Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)
Speaking with respect – why is this so difficult for us? Swearing, racial slurs, ethnic jokes, belittling comments, attempts at ‘redeeming’ words… the redemption of words, an effort that comes to us from groups who have abdicated or been refused the power to ask or demand that certain utterly disrespectful words and tags not be used. Nigger. Bitch. Cunt. H00r. It’s all the same. The effort of redemption is to say, ‘no, we are blessed, too’ and to say ‘no, your words cannot hurt us, see? we’ll use them, too’ but it is a double edged sword whose blade never truly dulls, even with gentle use. As our skin develops callouses and a tough, leathery exterior from the thousand cuts we deliver to our own, and to ourselves, we fool ourselves into believing that our leathern armor is proof against the M-16’s, for what is a sword in our own hands becomes an assault rifle in the hands of the powerful other – literally powerful – these are the people to whom we cannot or will not say, “Do not call me a cunt. You may not call me a whore, or a h00r, or a ho. It is not allowed that you should call me a nigger, and I’ll thank you to stop that.” While we effectively desensitize ourselves towards compassion and empathy on the subject with our own – literally, we are no longer sensitive to this – we fall into the illusion that by calling our best friend a bitch it will somehow mitigate the pain and degradation when someone else spits the epithet in rage and anger at our best friend, a woman who we personally know to be wonderful and who deserves much more respect than that.
Language is so very important. It fails regularly in the conveyance of what we actually mean, and we fail in our attempts at using it to that end. And yet, it is language, tone and body that are the tools which we have to communicate, and of these three, language offers, both alone and combined, the method of greatest nuance and complexity. Language. For good or ill, it’s the best we’ve got.
And so I, at least, am resolved to once again examine my use of language with a special eye towards speaking respectfully towards and of others. I suppose this means that I can’t say ‘Fuck You’ to Terry during our clergy colleague/bible study meetings Tuesday mornings at Panera – rather, I’ll have to be honest and direct, knowing that I am not powerless and that my words do have power. Instead of fuck you, I will say, ‘that hurt my feelings, I’m still really sensitive about that,’ when he jokes about me being an utter failure at my previous position. And as we had this very conversation about language and respect and power and redemption, I brought up this example and he was surprised when I said, ‘that hurt my feelings’ – perhaps as surprised as the rest of the table had been when I’d originally said ‘fuck you’ in between bites of breakfast.
Love your neighbor as yourself, he said. Who is my neighbor? the other guy asked. And then he spins a story illustrating that your neighbor can really be anyone, even the person you passively distain, or the person you actively hate – or who hates you. Or, in my case, the person who pushes your buttons without even trying.
Who is your neighbor?