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Does our language dehumanise?

Shouting expeletives
Emma Blustin

Five ways your church can avoid falling into the trap this election year. 

In the beginning, God created man and woman in his own image. Every person on this planet is therefore born with inherent dignity and value, worthy of being treated with respect and honour. 

Yet, when it comes to topics that touch on deeply held beliefs and personal experiences, like racism, religion and politics, tensions can run high – and with them, our emotions. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of allowing our emotions to dictate our responses, often leading to heated arguments rather than constructive conversations.

The act of regularly recognising the divine image in others serves as a useful reminder for us to check our language when describing or sharing opinions about other people and their beliefs. When we use that as a starting point, we are more ready to engage with opinions that oppose our own. 

Here are some simple strategies you can share with your church to help people better engage with challenging discussions and de-escalate tensions:

1. Practise active listening

Demonstrate respect by focussing on understanding the other person’s perspective — without planning your rebuttal while they are speaking! Could your small groups benefit from intentionally practising this next time they meet?

2. Stay calm

Admittedly easier said than done! Taking deep breaths may seem basic advice but it’s good advice and can really help. Remaining calm will help you choose humanising language and resist using insensitive or unkind vocabulary. Perhaps choose a Bible verse to think on when you begin to feel irritated.

  • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19
  • In your anger do not sin. Ephesians 4:26–27
  • Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement… anyone who says, You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Matthew 5:22

If it works for you, share the suggestion with others in your church.

3. Set boundaries

Give yourself and others permission to take a break if you sense the conversation is becoming too emotional. It’s perfectly okay to take a moment to collect one’s thoughts. If a conversation becomes too heated, stop and agree on some mutual boundaries, or suggest continuing the discussion at another time.

4. Use I’ statements

Express your feelings and opinions using statements like I feel’ or I think’ rather than You always’ or You never’. This reduces the likelihood of the other person feeling attacked and heightening their emotions. Remind yourself to focus on the issue, not the person (who is created in the image of God).

5. Seek common ground

Make a point to look for areas of agreement or shared values. This can help build a foundation for mutual understanding.

Whilst reflecting on the language we choose to use in our conversations around politics, you and your church may want to bear in mind Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46). Jesus makes it plain that what we do to others, we do to him; and what we neglect doing for others, we neglect doing for him.

Jesus’ parable is a sobering reminder to us, as Christians and church communities, that any form of dehumanisation, discrimination or harm against others is taken personally by Jesus. After all, the gospel centres around a loving God making an extraordinary sacrifice to reconcile people to himself and into his kingdom. Seeing God’s kingdom come is often why we are having these discussions in the first place, so let’s concentrate on loving people well rather than winning the argument.

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