The thin end of the wedge

by Richard Littledale on November 27, 2011

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”

Never can there have been a rhyme more devoid of truth. Even the children chanting it in their sing-song voices in the playground know it not to be true.  Not that they would realise it, but centuries ago James had something to say about the power of sticks and stones to break or mend:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire

It would be hard to exaggerate the power of words.  With carefully chosen words we can end a war or start a revolution.  With ill chosen words we can bridge a divide centuries in the making, or shatter a harmony months in the crafting.  They can articulate the most sublime human emotion or encapsulate the most imaginative human idea.

Preachers, of course, should be aware of this.  To the power of words they add the heady potion of religious experience and longing.  Words uttered from a pulpit are often handed over dripping with the honey of spiritual expectancy, and people swallow them right down without looking to see what they put in their mouths.  All of this means that preachers must be more careful than most when they choose their words.

So why, then, do male preachers occasionally slide into a clumsy sexism in the pulpit?  At one end of the scale are the apparently gallant descriptions of the ‘ladies’ and our need to protect them, whilst at the other are cheap jokes about wives, mother-in-laws and women in general.  I simply cannot see any excuse for any of these things.  Since the Kingdom welcomes men and women equally, why should the pulpit smell like a dubious gentleman’s club?

Of course they might want to argue that these are just throw-away lines which should not be taken seriously.  My answer to that is that they would have been better thrown away before starting to preach rather than during the sermon.  If our words matter they should be carefully chosen, and if our words don’t matter – then why preach?

The thing is, we know that they do matter – whether for good or ill.  The enormous statue of Martin Luther King the ‘Stone of Hope’, opened in Washington DC earlier this year is testament to that.  His pulpit rang with tones of hope which are still reverberating years later. Sadly, a sermon which reinforces the negative can linger for years too. A good friend of mine has devoted much of her energies in recent years to combating the hideous practice of ‘branding’ children as witches in some parts of the world and then torturing them accordingly.  The practice starts in the pulpit, and spills out into the towns and villages.

Some people might say that the odd sexist joke at the expense of women in a sermon is the thin end of the wedge. It isn’t. It’s the fat end of the wedge – driving the sharp point home into heart and soul, dividing what should be united and severing what should be whole. It should stop.

Richard Littledale blogs at Preacher’s A-Z. You can also connect with him on Twitter.


This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women.
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  • @mvahowe

    Let's imagine a preacher who tells a story about a woman. The story casts her as a housewife (or at least, in the story, there's nothing to suggest she has a career). She loses a single coin (possibly part of her preferred jewellery) in her own house. In an astounding display of confused priorities, she drops everything else to look for it. And then, in an astounding display of stupidity, she is so excited by finding a single coin that she blows the housekeeping on a party! How many negative, clichéd stereotypes are there in that story?

    • preachersa2z

      As they say "its all in the telling". Sometimes its not the story itself, but the words we choose to tell it, or the tone with which we pronounce them, which makes all the difference.

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