In last year’s Systematic Theology II class, one of our assignments was to explore and evaluate forgiveness as we see it displayed in the 1998 movie version of Les Miserables. During our class discussion, some of us took a point of view that the relentless law enforcement official, Javert, represented the devil and a certain aspect of humanity.
The devil, the one who is the accuser, calls us out by our sin. “For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down (Revelation 12:10b).” God, on the other hand, calls us out by who He created us to be. Jesus is our Advocate with the Father, “But if anybody does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (I John 2:1b).”
Similarly, our class deduced that Javert is continually calling Jean Valjean and Fantine by their past mistakes. Sometimes we can do the same thing, labeling ourselves in our own minds, according to our mistakes and our failures. Earlier in Les Miserables, Fantine calls her daughter, Cosette, “an innocent”. Yet, Fantine does not use those same words to describe herself. Instead, it is Jean Valjean who acknowledges to Fantine that not only is Cosette an image bearer of God, but that Fantine is, as well: “She (Cosette) has the Lord. He is her Father. And you’re (Fantine) His creation. In His eyes, you have never been anything but an innocent and…beautiful woman.”
Language is important and helps form our thoughts. Therefore, as a point of grace in Safe Church Ministry, we try not to refer to a person as, “an abuser” or “a perpetrator.” I am so thankful for the guidance and wisdom of Bonnie Nicholas, director of Safe Church Ministry. Bonnie frequently reminds us that, “A person is a person first, so it's a person who abuses rather than an abuser. Similarly, we say, "a person who has experienced abuse" and try not to refer to someone who has experienced abuse as a victim even though they have been victimized. And though survivor is more of a positive label, and may also be true, a person is much more than their experience. We don't want to base someone’s identity on the worst thing they’ve done, or on something awful that they’ve experienced. That’s not the source of a person’s identity.”
What language and labels are we using in our churches? By our words, do we extend grace and mercy to all people, seeing them as image bearers of God? Or do we label them by what they have done?