Girls are as good as boys at math.
That sounds like an encouraging statement, doesn’t it? The sentence tries to send the message that both sexes are equal in their abilities. Girls, it seems to say, are equal to boys in their ability at math.
But words are very powerful, and so is the order in which words are used. Because girls are mentioned first and boys are mentioned second, the implication is that being good at math is more common or natural for boys.
So, take a minute and think about that idea. Is it true that word order makes a difference?
Let’s consider another statement: Boys are as good as girls at talking about their feelings. You might say, “No way, boys are not good at sharing their feelings.” But most would say that yes, girls are definitely good at this. Because girls are mentioned second, the implication is that it is more natural for girls to talk about their feelings.
Would you ever say, “Girls are as good as boys at talking about their feelings”? Probably not. It sounds backwards, doesn’t it?
Whenever we make comparisons, we include the more typical or common object as the second item in the comparison. We say “tents are like houses” instead of “houses are like tents.” Comparing zebras and horses, we say “zebras are like horses.” No one would ever say “horses are like zebras”; at least not in North American or European culture. The more typical or common item always comes second.
Going back to the question of girls and boys and math, researchers at Stanford University have found that most people associate a natural math ability with the gender written in the second part of the sentence. The result, says one of the researchers, is that “statements that imply that boys are naturally more talented could be contributing to women’s underrepresentation.” Such statements could help cause the large gender gaps that exist in fields such as computer science and physics. The researcher recommends that adults, especially parents and teachers, “try to avoid consistently framing one gender as the standard for the other.”
Words really do shape the world that we live in.
The book of Genesis begins with God creating the universe when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). God did not create the universe out of nothing, but instead made it out of a dark, formless, watery and chaotic space – something we might imagine as swirling gas or liquid. The poet James Weldon Johnson captured this well when he wrote:
As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Genesis makes clear that God was separate from creation, saying that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). If you don’t remember seeing the exact phrase during the reading, that’s because the Hebrew noun at the start of verse two is ruah, which can be translated “wind” or “spirit” or “breath.” This word reminds us that God’s spirit can come to earth as a mighty wind, such as on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), or in a gentle breath, as when Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
Wind, spirit, breath. All three are important words, at the heart of God’s creative work.
On the first day, God created the powerful light that is absolutely essential for life, and God did it using nothing but four words, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). God used a set of words to bring order out of chaos and light out of darkness. This creative speech of God has continued throughout history, through the words of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Words create worlds.
In the novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden speaks about the power of words. “I’m convinced that words create reality,” Harley explains. “It’s a very biblical idea. Think of God creating the world in Genesis, saying ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light. Jesus is described in the New Testament as ‘the Word.’ When Martin Luther King Jr., said, ‘I have a dream,’ people began to see a vision of a new world of equality. Words create reality. Whether we say ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’ makes a huge difference.”
Words have always been critical to the creative work of God. In Genesis, this work continued when “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Genesis 1:5). Day and night were created when God called these periods day and night. Then God went on to use words to create Earth and seas, vegetation, birds, cattle, and finally humankind. At the end of this creative work, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (v. 31).
In Genesis, God used divine words to create a good world for us to enjoy. But human words do not always have such a positive effect. If a friend gossips about us, we feel hurt. If strangers yell at us, we feel stung. If people speak to us with disrespect, tensions arise.
In an analysis of police body-camera footage, Stanford researchers found that police officers speak less respectfully to black citizens than to white citizens. White residents were more likely than black residents to hear a police officer say “thank you” or to offer an apology. Black citizens were more likely than white residents to be called “bro” or “dude,” and to have the officer issue commands like “hands on the wheel.”
“To be clear: There was no swearing,” said one of the researchers. “These were well-behaved officers. But the many small differences in how they spoke with community members added up to pervasive racial disparities.” This research suggests that subtle differences in language may be eroding relationships between the police and the communities they serve.
Words create worlds.
We saw a similar thing happen last Wednesday. I heard several people try to justify violence and mob rule at our nation’s Capital Building by saying that there was no other way these people could be heard. Yet, last summer, when those same words were used to try and justify the mob rule at protests against police brutality, many of the same folks who shrugged off Wednesday’s violence said that if people want to be heard they shouldn’t resort to violence.
Words create worlds. And when the same words have different meanings based on who’s using them, the world you get is one of chaos.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth with words alone, and our speech continues to create the world that we live in. As Christians, we are challenged to take words seriously as we follow Jesus, the One who is the Word of God in human form (John 1:14).
Through history, think of how words have been used in the church to control, diminish or oppress people. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,” said the apostle Paul (Ephesians 6:5). These words were used to support the institution of slavery.
“Women should be silent in the churches,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 14:34). These words were used to prevent women from preaching and teaching.
“Accept the authority of every human institution,” said the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:13). These words gave oppressive governments permission to abuse innocent people.
These words were written in another time and place, but they continue to have a negative impact on life in the 21st century. They do not draw us closer to the God who created the heavens and the earth with a powerful word, and they do not help us to follow Jesus Christ; the Word made flesh, the human face of God. Clearly, we need better words today.
Our speech should reflect God’s desire for equality between people of every race. “God created humankind in his image,” says the book of Genesis, “in the image of God he created them” (1:27). Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God – whether black, white, brown or any other color. Until we treat everyone as an equally valuable creation of God, at police traffic stops and at other human encounters, we are not being faithful to the word of God.
Genesis also tells us that “male and female [God] created them” (1:27). Men and women are made equally in the image and likeness of God, a design for humanity that has been ignored through most of human history. In fact, it was just a little over a century ago, on August 18, 1920, that the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women in the United States the right to vote. It took far too long for us to grasp the truth of the words “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” But maybe since male comes first and female comes second, the word order indicates that females are the standard!
Finally, we need words that reflect the truth of Jesus, the Word of God, who became flesh and dwelled among us. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you,” said Jesus; “for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).
Since words create worlds, we need to be using language that communicates the equality of the human beings created by God, as well as words that express the truth, love and mercy of Jesus.
On the first day, God brought order out of chaos and light out of darkness. We can do the same, with the words we speak today.