“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!”
This timeless phrase has been used by many, young and old, as a literary defensive mechanism against one of the simplest ways to harm and maim a persons social identity/image, strip them of their humanity and leave them open to virtually any kind of social oppression: name calling. Names have an extraordinary control, or rather, we have given them an extraordinary and dangerous control over our humanity and identities as human beings. The influences that have been given to these words have the power to surround the victims of these insults with an aura. This “aura,” sadly exhibits to all of society that these persons are unwanted/unwelcome.
The names I am speaking of are familiar to mostly everybody and are usually used quite frequently within everyday conversation. Sex offender, homophobic, gay and junkie are just some examples that are at the top of the list. Others include terms that have more historic origins such as derogatory terms for African Americans, Mexicans and Caucasians. However, it is not just these groups in particular or the people who forever suffer the labels that are violently thrust upon them as a result of them violating our societies laws. As a whole, our entire society has fallen victim to the crime of name calling.
Anyone who has directly experienced this emotional stab knows that this is no mild subject. Not only do they scar emotionally but physically as well. Cases of suicide, genocide and depression are just some of the many effects. As we can all see, our emotions are not the only items at stake. Our physical lives are equally if not more so threatened.
Also exhibiting an unwelcoming persona within public life, there is another name that is spoken in combination with the above mentioned insults with this life-taking effect. This name, or rather label, not only has the synonymous power of the usual name calling to which we are submitted to daily, it adds an even more deadly aspect. People have been killed as the result of being the target of this name and these murders can and have been justified as long as it falls under the category of this name. It not only magnifies the scope of social exclusions but gives it a sort of divine permission. Somehow, through the use of this term, the results are seen as permissible and acceptable. The name?
Anyone who is vaguely familiar with Christian history will be reminded of the desolating power of the name sinner. Christian communities have often held, literally, the power of life and death in their hands. The latter choice has too often been made. So, why is it that when “good church folk” talk about sin and sinners they seem so oblivious to the consequences of their rhetoric? In order to answer this question we need to do more than reinforce the parental dictum that “it’s not nice to call people names.” Throughout this article, I hope that both you the reader and I can come to understand how even the best mentioned sin-talk can participate in needless and, in any cases, hateful harm to marginalized people and their communities.
The Christian concept of sin is helpful for critiquing and engaging hurtful social practices. More importantly, it is for people who want to understand how sin-talk can be used as in insightful tool that cuts with the hope of healing, not just a tool that wounds. Next time we will dive deeper into this idea of the Christian concept of sin and how we can effectively speak to the risks of sin as a social dilemma.