A crisis of language

By the Rev. Dr. Neichelle R. Guidry

In “The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety and Public Witness,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock writes: “What is the true nature and mission of the church? As a community formed in memory of Jesus Christ and informed by the gospels, what is it that makes it a faithful and authentic witness, and what exactly is it called to do?” (New York University Press, 2014, p. 1).

While these questions may never lose their significance, we are in a moment in which these questions beg our critical attention. This dire moment is comprised of seemingly endless events and mishaps that draw our attention to the holes of American democracy. Another innocent black person gunned down by police. Police acquittals. Travel bans and executive orders. “Trump Care.” Mistrials for once-famous serial rapists. The dividing lines between races, classes, genders and religious groups are clarified with every event that reminds that, as much as things may change, they also remain the same. Ensconced in these events and many others just like them, these questions raise a mirror to the church of Jesus Christ, and call us to do the deep and holy work of articulating and embodying our responses.

However, an old and antiquated challenge compromises our ability to live into sufficient ways and to become the church that Jesus Christ had in mind. Last year, a publication of Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn., quoted me as saying the following: “Culture and ideology keep black people on the margins. Even in this charged moment, you can go into any number of churches and not hear a word about justice. That can be disillusioning. The priestly versus prophetic duality in American church life is still very real” (“Stay Woke,” Reflections, 2016).

Indeed, amidst today’s cultural, political, racial and ideological violence exists a schism that divides the church into denominations and congregations that are either vocal and engaged or silent and removed. This schism is widening, as the pressure to speak up compounds. We already know that we can’t afford to be silent, but when we break our silence, the church often produces mixed messaging.

How can we fix this situation? We must begin by addressing the problem of language. The Christian lexicon is severely lacking because, across the Christian theological spectrum, we are using the same words to express different ideas. For example, when the story of the 2016 presidential election is told, it will be said that evangelicals had much to do with the outcome. And, before 2016 was finished, I decided that I didn’t want to be included in that narrative. Even “Christian” has its dominating connotations that don’t reflect the Jesus that I’ve come to know through the Gospels and through relationship. I divested of these titles. If I were to label myself, I’d want to be called a follower of Christ. A disciple. A daughter of God, claiming my proximity to the Most High through relationship, rather than mere affiliation.

Who will be the creators and the architects of new theocentric language? We need language that captures who we are and what we believe and sets the record straight. We need language that speaks for those of us who have come out from among those people who claim Christ, but who also claim their own sense of sovereignty. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia must be named. The model of Jesus Christ compels us to be truth-tellers, even if it means that our words and our ministries counter tradition. To be fair, this candor might result in even more stratification within the church, but, perhaps, reconciliation is not the most pressing conversation of our time. Perhaps “we who believe in freedom” and who also believe in Jesus, must be willing to send out a bold and different message.

And as simple as this message is, I believe that it is ultimately what cost Jesus his life. Although this occurred so many years ago, this simple message is timeless: “Love one another.”

The Rev. Dr. Neichelle R. Guidry is liaison to Worship and Arts Ministries in the office of the senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.