I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar. In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun. Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is. Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.
However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years. And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people. Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.
I see this working itself out in practical terms in the church. I often find myself in meetings with other pastors. I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.
Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems. Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems. Another difference also emerges. Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer. Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.
This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors. But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem. When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group. “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.
When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on. Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.
So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.
And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us. Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”. We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be. And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other. It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”. We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.
Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious. But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our differences. We are all in this together.
May the peace of God be with you.