lenten journal: choosing our words


    Not long after we moved into our school building last year, Borders went broke and sold everything in their stores including the fixtures. The tables in my room are the very ones that held stacks of books for customers’ perusal and my walls are lined with the book shelves that made corridors of what are now giant empty brick and mortar boxes. One of the parents showed up one day with boxes of books that belonged to her father, who is quite a reader it seems, to fill up the shelves so the room looked learned in. Last week, one book caught my eye tucked away on the bottom shelf in the corner: a first edition hardback copy of A Circle of Quiet, one of my favorites of Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction work.

    Needless to say, the book doesn’t live on that shelf anymore.

    Our regular staff meeting was cancelled this afternoon, which meant I left school for the computer store and my evening shift earlier than usual, which meant I had time to read a bit when I got there. Berger, of course, who has laid patiently for several days. He told a wonderful story of a woman who had escaped from Kampuchea (now Cambodia) as the Khmer Rouge took hold. Berger described the Kampuchean people of that time as people who were

    on the point of being tyrannized and massacred by their own political visionaries, who transformed them into fanatics so that they could inflict vengeance on reality itself, so they could reduce reality to a single dimension. Such reduction brings with it as many pains as there are cells in a heart. (127)

    In the margin I wrote, “our politicians.”

    I know it’s an overstatement in the sense that none of our national figures come close to resembling Pol Pot or have any intention of unleashing the kind of wholesale violence inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, yet what resonated in the quote was the note about reducing reality to a single dimension and leaving us with nothing but polarities from which to choose. As I read, I remembered words Madeleine had written about the dangers of reducing our vocabulary, so I went looking for them when I got home.

    The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think. Try to comprehend an abstract idea without words: we may be able to imagine a turkey dinner. But try something more complicated; try to ask questions, to look for meaning: without words we don’t get very far. If we limit and distort language, we limit and distort personality. (149)

    When we reduce our political discussion to who’s red and who’s blue, when our primary word for describing any foreigner we don’t understand is terrorist, when we live in such a sound bite culture that most every news story headline is almost a brand name by the time it is repeated verbatim by most every news outlet, we are left without the depth or nuance it takes to be human to and with one another. The tenor of the recent debates has been Orwellian: “Two legs bad, four legs good.” And, as the pigs in Animal Farm knew, if you get the sheep to shout the slogans loud enough you can control the discourse and rob everyone of their freedom.

    Our state, North Carolina, is a good example.

    In May, we are voting on a constitutional amendment that, when allowed to be stated in the limited vocabulary of our limited legislature, is designed to “defend marriage” by banning equal marriage. Those who are promoting the amendment have reduced the discussion to the single dimension Berger described, fomenting fear of gays and lesbians as if they were dead set on destroying society. What they don’t talk about the parts of the amendment beyond its obvious discrimination of gays and lesbians that take away rights from any domestic partnership – those who share in adoption, or share their lives at all. They won’t even have legal standing to visit each other in the hospital. Our draconian politicians promoting the amendment don’t do much more than shout “Straight legs good, gay legs bad,” and hope that limiting the discussion will do the trick. They are lying through their teeth.

    I have several words for them, trust me, but before I let my anger get the best of me I want to find the words to try and get them or anyone else to see that their reduction the discussion “brings with it as many pains as there are cells in a heart.” They are not doing their jobs, they are not doing God’s job; they are doing damage – deep, hurtful, who-know-how-long-it-will-take-to-undo damage. Their amendment is not about protecting marriage or promoting morality; it is about preserving power. They want to keep things the way they are because that means the straight white men get to keep running things. Gentlemen – and it is a room packed with men, from one straight white guy to another, those days are over. Thank God.

    What I love about Jesus’ vocabulary was his words were expansive. He didn’t reduce large ideas into controllable slogans, instead he took simple ideas and blew the roof off. When he told us to “consider the lilies,” he called us to contentment with who we are and put us in touch with our mortality in the same sentence. The lilies bloom and don’t worry about what’s next and they bloom for about three weeks and they die. He ate with sinners and the One Percent, the prostitutes and the Pharisees. He talked about the poor more than he did the powerful. And he welcomed people every chance he got.

    Time is too short and this matters too much to let the discussion around the amendment be reduced to one that comes disguised as sanctified and entrenched morality. Amendment One is draconian and destructive. It robs people of rights they already have and promises to inflict deep pain on any number of North Carolina families. We cannot allow ourselves to constitutionalize discrimination. Let’s defeat the amendment and choose better words that invite and include.



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