christian journey in our Gospel stories constantly reference that Christ was present and in front of the disciples, yet was not recognised. When we flippantly and irresponsibly find ourselves using words as weapons, may we realise that it is to Christ to whom we may very well be speaking …