Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Meaning of Words

Words mean something. Not simply for the meanings of individual words, but words in general have meaning. The words we choose communicate more than just the accepted meaning of that particular combination of letters and sounds. Especially in the English language, where we have so many different choices of words in a given situation, the words we choose are important.

I won't write much on this, and certainly not in depth. There were a lot of smart French guys who've done much better with the subject. But I've been thinking about word meanings and what they say about us for a while today.

I've often said the best part of the English language is that it's functional. You don't have to abide by dictionary definitions of words to communicate. If both parties understand the intention, the word fits. English meanings change and evolve all the time. This is really cool, but it also becomes problematic when important words or phrases suddenly mean something different than they did before.

For Christians, of late, one of those terms has been "social justice," which has become a political touchstone in the US of late. The phrase has been co-opted to mean some sort of socialist, communitarian political philosophy and it's thrown some faith communities into chaos.

Social justice has been a hallmark of my tradition since its inception. The Church of the Nazarene was founded by people who believed all people had a special dignity, just by virtue of living. They refused to allow people to be thrown away, forgotten, abandoned, left out, or written off. They adopted a name that once meant outcast, or worthless, and threw their lot in with drunks, prostitutes, and other social outcasts. The place we have in the pantheon of Christianity is a lifestyle dedicated to loving and being present with those society would like to forget - we call it holiness, but it's very much the traditional understanding of social justice.

Perhaps the term has become a problem because we've lost that fervor from early days. Perhaps our lifestyles have migrated from the poor to the suburbs and it's helped us forget. I refuse to believe that my brothers and sisters would willingly choose a media definition over that of their faith community - so I can only assume we just haven't used the term enough. We've forgotten to talk about it.

That being said, I don't think we've forgotten to live it. When I have discussions about our historic focus on social justice, I don't get arguments - just a glimmer of recognition. My people know, live, and value social justice as much as ever - they just didn't know what it was called.

Now I'm stubborn (and that may be an understatement). I tend to do my own thing, especially when public perception or common practice goes in a new direction. I don't like change. I'm willing to stick with an old definition, even if people no longer understand what I mean. That's just who I am.

Most people and institutions are not like that. They want to be heard and understood, so they allow their language to be flexible. I don't begrudge them that. If the Church of the Nazarene decides to stop talking about social justice, so be it - just as long as they don't stop living it.

At the same time, I find it curious which definitions we're willing to defend to the death. There's been a lot of talk about the definition of marriage and its evolution in popular parlance. Evangelical Christians seem awfully bent on forcing everyone to keep an old definition, rather than change the way they talk to reflect what they mean. I don't want to get into a debate about gay marriage (that's definitely another post - or three), but its curious what this use (or lack thereof) of language says about our priorities.

I can't imagine how many of these telling little hangups exist in my conversation - and I spend a lot of time trying to make sure they don't. Words mean something - and not just what they mean.

No comments: