Language – again!

Try using the word “leader" instead of “Lord” and see what effect it has on your relationship with Jesus.  Be warned:  old habits die hard!

by Ted Lambert

In a recent issue of ARCvoice, quarterly publication of Australian Reforming Catholics, I wrote on the topic Jesus is not Lord, not to shock but to speak up for something I am sure is better, both for our appreciation of God and for our own humanity.  

God does not need Lordship. God IS, beyond all that human invention.

If we hang on to Lordship, which we invented, we will retard our own progress, through evolution and grace, towards charity, as modelled by Jesus and emanating from Trinity).  In fact, in my view, we would be resisting the approach God has made to us in Creation and especially the Incarnation.  God’s “stooping” -- our language again, revealing our own status, not God’s -- was not to intimidate us but to join us in embrace. Friendship, not Lordship, is the divine initiative. As Belloc said: “How odd of God …”.

Lordship inhibits the family ideal, which is centred on sharing and understanding, belonging and compassion.  Lordship betrays the ideal of community, which is God’s home territory.  Lordship reeks of privilege, which then more than hints of under-privilege, not to mention being causative of it.  I think I am right to suggest that Lordship in history has always ended by alienating the people.  Lordship is what popular revolutions are made against.

Individual Lords may have been partly good, captives of their culture as their “subjects” were.  But their state was itself degenerate.  When I came to a realisation of this in relation to the clerical state, I resigned from it. In doing so, I judged nobody but myself, nor do I now.

How can we change such a dominant habit in our culture?

Lordship is an ingrained habit among us, even after the Communist experience of the 20th century, which should have levelled society, but failed.  Much of the Catholic Church’s vigorous antagonism to Communist Socialism was against its atheism -- and rightly so -- but how much of the antagonism sprang also from the idealistic notion that Communism espoused the proletariat, where the people ruled.  To the Church this must have been dangerous.  The Church has its “proletariat”, the faithful, but they are not supposed to rule.  Only the clergy rule, on a mandate from God.

I have an, admittedly unsupported, notion that Lenin explicitly copied the Catholic Church in several things to do with crowd control, including confession as a loyalty binder; the decision to self-accuse being a powerful pledge to the institution.   It was only human error and weakness that led the Commissars to delay the referral of power to the proletariat.  Power is so addictive!  The Church, in the Holy Spirit, should do better, but hasn’t yet.

Christian ethics knows about habits: how they are acquired and how they can be changed.  One gets a habit by doing something repeatedly that might be quite strange at first.  Everyone who swears remembers that the first sally was maybe exciting but also peculiar or even repulsive; everyone who smokes likewise.  With repetition it got much easier, and eventually became so normal that to reverse the habit became the difficult thing.

In St Ignatius Loyola’s Particular Examen, a strategem to remove a habit or acquire a virtue, the trick with bad habits is agere contra, to act against the habit.  The first trick, after the decision to try, is to notice to yourself each time you do it.  Once you do consciously notice, there is then the option to do something about it. 

Criticise your behaviour and determine to try to catch yourself before the next occurrence.  Then, you have the fresh option of denying yourself the use of your habit – forego it this time, then the next time.  Replace it with something else which is acceptable.  Eventually you arrive back almost at your original innocence! It works. Play a good tune repeatedly over the bad old track.

What has this to do with Lords?   Well, after the realisation sinks in that Lordship does nothing for God or humans, but rather distorts truth and relationship, try to stop the ingrained habit in our thought, speech, reading and writing, poetry and art.  We may not be able to remove the past expressions, but we can change the dangerous habit for the future.  Stop saying “Lord”.  Don’t say it can’t be done.  It has already been done with some of our hymns and prayers.

Replace it with “leader”.  Other alternatives may come up.  But “leader” appeals to me as heading in the right direction.  The Leader of the Labour Party, of the Liberal Party, of the Country Party.  The Leader in the House, the Leader of the Senate.  In no way do these designations suggest a right to power, either by birth or conquest.  If you say to me that Jesus has a right to power from divinity and from the conquest of the Cross, I respectfully ask that you listen to God and Jesus here.  Surely God’s actions are more truly instructional than the misconstructions of our patriarchal history.

Acknowledging Jesus as our leader furthers, for me, my relationship with him.  It restores at once a dignity that Jesus was at pains to give his followers.  It infers that we have freely chosen Jesus, as he has chosen us.  It follows on the freedom which was God’s first gift to us after life.  It opens up the possibility of free construction in our relationship. 

My becoming more human, by progress in love and compassion, brings Jesus closer as a friend.  I become more like him, which I could never do to my “Lord”.

My freedom to follow a leader who is also my friend is much more a human ideal than to bend or bow to a Lord.  

Imagine what a difference this makes to prayer.  So our gestures should change also.    Again, don’t think this cannot happen.   Many congregations at Mass do not kneel as the furniture inhibits it.    Yet, 50 years ago kneeling was mandatory and habitual.

I have felt lonely at times in my intuition of the radical nature of the changes we must make, the habits we must drop and the new ones we must form.  But I link gratefully with the unknown persons who have set up transparencies at Mass with inclusive language where the composers had used exclusive language; with the contemporary composers who themselves have re-written their hymns with inclusive language.  

I link also with the priests and parishioners who have furnished their Mass-Centres so that kneeling is no longer indicated.   There must be a huge crowd out there who are the revolution I talked about earlier.

It doesn’t matter that the Lords are whistling for comfort in the darkness of Trent and Canon Law.  Vatican II found the pulse of an educated and articulate body of the faithful.  The opposition has come from the Lords, mainly.

I can yet hope that Lords will fade into history.  Let’s help them by ceasing to speak their language.  Habits die hard, but the attention to changing the recalcitrant words will pay off, eventually.   As Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier both said to a New York conference whose audience expected them to loudly condemn the villains and call for peace:  It must start with each of you, in your own hearts and homes.

As an exercise next Sunday, count the number of times “Lord” is spoken or implied (for example, “King”) in the Liturgy, but please do not lose heart.  It is good to know what we are up against.  

If all this changed, would you be closer to Jesus or further away?   Would you be closer to your neighbour or further away?   Would Jesus be glad or insulted?

Ted Lambert is a laicised priest who writes on topics of Church reform, as he sees it.   He lives with his wife, Rosemary, at Seaford, south of Adelaide.


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