Language and Labels

by Christopher L. Heuertz

Can the Church be a thought-leader in shaping language that ascribes and affirms human dignity by recognizing the God-given identity of all humanity?

I am always interested in the significance of a name. In less than two years, I’ve been uncled five times, all new nieces with captivating and creative names. Each name represents someone special. Each name is unique and full of potential for these children to fill it up with character, personality, and a future. There’s a real power in naming, and to bestow a name on someone is a huge responsibility. Sadly, the power of naming has also been used to exploit. There is a leveraging in qualifying individuals based upon the terminology used to describe them. Often, people abuse the power of description by implying a name with it and attaching a label to it. “The poor” is a perfect example of insinuating the power of naming a person or community by merely describing their circumstances. Unfortunately, this term, the poor, has been used to create layers within societies as well as malformed characterizations of donor and receptor roles in mission.

A few years ago it was brought to my attention that people found it refreshing when I referred to those traditionally called “the poor” as “my friends.” It caught me off-guard. Word Made Flesh, the mission I work with, does serve among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor, but rather than reducing our friends to a “target audience” or a possible “beneficiary” of our activity, we seek to establish life-giving relationships that are reciprocally humanizing. However, that’s not always been the case in missional activity. Missions seems to have a category-laden Tourette’s syndrome marked by the derogatory terms applied to those whom missionaries have attempted to serve: pagans, the lost, locals, etc… the list is long and offensive, each term loaded with assumptions.

Many of these terms are even used by good people with huge hearts—people who don’t mean for their language to be offensive or loaded. As a child, I was always confused by that. It was people I looked up to and respected who often used unbecoming terminology to describe someone who may have been different from themselves. I remember hearing words like colored or Oriental to describe someone’s ethnic or racial heritage, words like broad or gal to describe women, and words like homo, fag, or queer to describe someone’s sexual orientation. Sure, some of these terms have historically gone in and out of acceptable usage, but the assumptions that filled these terms are what make them offensive.

The Church as a Thought-leader in Shaping Language
Language trends become traps. Rather than following politically-correct language trends, could the Church find the imagination to be a thought-leader in shaping language that ascribes and affirms human dignity by recognizing the God-given identity of all humanity? Ascribing a name based upon a description of someone’s circumstances steals dignity and mars identity. Of all the characters Christ spoke of in his parables, he named just one—Lazarus, someone described as very poor. Today, and in first-century Palestine, we call people like Lazarus beggars. However, in the community I’m a part of, we’re trying to re-cast this sort of language that dehumanizes people.

I’ve been in missions since 1993. From time to time I need to ask friends and family to support my service and activity. Not only is this request to help fund ministry, but it is also to help pay for the basics of life. I’ve tried casting it as an “opportunity to take part in what God is doing among the poor” or an “invitation to partner in mission and service.” In all the years of making these kinds of appeals, I don’t remember ever being called a beggar. But I do have friends who are considered beggars. I’m not sure how what they do to support their lives is any different from what I do. Many of my friends who beg didn’t have access to the educational opportunities I’ve had. Many had pretty rough childhoods, and in fact, many are still children in search of their stolen childhood. Some of them work, and work hard, but work in such oppressed areas that they can be exploited and are still desperately poor. Most of my friends who beg don’t want to have to ask for help; in most cases, it’s humiliating—but it’s better than the alternatives, which sometimes include prostitution or stealing.

I also have friends who prostitute. They get called some pretty horrible things. Most are little kids. In nearly every instance they feel degraded by what they do and by the men who use them. They also feel degraded by the things people, often good-hearted Christians, call them.

I also have friends who have leprosy. I actually helped start a children’s home in India for boys and girls whose parents suffer from leprosy (technically it’s called Hanson’s disease). During an Indian board meeting I used the term leper only to be corrected by a board member who happened to be part of the World Health Organization. He gently, but firmly, informed me that the term was offensive and socially constructed to describe a social category more than a physical condition.

Beggars, prostitutes, and lepers. In my community, we are trying to move away from loaded terms such as these that have been used to stratify society, further wound the souls of people, and steal the God-ascribed identity of each human being. Affirming human dignity takes imagination, and referring to people as “poor” becomes problematic. Using these kinds of terms only contributes to the powerlessness of people who are poor.

Christians concerned about the integrity of our stand and message need to admit our history of building social walls that divide “us” from “them,” ascribing labels that disconnect the non-poor from any responsibility we may have in perpetuating situations of poverty, and assigning derogatory terms that describe situations, not the person.

Christopher L. Heuertz is international executive director of Word Made Flesh, and has served with the community for over fifteen years. He is author of Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (InterVarsity Press, 2008). Chris and his wife Phileena live in Omaha, Nebraska.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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