“I’d call ’em dogs,” declared the caller to the radio station.
Wally, the DJ, sputtered. “You’d call someone who isn’t a Christian a dog?!”
Listeners had been calling to offer alternatives to the term “nonChristian”, their answers more silly and sarcastic than thoughtful. This one, though, was the strangest thus far.
“That’s what somebody called me back when I was nothin’ but a no-good, drunken sot,” the man explained. “Confronted me and sure ’nuff, I was on my knees in repentance in no time.”
Wally must’ve grimaced. “Mm, yeah man, whatever,” he said, hanging up.
Can you imagine what those “dogs” must have thought about Christians after that?
The discussion was prompted by unChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Wally’s boss at the Christian radio station made the entire staff read the book, and now Wally (who was stuck in chapter two) had opened up the phone lines to talk about it.
Here’s the gist of the book: based on a 3 year study by the Barna group, the rising generation in America believe Christians don’t act like Jesus intended them to. Instead, Christians seem “unChristian”: hypocritical, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, judgmental and more concerned with conversion than genuine relationships.
In discussing the results of their research, the authors wrestled with how to refer to those outside the Christian faith. It’s a sticky point for several reasons.
- The people surveyed came from every spiritual background imaginable, from those who claimed no faith to those affiliated with other faiths. It wasn’t possible to identify people by their “group titles” (such as Muslim or agnostic, etc.).
- Certain Christian labels grate on outsiders’ nerves (“pagans,” “the lost,” or like the radio station caller, “dogs”). Can’t imagine why anyone would object to that last one, can you?
- Phrases like “nonChristian”, “nonbelievers” or “seekers” aren’t adequate. (They define people by what they are not, or aren’t true for all outsiders.)
The authors settled for “outsiders,” admitting discomfort at having to label anyone at all. Kinnamon wrote,
“Labeling people can undermine our ability to see them as human beings and as individuals.”
The radio station callers, though, didn’t seem to take this issue seriously. An underlying “why does it matter?” attitude dripped in their tone.
But if I carelessly use whatever label I like, disregarding how offensive it is, I risk breaking the relationship. Who wants to hang out with someone who calls them a “dog” or a “pagan”?
The discussion in the book and on the radio reminded me of a conversation from my African-American literature class. We were studying Native Son by Richard Wright, and analyzing a scene early on the novel. Bigger, a young black man in 1930s Chicago, is driving with his wealthy white employers’ daughter Mary and her socialist boyfriend Jan.
Mary and Jan believe themselves to be open-minded and free of racial prejudice, but their repeated insistence that Bigger is equal with them only makes him more aware of his black skin. At one point, Mary points out the apartment buildings surrounding them.
“You know, Bigger,” she says, “I’ve longed wanted to go into these houses (…) and just see how your people live. (…) Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They’re human. . . . There are twelve million of them. . . . They live in our country. . . .”
They, they, they.
A classmate sited the repeated “they” as an example of Mary’s racism. I agreed. Through her word choices, she distances herself from the African-American apartment dwellers even as she wants to draw closer.
- If she has to assert that “they” are human, does she really think “they” are like her? (Why the insistence on this point?)
- If she’s longing to go see how “your people” live, does she really believe “they” must live like she lives? (Why would she care to see the house exactly like hers?)
- If she says “they” live in “our” country, does she really think America is the home of blacks and white equally?
Just a few thoughtless phrases, yet they reveal her prejudice and break any potential friendship between the two. Bigger hates her.
How you and I speak to people matters. What labels we slap on other people matters. Our words matter.
It’s something I wrestle with each time I write: how will this particular word or phrase or sentence come across to my readers? Will my word choices unnecessarily offend someone? Will they make Jesus look good or bad?
I can’t pretend that my faith doesn’t exclude other faiths, or that every religion is true, or that some of my beliefs won’t offend people. Still, I do need to be mindful of my words. There’s no sense in labeling another person with a derogatory term.
After all, I don’t want anybody calling me a dog, either.