Happenings

Pastors, too, must mind their language

Sep 2003    
A group of Chinese men at a church conference, circa 1903. -- Methodist Church Archives picture.

“A Chinese Christian” in the May 1915 Malaysia Message drew attention to the racial epithets used by certain missionaries, questioning the appropriateness of “Chinaman” and “Kling” to refer to Chinese and Tamils. In an editorial rejoinder, the then Editor, the Rev W. G. Shellabear, however, commented: “We regret very much the tendency among foreigners who use the English Language to find fault with words to which no valid objection can properly be raised, and to blame the English people for the way they use their own language.” In a 21st century context, this sounds archaic – even insensitive – but in a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society such as Singapore, we need to be careful of what and how we refer to others of a different race, language or religion, and be reminded that there is no place for careless, contemptuous or hurtful language.

‘SOME time ago a certain bishop was preaching to a large congregation of intelligent Chinese young men. In the course of his sermon, while referring to the Chinese people, he used the word “Chinaman.”

Of course, the good bishop did not know that the word was offensive to the Chinese young men who composed his congregation that night, or else, I am sure he would not have used it. On hearing the word I bit my lips, blushed, looked down, and wished that the bishop had not used it, for I knew that there was a feeling of resentment in the hearts of all the Chinese Christians who were present.

I feel assured that the word “Chinaman” spoilt the whole sermon for a great many of them. The service was over, the benediction was pronounced, and we were dismissed. No one referred to the use of “Chinaman” by the bishop, and I went home and forgave him from the bottom of my heart.

Two days later after the prayer meeting I was talking with some of the brethren. One of them asked me if I had heard the bishop use the word “Chinaman” in his sermon on the previous Sunday evening. On my giving an affirmative reply, he urged me, in some way, to bring the matter to the notice of the missionaries, so that they might stop using the offensive word when preaching to, or speaking with, the Chinese people. I told him that I would do it, although I did not know then what would be the best way to go at it.

Several days passed by and the thing was still on my mind when I heard a missionary addressing a large crowd of schoolboys, the great majority of whom were Chinese. In the midst of his deeply interesting talk he dubbed the Chinese people as “John Chinamen.” Although he said those words in a semi-humorous way, yet they hurt one’s feelings all the same. In the case of this missionary I cannot persuade myself to believe that he did not know any better, for he has been working amongst the Chinese people for about twenty years, and he surely should have known better than to use that contemptuous expression …

The same thing holds true with regard to the word “Kling” which is often used in a contemptuous way. Consequently, no sensible man who knows anything about the way the word is commonly used, would think of using it when addressing an audience of Tamils or Indians. It seems to me that missionaries in Malaysia ought to look upon the matter in the light that Paul did upon the meat question when he said, “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.”

The Master’s advice to His workers is that they may be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. As a rule I do not doubt their harmlessness, but when a Christian worker says or does things that invariably cause offence amongst the people to whom he ministers, then I begin seriously to doubt his wisdom …’ — MM, May 1915, p. 64.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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