I have been thinking a lot about definitions. What defines a truck from an ice cream cone? Why is a rose just as sweet by any other name? What makes me human, a man, straight, Christian…what makes me Ryan? There are countless clinical or standard definitions that are basic to my understanding of these questions. I live in a world organized by facts and opinions; even a general consensus governs the world around me.
I am a man because I have the bits designated as male genitalia. I am a human because that is the genus and species I fall under. A more elaborate response is deserved here, but I do not recall much from the early years of my college experience. I am Christian because I am compelled to serve God in relationship to creation as witnessed in Jesus the Christ. I am straight because I am drawn to intimate relations to women. Who sets these definitions?
I have been reading this book, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller. It is a beautiful book that describes the authors time with an African solider in Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. I am not to sure but I think the time frame is in the last fifteen years. She explores the dark, hurting places of this mans heart, mind, and soul. As she does she sheds light on the division between us and them.
The book is littered with names and slag that I get but am not exactly sure of. K, the solider in the book, goes on tirades and fires of a slang filled rant on Africans and perceived characteristics they portray. He is jaded by life and makes no qualms about offering them to us.
The thing is the more peppered his language gets in the book the more wisdom seeps into my thoughts. He is describing the world around him as he sees it. He is responding to a world of war, hurt, and disparity amongst people. He is reconciling the best way he knows how. He labels and defines in amazing broad strokes. He removes the filter of decency and offers an honest take on the situation. He does this not with malice or anger. He does it because that is the way he sees the world.
So I wonder, how do I define my world? Why do I do the things I do? How do I impact those around me by the things I do? Why define, label, and sort the world around me. In the book K says something like, “words are just an inadequate way to share with the world the shite you have gone through.” Levinas speaks to this. Language is part of the system to which we engage the other. All rules, regulations, and symbols are product of self in its attempt to explore the other’s territory. Language at its best gets in the way of real relationship. Communication with words is not as efficient as actions.
Defining the world around us is a way of owning, controlling, and even stifling the world around us. I put you in a box and you cannot harm me, invade me. I grow weary and uncomfortable in a world that challenges my labels, my comforts. A world absent of boxes makes for a world full of anxiety and fear.
I think that we see more definitions and labels these days due to the tremendous amount of paranoia and fear. The post 9/11 world reeks of it. We must define and order all things. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is in the midst of reframing, redefining itself. As we endeavor to fulfill this task we must maintain a primacy of the Gospel. A liberated, gospel of inclusion and abundant faith in a God that conquers death with love. A love that is not limited or conditional. Rather, we must embrace a love that seeps in to the language around us. We must inhabit a place that where our words build up the Kingdom of God?
Remembering that definitions box up the power of Christ. Definitions allow for us to enter into the Holy of Holies as wielders of power, not as recipients of power. I wonder now how definitions that inhabit all areas of our human decency; our human depravity can be of any good for they lead to exclusion. Exclusion leads to oppression. Oppression leads to a power structure. Did not Jesus come to flip this thing on its head?
There is no Jew no Greek, no slave, no free, no man, no woman…no us, no them…no insider, no outsider…no gay, no straight...just one boat and one direction, with many paddles and many ways.
So then…what now?
By Ryan Kemp-Pappan
Ryan is a minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a B.A. in Religious Studies from California State University, Northridge and a M.Div. from Austin Seminary (TX). He is a co-founder of UNCO. He has been an undrafted NBA free agent for the last ten years. He has an inappropriate relationship with Coke Zero. He is an avid runner and blogs at#RUNREVRUN. He sweats to the oldies to keep his running figure trim.