Recently, I visited my mother's home in the western part of Virginia, and sitting on the living room bookshelf was a ceramic vase I made when I was around six or seven years old. I remember making that vase...the countless hours and pride I poured into it. I carefully molded the sides, meticulously rounded the top, and painstakingly painted the final form. And as I admired my handiwork, I realized...that thing is horrendous! It is so lopsided it barely stands up, it possesses the roundedness of a flat tire, and the exterior finish is something of which even the most amateur painter would be ashamed. I don't believe my mother will be getting a call from Sotheby's any time soon.
Of course, no one expects a little boy to produce something reminiscent of Michelangelo. Children are given license to test the limits of creativity and achieve mediocre results because we realize they are learning, growing, and honing their skills. However, if I were to create the same vase at 45 years old, I would be shown far less mercy by my critics, not because my vase is in worse shape, but because, as an adult, I have passed the age of rudiment and entered the age of refinement. That is to say, much more is expected of me as an adult, and lack of skill is shown little grace. As we mature, we are challenged to differentiate those "arts" in which we possess inherent or developable skill from those in which we do not and to leave the latter to other artisans better equipped to create the necessary form and function.
This is the thought that crossed my mind when I listened to U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) end his opening prayer for the 117th Congress this past weekend with the words, "Amen and Awomen." I was astounded that a man of learning and prominence would make such an egregious gaffe in such a public arena. The word "Amen" is gender neutral; it has nothing to do with a man or a woman. It is literally translated "so be it" and is a canonical way of concluding a thought, petition, admonition, or divine decree. What is more, people of faith often end prayers with "Amen" to signify the emotional-spiritual movement from sacred to secular. To force upon this word some sort of gender connotation is ridiculous and sophomoric. Just because the letters m, e, and n occur together in sequence doesn't automatically denote gender bias. If that were the case, then I would have to mention things to men and womention other things to women; Congressmen would propose Constitutional amendments, while Congresswomen would propose Constitutional awomendments; and men might be struck with meningitis, but women would fall prey to womeningitis. Naturally, all of this is nonsense, as was Rep. Cleaver's closing affirmation. He is definitely not an artisan of theology and linguistics and should leave those "arts" to others better suited for such endeavors.
But I'm not writing this missive simply to criticize the goodly Representative. Although he is clearly an adult fashioning a decidedly lopsided and ugly clay vase, my larger objective is to offer a two-fold warning to the rest of us. First, before you attempt to reconceptualize a term or concept, be sure the original meanings and connotations are clearly understood. To do otherwise risks going the way of the dolt. Secondly, don't try to make everything a gender issue. Most words, phrases, and concepts are gender neutral or even gender irrelevant. In our culture of offense and cynicism, it is certainly easy to see the demon lurking in every recess and around every corner. Yet, like most "monsters under the bed," these demons are often farcical and preoccupy us for no reason. Sometimes a word is just a word, a phrase just a phrase, and glance just a glance. Sure, misogyny and gender discrimination are still alive in the world, but why fabricate them where they clearly do not exist? We certainly have better ways to use our time and energies.
Amen and Amen.