“If thoughts corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell, 1984
Today is the day of the Ashers verdict. A brief summary: a popular bakery was asked to produce a cake with a slogan promoting equal marriage, it accepted and then subsequently refused the order because of the owner’s stance on marriage. It’s a test case for Northern Irish law, brought to court by the Equality Commission. Naturally, it’s become a very complex conversation about much more than this transaction (or lack thereof.) We have been caught up in a whirlwind of petitions and ‘issues’, sides and boycotts, rainbows and public rallies. I wrote this post about that over a year ago.
And whatever happens today in court, our language is important – as it will be long after we forget about the details of the ‘Great Northern Irish Bake Off’.
Indeed, if you listen closely, it has already been manipulated in playing to people’s religious convictions, political positions and emotional responses.
This is true: language influences thought. Our thoughts are inseparable from our values. We behave in accordance to our values. Culture is an amalgamation of these values, thoughts and behaviours. So, culture is directly linked to language. Words are not ‘just’ words. They matter. Words carry immeasurable weight. So it’s important that we at least consider our choices in how we use the gift of language: we have the power to build or to destroy.
Today, in court, centres around one particular question: freedom of conscience and whether Ashers Bakery had the right to refuse to produce the cake. But you and I both know that this raises so many more questions. And so it should. Perhaps this is an opportunity to have courage and grapple with complexity, to practice listening and to better understand.
What this post aims to provide is a framework for some of the language we will hear today, and how we can use it to bring life rather than destroy.
Full disclosure: I am a straight, married, Christian female. And this post focuses on my concern for those who do not share my position of privilege, the people who are most at risk of being battered by our conversations today – the LGBTQ community. This is not a comprehensive view of the conversation. There is so much more to it – legal and theological considerations could have us here for days and this post will not outline my view on either.
Rather, here is, to me, what is most urgent today. I hope it useful whatever way we interpret the Bible and the law. Many thanks to some of my LGBTQ friends for their help with this.
“This issue…” This isn’t an issue. This is about people. We often talk about the “gay issue”, but using the word dehumanises the people it concerns directly: we may agree or disagree about their right to marry, but this is about people who have intrinsic value and must be acknowledged as such.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner.” We use this to outline a response that is theologically conservative but pastorally helpful: in fact, this creates a dangerous and confusing dichotomy. What is the sin? Being gay? Having sexual relations with a member of the same sex? Desiring equal marriage? It is imprecise and potentially harmful. It also isn’t in the Bible, as some assume.
“That’s so gay.” I can’t actually believe this even needs to be in here, but apparently we still haven’t realised that the fact that using the word ‘gay’ pejoratively is tremendously hurtful. Used like this, it’s synonymous with ‘bad’, ‘stupid’, ’embarrassing’…’less-than’. Using the word in this way prevents LGBTQ people from being open and perpetuates shame.
“Standing up for what is right”. Today’s case is about two parties opposed in court. In reality, this conversation is much more nuanced. There are Christians who don’t support marriage for the LGBTQ community; others like David Ford who would have it made legal as a matter of separation of Church and State; and others who support marriage for everyone and believe Scripture supports this. All believe that their view is ‘right’. Indeed, ‘biblical marriage’ can mean a lot of things (there are many examples of marriage in the Bible which we would not accept today). And let’s also remember that there are LGBTQ Christians – some of the most committed, passionate people of faith I know are also members of the LGBTQ community. While we’re here – using a persecution narrative when we are challenged or questioned is highly inappropriate and manipulative. And if what we believe is affirmed – in court or elsewhere – saying that ‘God is on our side’ or has ‘rewarded/vindicated us’ raises serious questions about what we believe about God and about those we disagree with.
“Us” and “them”. Often used by conservative Christians about the LGBTQ community. As outlined above, it is not accurate language. Not only that, but it dehumanises us all and reduces our conversation. It creates tribalism and prohibits listening. It furthers our ‘othering’.
“I’m not being homophobic, but…” The ‘but’ in that sentence should be enough. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters can tell us what is homophobic. They get to make that call – not us. We need to be aware of our privilege, and be open to how well-meant things may come across.
“It’s not natural.” Science has come a long way but there is still is much complexity around how much of a person’s orientation is down nature or nurture or something else. What I do know is that I never decided to be straight: I just am. My LGBTQ friends did not decide to be LGBTQ. Why would they, in a climate that is still so hostile? Consider LGBTQ Christians with conservative stances on biblical interpretation: they actively deny themselves the closest form of human relationship because of their convictions – they do not then just ‘choose’ instead to be straight. Sometimes part of this conversation is also about how “it repulses me”. If ‘it’ is the act of two consenting adults engaging in sexual intimacy who are not you, then it’s probably OK that you don’t want to think about it. This isn’t a phrase that strengthens any valid point and is offensive as it reduces people down to the sexual acts they engage in/abstain from.
“There is a lot I don’t understand; I would love to hear your story.” Talking with the LGBTQ community rather than at or about them. Listening. Giving people the benefit of the doubt.
“Thank you for sharing this with me. I see you. I hear you.” Appreciating that it takes courage to share something personal and often poorly-received. Acknowledging the person for all they are.
“I have a conservative/progressive stance that is different to yours, but we are all one in the body of Christ.” A particular conversation we need to be having in our pews. And friends, I understand that to some of us, the ultimate form of care is saving others from what we believe is sin, but I assure you that this voice is heard loud and clear. There is room for more.
“Your safety is important to me.” The LGBTQ community is at risk of hate crime, is vulnerable to mental health difficulties, can feel endangered in public spaces. Prioritising their safety is necessary.
“You are a valuable member of our family/community/church.” Not despite, or because of, their orientation.
“I am sorry.” We all need grace in these murky waters. Let’s ask for it when we get it wrong, and let’s extend it to each other.
“I support you.” Making support known, rather than assuming it is understood. When people are told they are mistakes, they are deviants, they are disgusting, and many other horrible things I don’t want to print, we need to remind people of their worth and of our commitment to seeing it upheld.
I sat in a pew yesterday with tears in my eyes because of the well-meant but poorly-delivered words I was hearing, knowing that in most congregations, classrooms, offices, coffee shops, Internet forums, Sunday schools, court rooms and airplanes there will be LGBTQ people listening, too – some completely terrified and confused and ashamed. Whatever our view on what happens in court today or on what those passages of Scripture mean, Christians have a mandate to show Christ’s love to each other and to those around us.* And our language is a great place to start.
*Indeed whatever the verdict is today, let’s show grace to everyone: ‘dinosaur’ is not a helpful way of describing someone whose views we disagree with, either. Let’s avoid othering one another, but instead – through listening and respect – do what we can to move closer towards each other.