Friday, April 27, 2012

Who is "We"?

In my writing, I use the word "we" quite frequently. I sometimes make statements about what "we" believe, and I ask questions that are for "us" to answer. Though I have known instinctively that there are times when it is appropriate to say "I" and other times when I feel it is right to say "we," I had not really thought about this distinction in a systematic way until recently.

Much of the conversation around my writing takes place on Facebook. One recent discussion of a post involved almost one hundred and fifty comments, and became a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of Truth and personal experience. Over the course of this conversation, it became clear that several individuals were offended by my use of the word "we." They did not agree with some of my statements, and they felt that I was attempting to speak for them. "Use 'I' statements," they insisted.

This exchange gave me an opportunity to reflect on why I use the word "we" at specific times, rather than couching all of my writings exclusively in the language of personal narrative. I have come to a deeper understanding of why I use the words that I do, and for this I am grateful.

It seems that some individuals - particularly Universalist Liberal Quakers - interpret my use of the word "we" to include them personally. When I say that "we believe thus and so," they feel affronted. How dare I speak for them? If you are one of these Friends, let me assure you: I do not presume to speak on your behalf.

The English language, like most European languages, has only one word for "we." It is an ambiguous word, because it does not indicate whether the addressee is included as subject. There are many languages in which there are two different words for "we." The first word means "we, including you." The second word means, "we, not including you." I find that those who are upset by my writing often assume that "we" includes them as the addressee.

I have realized that my writing often relies on this ambiguity. As a matter of fact, I do not want to make a firm decision about whether "we" includes the reader, or not. Instead, my use of the word "we" is meant to be invitational. The reader, I hope, will feel free to judge for herself whether or not she is included in this "we." At best, I am inviting others into an emerging community of those who are being saved by the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though I am aware that many who read my blog may not yet wish to be a part of this particular community, I seek to leave the door open. "We" can include you, if you so choose.

I am clear, though, that I do not merely speak for myself. I speak out of a tradition, out of a community, and out of the worldwide Body of Christ. I am articulating a way of discipleship that is rooted in our (including you?) faith in Jesus as risen and present Lord and Teacher, Savior of the world. This is not something I made up. It is not merely my personal experience. I seek to express and embody the witness of the universal Church of Jesus Christ.

I get it wrong sometimes, without a doubt. And I rely upon my brothers and sisters in faith to correct me when I stumble. But this correction happens within a framework of love and trust in the risen and present Savior, to whom we (including you?) have dedicated our lives. It is because of what Jesus has done for us - because of his Holy Spirit - that we are able to care for one another, and to hold each another accountable.

If you have not had this experience of Jesus - if you have not been personally convinced of his love, presence and authority in your life - I hope that you will take my use of "we" as an invitation. Rather than a statement about your personal experience of God, it represents the witness of a confessing community that has taken refuge in Jesus. We (including you?) know from experience that he stands at the door and knocks, waiting to include us all in his unlimited life and beauty. More than anything, he wants to make us a part of his holy "we."


Gerrard Winstanley said...

A very interesting topic of debate ... I've always liked the Hegelian view of the "The 'I' that is a 'We' and the 'We' that is an 'I'". Where 'The living ethical world is Spirit in its truth.'

Michelle said...

This is an eloquent explanation of your semantics, Micah, and I'm sure an important one to offer for many of your readers. Personally, I appreciated your reminder that "being saved by the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ" is a present and ongoing blessing in my life. Not merely something that happened at a fixed point or points in the past and is extending into perpetuity. Thanks.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I too will confess to being somewhat put off by your “we”. In my case it is certainly not because I am a non-Christian; but questions like “what shall we do,” from whatever source, have always felt like an attempt to rope me into something I’m not sure I want to be a part of.

There are other ways to phrase such questions that don’t provoke the same reaction in me — e.g., “What can the Society of Friends do, and would it be willing to do it?”

This may be just my own idiosyncrasy, which is why I have been reluctant to speak up in the past. But since you raise the issue, that’s my knee-jerk reaction!

Best wishes always, Micah —

Scott King said...

Well written and expressed, Micah!

Rudy said...

Your use of "we" does sound somewhat off-putting to me (a theist, Christ-following but not "Christian" Friend). You are in effect saying that "we", your community, is the Christian community, and not Friends. It's not the Christian part that bothers me, it's the "not Friends" part; non-Christian Friends are not included in your vision.

I'm not sure what other people said in the post you reference there, since the comments seem to have been deleted. It seems a bit unfair to gloss their comments without allowing us to seem them. Or is this just a glitch?

Susan said...

Thanks, Micah. I was just pondering my use of "we" last week, with similar realization that some people probably find it off-putting. I, too, use it as invitational, although I'd not yet found that word. Just as some Friends meetings have a short explanation of our manner of worship printed for newcomers, I'm imagining having a card printed with much of thy explanation, ready to give out before I speak in places where "we" is assumed to include everyone addressed. That's not a real intention, of course, but just a mental notion.

EitherOnesFine said...

A lot of writers could stand to take the time to make clear their intentions behind that word. It IS ambiguous! Good thoughts.