Thursday, July 26, 2012

Slurs (Proverbs 12:18, James 3:1-12)

Sharp words cut like a sword,
                   but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Proverbs 12:18, James 3:1-12

found @

This proverb is a reversal of the old childhood mantra: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…” Well, supposedly words will never hurt us, but they do. Not only the slurs flung our way, but the very words that jumble in us as in the word-art above. Those discerning their orientation - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning persons - are especially vulnerable to sharp words, receiving their thrust deep into the psyche.

The queer community for a number of years has been reclaiming words. In a very healthy way we have taken the swords meant to hack us and turned them into shields of honor. "Faggot," "queer," "gay," "homo," "sissy," "butch," "dyke" and others are now internalized as points of pride instead of points of shame.

The lesbian biblical scholar Mona West states it succinctly: “Oppressed peoples over the years have understood the power and importance of choosing their own words to name themselves rather than allowing the dominant culture to assign negative meaning to certain words that are used to demonize a group of people. Words are powerful tools used to describe experience and shape reality” (from the article Queer Spirituality).

In another setting James (James 3:1-12) expands upon this proverb. He uses the images of bits and rudders, sparks and fires, and pure and brackish water to describe how words shape reality.

The first set of images is of steering devices – bits in the mouths of horses, and rudders mounted to ships. Words are devices that set our course. Rather spoken about us or by us, words can determine our destination. In the case of a ship we can make it to the harbor or founder on the shoals. Living in the Denver metropolitan area I have become well aware of how words spoken about the recent shooting in the Aurora theater steer the sentiment of the public.

The image of sparks and fires reminds us that every word we speak is a spark with the potential to set a fire. Fire in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It has the potential to refine gold. Yet, fire also has the potential to ravish, and destroy – a dynamic of speech and words we who are in the sexual minority experience all too readily.

The third image of pure and brackish water is drawn from desert living. The soil of the desert can poison the water due to its alkaline content. It is important in the desert to not only know where the water sources are, but also if it is a source of "living water" or "dead water." Words like brackish water are life cursing, not life blessing. Take the controversy with Chick-fil-A as words meant to defend one faith stance are used to curse another stance.

Unfortunately there is a tendency for queer folk to mimic straight society’s need to taunt and jeer with words. The proverb reminds us that just like anyone else, we queers can us words to hack, cut and slay or bind up, mend, and heal.

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