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Why inclusive language matters

feel your feelings

“I once was lost, but now, I’m found, was blind, but now, I see...”

There’s a reason “Amazing Grace” is often sung at funerals. It tells a powerful story about how God’s love and forgiveness can give people direction, hope and salvation. The song illustrates a transformation from a place of brokenness to a place of wholeness, from loss to belonging.

But what does being blind have to do with being lost?  What does it mean when we use disability as a metaphor for brokenness, loss or sin? 

I come to church, like I come to every space, in pain. I come to church seeking comfort, for my pain and for the pain of the world. But if I hear a word spoken about my body, it usually goes something like this.

“Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold your savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy...” (“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” 1739)

It is no secret that churches have been—and continue to be—sites of harm. The vocabulary of Christianity, which by all accounts should insist upon the goodness and sanctity of everybody on Earth, instead is full of language that implicitly believes some bodies to be holier or worthier of God’s love than others. Marginalization is written into the words we say together as a church:

“The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again. The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the lamb…” (“Mary, Did You Know?” 1984)

Marginalization, especially of people with disabilities, is written into the words we say as a broader culture as well. We throw around words that marginalize people with intellectual disabilities (crazy, insane, psycho, dumb, lame, idiot, stupid). We rely on metaphors of disability to express ignorance (“Are you blind?”), and when people with disabilities are made visible at all, it is often in the context of inspiration porn: people with disabilities become objects for people with temporarily-able bodies to use as inspiration. 

And Christians know a thing or two about inspiration porn. If bodies with disabilities or pain are addressed at all in church, it is almost always in the context of healing: usually, a remembrance of the people Jesus miraculously heals in the gospels, and a promise that that healing will come to our bodies, too.

“I heard about his healing, of his cleansing power revealing, how he made the lame to walk again and caused the blind to see…” (“Victory in Jesus,” 1939)

That may sound like comfort, especially if disability exists in your imagination, not in your lived experience. But in saying that Jesus comes to heal us from both our sins and our disabilities, these hymns imply that disabilities are inherently bad. They imply that my body is in greater need of salvation than the bodies of the people sitting next to me. It implies my body is not good, not to be loved, as it is.

That is exactly the opposite of what church should say. It is exactly the opposite of what anyone should say.

I was first introduced to the phrase “inclusive language” when, around this time two years ago, I started referring to God using feminine pronouns as a practice for Lent. I soon realized that I was not the first person to notice how limiting it can be to the imagination of believers when churches exclusively reference God as “father.” I began quietly changing the pronouns in the liturgy and the songs: “Our mother, who art in heaven…” “To God be the glory, great things she has done...” “I believe in God, the mother, almighty...and in Jesus Christ her only son…” 

I’ve never stopped. Now, I notice the ways that referring to God exclusively as male—with accompanying male titles like King, Lord and Master—sounds far too much like male domination than I am comfortable with in a culture marred by sexual violence. I feel more connected to God when I think of her as a divine mother. And what is the goal of church, if not to connect with the divine?

Christians believe that we are all made in the image of God, which means that God holds the identities of every human being: male, female, trans, nonbinary, Black, Brown, Indigenous, white, queer, straight, disabled, able and everyone in between. It is precisely because I believe that God identifies with every human alive that I believe that God does not think my body is bad. 

God made me in her own image. There is nothing wrong with who I am. But the language we use for disability—in church and beyond—assumes that there is. 

It is true that many chronic illnesses and disabilities come with both physical and emotional pain. Much of that pain stems from feelings of frustration, anger, loneliness and grief: feelings that come not from the pain itself, but from being isolated, excluded and ignored. 

It hurts to be in pain all the time. It hurts more to hear that my pain makes my body unworthy of love as it is.

I believe that Jesus healed people with disabilities because Jesus understood the way that physical pain is magnified by the pain of exclusion, and he knew that if he used his power to draw attention to that kind of suffering, then maybe his followers would pay attention to that suffering, too. 

Right now, I don’t think they are. But I think all of us could.

If churches are to do the healing work that Jesus modeled for us, they must stop limiting their imaginations by relying on metaphors of disability. They must learn how to pray to a God not bound by human definitions. They must learn how to put into practice the true inclusion that Jesus models: not an easy, general welcome, but a welcome that specifically notices and responds to the needs and desires of marginalized people.

Come Sunday, when I sit once again in a hard pew with a body in pain, I’ll be praying for healing: not for my body, but for my church body. I’ll be praying to a God with chronic pain. And she’ll be listening.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior whose baby brother is 14 today! Happy Birthday, Wog! Her column, feel your feelings, runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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