Dangerous words are words that cause harm either to the speaker or to the listener. That harm can be intentional or unintentional and may manifest in different ways. The purpose of this series is to help us think about the language we use and how it might be supporting systems or structures that are harmful. Today, our dangerous word is “just.”
This isn’t “just” as in something being fair, usually in a legal sense (justice). This is “just” in the sense of something being “merely.” This is the kind of just that limits what something is. For example: “I’m sick, but it’s just a cold. Or, “I’m not sick; it’s just allergies.”
Why Is This Word Dangerous?
Keep in mind that our context is theology. This word “just” is often used in religious and theological discussions to dismiss or oversimplify the positions of others. The word, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad; in the examples about being sick, the word “just” still dismisses possibilities, but that’s not necessarily harmful. If I really am experiencing allergies rather than being sick with a more serious illness, using the word “just” can put people’s minds at ease, especially during a pandemic. However, when the word is used to dismiss others’ beliefs, concerns, voices, experiences, narratives, etc., it can become oppressive and/or manipulative.
Sometimes, it’s used in a direct way, such as, “You just don’t want to accept such-and-such.” Or, “You just don’t like this idea.” This directly calls out a specific person and attempts to flatten their position or thoughts into a single idea. Maybe a person doesn’t like an idea and has other motivations for opposing the idea. Maybe a person doesn’t mind the idea at all and still has other reasons to oppose it. By using the word “just,” we dismiss any such complexities.
Sometimes, it’s used indirectly, such as, “Philosophy just makes Christianity more confusing.” I call this indirect because the statement doesn’t necessarily call anyone out. Instead, indirect statements focus on preventing a broader idea or category from being relevant to the conversation. The statement that philosophy makes Christianity more confusing (without the word “just”) might be true, but it also leaves room for other impacts of philosophy on Christianity. By adding the word “just” to that statement, we imply that there are no other impacts besides confusion.
We don’t want to be unrealistic about this word. Words are not either good or bad; context matters. When the word “just” is used to narrow the scope of a conversation or the position of someone else in a way that stifles any real discernment or learning, it becomes oppressive.
Limiting Scope: Direct Usage
In the examples of direct usage, the word “just” is being used to dictate what another person is trying to say or what they believe. It limits the scope of their position down to a single thought or category. Let’s consider a real life example.
I was once part of a small Bible study that was discussing eternal conscious torment. Some in the group were questioning conventional understandings of hell as a place where people suffer constantly for an infinite amount of time. A person who was a proponent of hell as eternal conscious torment made this statement: “You’re just being emotional. You just don’t like the idea of people suffering in hell.”
The word “just” attempts to boil down the opposing position to a single issue: how the person feels about eternal conscious torment. This tactic seeks to override any other concerns by over inflating the emotional aspect of the discussion. The implication is that when strong emotions are involved, all of a person’s other arguments are untrustworthy. In other words, the strong emotions are clouding a person’s judgement so much that their other arguments can’t even be taken seriously.
This tactic is used to limit the scope of the discussion so that other arguments presented by the opposition aren’t properly heard. It squelches the voice of others enough to keep their case from being made. In the example, that simple statement effectively ended the conversation by doing two things: providing a convenient way to discredit further arguments against eternal conscious torment and providing proponents of eternal conscious torment with a justification for not considering further arguments. (Please keep in mind that this post isn’t about hell or eternal conscious torment. I’m using that situation as a case study for the word “just.”)
For the people questioning eternal conscious torment, the statement indicated that no further arguments would be taken seriously. Non-emotional arguments would be classified as essentially smoke-screens for the “real,” emotional argument, and any argument that seemed emotional could be framed as evidence supporting the claim that someone is just emotional.
For the people supporting eternal conscious torment, the statement can be used as justification by claiming something like, “We shouldn’t allow our emotions to lead us away from what scripture teaches.” There’s no need to actually examine scriptural arguments, because, as the previous point highlighted, we’ve already established that any non-emotional argument is just a smoke-screen. That is, by flattening the opposition’s arguments into a single issue (emotions), which we then dismiss as invalid, we effectively dismiss all other arguments. There’s no need to examine further, so we can justify holding onto our previous assumptions and beliefs.
This is just one example of how “just” can be used to directly manipulate a conversation, dismiss arguments, and/or marginalize voices in direct ways.
Limiting Scope: Indirect Usage
Indirect statements serve the same purpose: to limit the scope of the conversation. The example I gave above is actually a common one that I hear in Churches of Christ (i.e. that philosophy just makes Christianity more confusing). I also hear similar comments concerning the following:
- Non-King James or non-NIV translations of scripture. Non-King James translations are just attempts to change what scripture actually says (this argument is usually from people who believe the KJV Bible is the truest English translation). Non-NIV translations just confuse people because they’re harder to understand or too paraphrased (the NIV is written at a 7th-8th grade reading level, the average reading level in America).
- Unfamiliar terminology. Using terms people aren’t familiar with will just confuse them or make them feel like they’re too dumb to be part of the conversation.
- Discussions about the Trinity. The Trinity is too abstract and will just confuse people.
- Pretty much anything else you can think of with which a person might not be particularly familiar. “Let’s just keep it simple” is another form of indirect usage that attempts to cut off from the conversation anything perceived as complicated.
Making “just” statements about general topics, practices, or systems are often an attempt to limit the scope of a discussion to only those areas with which a person is comfortable. In the original indirect example: if a person feels intimidated by the idea of philosophy or philosophical discussion, they might be able to use the word “just” to remove any positive aspects of philosophy as it relates to the current discussion. If philosophy just confuses the topic of religion or the discussion of religion then it serves no purpose for people who want to be “clear.” By using the word “just,” we remove any possibility for versatility; philosophy can no longer have any other impact except to confuse.
Another example of indirect usage: denominations are just false churches (i.e. not “truly” Christian). As with the eternal conscious torment example, denominational vs. non-denominational congregations isn’t the topic of this post. The point here is that by using the word “just” to boil down the category of “denominations” or “denominational churches/congregations” to a single idea (i.e. false church), we can dismiss any further consideration about individuals, practices, creeds, etc. related to denominational churches. “False churches” seems pretty obviously bad to most Christians, so no further discussion is really required.
Just like with direct usages, indirect usages stifle voices and limit conversations in ways that prevent any real learning or discernment.
Intention vs. Impact
Robin DiAngelo, in her book White Fragility, points out that people’s intentions don’t minimize the impact of their actions. In my experience, we don’t generally intend (i.e. on a conscious level) to dismiss or stifle the voices and experiences of others when we use the word “just” in theological contexts, but that doesn’t diminish the impact that it has.
The impact of the word “just” can include the following regardless of intention:
- Feelings of shame. Example: claiming someone just needs to trust in scripture can frame disagreements as a lack of trust in scripture. This can cause people to feel ashamed when they disagree with or doubt a particular interpretation or theology. “Am I not a faithful believer?”
- Pressure to conform. Example: claiming that doubt is just the Devil trying to lead us astray can make people feel a need to conform in order to “stay” saved. “I have questions and concerns about this theology, but I need to ignore them, because to entertain them is to entertain the Devil.”
- Feeling disenfranchised. Example: claiming someone is just overcomplicating an issue can leave people feeling like their experiences don’t matter. If a person’s theology has been heavily influenced by their experiences, invalidating their beliefs as “just overly complicated” also invalidates the significance of their experiences. “I don’t feel heard or seen.”
- Feeling trapped. Example: claiming that certain conversation topics just create divisions (e.g. politics, systemic racism/white supremacy, clicks within a congregation, etc.) implies that those topics are off-limits. A person can feel trapped within their own communities because they aren’t free to express themselves or share their perspectives without fear of shame or marginalization. “If I speak up, I may lose my community, friends, or even family.”
- Dehumanization. Example: claiming that women must stay in abusive relationships because that’s “just the way God designed it” cuts off possibilities of change by removing any contextualization. In this example, when we openly refuse to consider the dignity of women in favor of a simpler interpretation, we dehumanize them by implying that they’re no more than cogs in God’s machine. “My husband beats me and berates me, but I can’t leave; it’s not my place.”
- Legalism. Example: claiming that we just need to do what scripture tells us. This often invalidates different interpretations by implying that someone in a disagreement isn’t doing what scripture tells us. That implication can be groundwork for a literal or face-value interpretation. “It says sing, so we just need to sing.”
- Inadequacy. Example: instructing someone to just study the scriptures. Similar to the example for legalism, this often implies that someone isn’t already doing that, which can leave people feeling inadequate for the task. “If I just need to study scripture but I keep understanding it differently than the congregation’s leadership, maybe I’m not smart enough to study scripture on my own.”
I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list. You may even have your own stories of how “just” has been part of your experiences with the church. You may also begin to recognize the spirit of “just” even when the word isn’t present.
The Spirit of “Just”
Here’s an example of the spirit of “just” that, coincidentally, happened while I was writing this post. Someone made this statement in response to an ad I have for Breaking Bread Theology:
“Faith is not a virtue, it is cheating, a way to believe something because you want to. Theology is the study of nothingness, since gods do not exist. It is the study of human’s desire to remain as a child in adulthood: the need for an adult to still have a parent. God is an imaginary surrogate parent.”
Notice that the person is attempting to flatten the entire category of theology into a single, negative description: childishness. The commenter also flattens faith into a single, negative description: cheating. This is what I mean by the spirit of “just;” even without using the word, there’s a sense of finality that ignores any possibility that a person’s faith or theology is grounded in something other than this commenter’s expectations. It’s precisely this spirit of “just” that I’m hoping we can avoid.
Language is fluid and complex. Words are not either good or bad; context matters. Still, I believe that so far as we’re able, we should avoid using the word “just” as a way of reducing entire categories, ideas, groups of people, beliefs, or narratives to singular, easily dismissible descriptions. Also, I hope that the more mindful we become of our use of the word “just,” the more mindful we’ll be when the spirit of “just” (i.e. certainty, hubris) is present in other parts of our language.