by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
'Tis the time of year for we Christians to talk about light and dark. The time when we remind people that the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. For so many of us, this phrase is about hope. It reminds us that no matter how bleak things may get, there is always a spark, always some brightness from God to help us get through both these short days of winter and these murky, difficult, downright depressing times in which we live. As someone who lives with chronic depression, it is important to be reminded that, even if I can't see it, there is some kind of illumination dwelling with me as I crawl through the shadows, and the shadows cannot block it out.
Language is powerful. It shapes our views of the world, both consciously and unconsciously. So, when we continuously use dark/black to connote bad and light/white to connote good, what are we saying about our siblings of color? What messages are we implicitly sending not just to those with darker skin about their place in the world (and the church) but what are we saying about those with lighter skin? What does it do to our perception of ourselves and others when year after year we repeat again and again that light is good and dark is bad?
What does it do to a person if week after week they sit in church hearing that their skin color needs to be pushed away/out by lightness? That their skin color is synonymous with bad? What does it to to regularly hear that your skin color - light/white - is akin to that which pushes away the bad stuff and is often a symbol for God Godself? Even if it doesn't register, week after week we hear this comparison. It seeps into our hearts and minds and forms how we think about the world and how we see others, though we might not know it. And when I say we, I mean white people, as I have heard from many of my siblings of color that there is a regular sting hearing these words. As we repeat this notion of light and dark as synonymous with goodness and evil, we inflict injury on our siblings of color and contribute to the continuation of white supremacy (a good but a bit dated article on language and race can be found here: https://brooklinecfgs.wikispaces.com/file/view/Racism_EnglishLanguage.pdf ).
The English language is my enemy. It teaches the black child 60 ways to hate himself and the white child 60 ways to aid and abet him in the crime" -- Ossie Davis (actor, civil rights activist)
"But that's what the Bible says! We can't change the Bible!"
In the Hebrew account of the creation of the world, God says, "Let there be light;" and there was light. And God called it good and separated the light from the darkness. In Hebrew, the word used for light has a specific connotation of the thing which illuminates, whether it is the ball in the sky, a candle flame or a light bulb. The same goes for the Greek words from the Gospel according to John -- they refer to that which illuminates, clearly. Were we using the Hebrew or the Greek when we speak of Biblical uses of light and dark, it would be clear that we are talking about illumination and lack thereof. However, the English language uses light and dark to refer to both illumination and tone/color. Herein lies our problem. The translation of our ancient texts from their original languages into English creates a problem that doesn't exist in the original languages.
Sometimes in a parish or a community it is really hard to jump right out there and start talking about white supremacy. There are places in which the walk must be very deliberate and slower than we would like. If we go too fast, we risk closing too many ears to what we are saying, and our efforts are for naught.
However, here is a place we can do something. Here is a moment we can use to gently change the language we use and, hopefully, get some people to begin the journey towards racial justice with us.
We can change the words. Revisit the first paragraph. How does it sound? What do you see? Did you notice that after the words of John I used different words to reflect John's intent? You, dear pastor, dear Christian, dear sibling, can do this too. This may be enough to just slip this in and see what happens, to wait for people to ask you what you are doing, or it may be something you can include in a sermon or do some education around. Regardless, rethink the imagery. There are so many options that are beautiful, poetic, and still hit at what the scriptures are telling us: In Jesus, brilliance illuminated the world, and the shadows did not overcome it.
Get Creative! So many words!
The blog space is where we'll cover things: why we're using a specific focus during a season, to discuss liturgy, and random things that don't quite fit elsewhere.