Yoder: Innocent words gone awry

Feb 18, 2019 by

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Bluebird, girl, noncradle — all innocent words. Sometimes it isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it.

Jane Yoder-Short

Yoder-Short

If you were a bluebird in my first-grade class, you were teased. “Bluebird” was an innocent label until the redbirds realized they were the better readers. It’s great to be a girl until someone yells at a boy, “You throw like a girl.” “Bluebird” and “girl” become derogatory.

A discussion of “non­cradle” triggered an avalanche of innocent words gone awry. Is “noncradle Mennonite” offensive? We can’t be sure without hearing the context and the tone.

How do we hear “nonwhite,” “non-Christian,” “nonprofessional,” “nonmusical”? All can be innocent descriptions or insults.

If you’re a nonmusical cradle Mennonite, you can feel marginalized. That doesn’t mean we need to stop singing or stop being Mennonite.

Divisions are nothing new. In Jesus’ day, within the Jewish faith, there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. We can imagine divisions between cradle Jews and noncradle Jews. There were ethnic and political divisions. There were Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Cappadocians, Jews and others.

There were class divisions. Jesus was from Nazareth. Nothing good can come from there. Being from Nazareth was like being from Flint, Mich., or the local trailer park. (My apologies to Flint and trailer park residents.)

Divisions are ingrained. They happen without thinking. Jesus bumped into his cultural conceptions when a Syrophoenician woman — an unclean pagan, a foreigner — had the nerve to ask for her daughter’s healing. Jesus at first follows the ethnic and religious protocol of the day. He calls her a dog.

This woman doesn’t let cultural misunderstandings become a barrier. She explains that even dogs get to eat the crumbs. She recasts Jesus’ remark and pushes back. She calls for seeing beyond cultural trappings. Jesus hears and heals her daughter.

Paul reminds us that within the Jesus community cultural boundaries dissolve. Cradle and noncradle labels lose their authority. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Paul confronted a history of friction between Jews and Gentiles. He was dealing with actual tensions when he told the Cor­inthians all are baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jews or Greeks (1 Cor. 12:13).

We all swim in cultural  biases. The challenge is to see beyond divisions, beyond Jew and Gentile, beyond the crumb seekers and the table owners, beyond trailer tenants and villa elitists, beyond conservatives and liberals. Beyond “them” and “us.”

Words reflect our perspectives and beliefs. We need to hear and take responsibility for our words. Some words are off limits. Others depend on context. It can be OK to say white and black but not yellow, red and brown. It depends on the speaker, the context and the tone. Neighbors called Mennonites “yellow” for not joining the war effort. Can this memory help us become sensitive to name-calling?

As we think about how we use “noncradle Mennonite,” let’s remember that nowadays Mennonites are diverse and not limited to former social cliques. Noncradle Mennonites are bringing a fresh excitement to our congregations. Noncradle Mennonites deserve a badge of courage, not a belittling label.
Let’s appreciate our Mennonite roots and history without being exclusive. Let’s learn from our first-grade mistakes.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.


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