Sunday, May 16, 2010

Troubling the Language

Editor's Note:

I wrote this originally for a Quaker audience, but would like to share this with you as well. I've added a few notes in the text to aid the comprehension of those who are not Friends. I've also expanded the message to include those who are not people of faith.


The Author.

Those who have studied it, even informally, recognize that the Gospel of John is a problematic book on all sorts of levels. The last Gospel written chronologically, many scholars now believe it was, in fact, not written by a direct observer of Jesus' ministry on Earth. It is a difficult book to reconcile with the rest of the Gospels, and I admit I usually steer clear of it for the most part. Certain verses and passages are helpful and some among the most cited in the entire canon, but much about its historical veracity has been called into question over the years as well. And in that spirit, many people are unaware that most modern translations omit certain verses in each of the Gospels that were believed to have been added not in the First Century, but much later, usually by Medieval writers. Yet, since later, not earlier manuscripts formed the King James version, they nonetheless became part of Bible tradition.

One such verse is John 5:4, which rendered in the original King James reads,

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

From this verse Friends derived the phrase "troubling the water" to mean the process of, if you will, rocking the boat to achieve a positive end, an undertaking set about to bring forth needed reforms and spiritual renewal. Though the immediate emotional response might be uncomfortable, the inevitable end is positive and facilitates growth. Here the disabled residents of Jerusalem lay by a pool named Bethesda. Depending on how one interprets the verse, either an actual Angel disturbed the water, a miracle which cured the very first person to enter the pool, or this was simply a story believed by those in attendance. We all know that truth often depends upon those who believe it, not whether or not it is actually real. We also know that the brain is a very malleable organ, and that it's far easier than one might think to open our minds up to any idea or belief. Moreover, this verse, even with its dubious veracity, was later transformed into something quite helpful, quite sacred, and quite necessary.

One finds reference to it in the old slave spiritual, "Wade in the Water". Since Quakers were absolutely essential to the establishment and maintenance of the Underground Railroad, I'm certain this song bears our hand print somewhere along the line. But Quakers weren't the only people instrumental in opposing slavery and devising means to dismantle it, brick by brick.

Wade in the water (children)
Wade in the water
Wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water

If you don't believe I've been redeemed
God's gonna trouble the water
I want you to follow him on down to Jordan stream
(I said) My God's gonna trouble the water

You know chilly water is dark and cold
(I know my) God's gonna trouble the water
You know it chills my body but not my soul
(I said my) God's gonna trouble the water

(Come on let's) wade in the water
Wade in the water (children)
Wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water

Now if you should get there before I do
(I know) God's gonna trouble the water
Tell all my friends that I'm comin' too
(I know) God's gonna trouble the water

Sometimes I'm up, Lord, and sometimes I'm down
(You know my) God's gonna trouble the water
Sometimes I'm level to the ground
God's gonna trouble the water
(I Know) God's gonna trouble the water

Wade in the water (children)
Wade out in the water (children)
God's gonna trouble the water

As with so many of these spirituals, much of the language is coded and not meant to be taken strictly literally. Designed to fly over the heads of suspicious slave owners and overseers, the song talks about the initial adversity of running away, while alluding to the ultimate benefit of securing freedom in the North. Troubling the water, in this instance, took the form of opposing the peculiar institution, a practice which only came to an end after a Civil War. Yet, there are many other instances where activists, regardless of their religious convictions, have troubled the water for the sake of progress.

Because I came from a Christ-centered tradition, I still find it odd that, when so much Friendly terminology has clear Biblical antecedents, many have drifted completely away from the Scriptures. As I read my Bible, I smile as I recognize the roots of some Testimony or some saying of George Fox, our founder. A recent discussion board posting on a Friendly site about the role of language in Quaker circles reminded me again of how conscious early Friends were in shaping unique and specific words, phrases, and overarching postulates---many of which are still in constant usage. There is a whole world of Quaker speak, and those who set it out did so deliberately and exactingly, in accordance with what they believed and to conform to the teachings and leanings of the faith.

Speaking directly to all Progressives, I pose this question. Should we, with a doff of the hat to our pioneers, follow in their footsteps to remake ourselves over, or should we reverently maintain a sense of linguistic continuity, even when it might dangerously tread towards ritual? (Quakers are opposed to ritual, but I find many Progressives are as well) I myself believe that not all tradition is a bad thing, but I do also acknowledge that there comes a time where we must remove the rust and dust that has accumulated with disuse for the sake of survival. As Progressives, what beliefs and which words that summarize these beliefs do we find sacrosanct, and which require periodic revision? Are certain words and phrases themselves so offensive that they must be scrapped altogether? Do we, instead, have a need to preserve language for the sake of grounding us to the past while reverently honoring the hard work of those who came before us? We like to say that in liberal circles we have no purity tests for membership, but often we do.

Perhaps the key then is to tread that middle ground and leave strict purity in any sense alone. Though John 5:4 may not have been written in the First Century A.D., this verse nonetheless influenced Friends to coin a very useful phrase which describes a very specific, very necessary activity. Had it not been passed down over the century, slaves and abolitionists would not have been able to use it to liberate those in bondage. Words mean so much, whether they arrive one by one, or in bunches. Who knows which words or words were so inspirational that they granted the courage to act in their hearers. Had even one or two words been different, then, for all we know, it might have meant the difference between bondage and freedom, oppression and liberation. I think at times we understate the power of language and both its collective and individual impact.

I've always believed that language is a living document and that we have a duty, both as citizens and as a society, in determining meaning. This goes well beyond our status as Friends or Progressives or activists and influences every imaginable identity, role, or decision we make. The words we use to describe ourselves are the same words others use to describe us, and our role in the matter is not a passive one. May we then trouble the language with active, not passive voice.

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