When my spouse and I went to get our marriage license, the county clerk asked us how many years of schooling we’d each had. When we told her, she didn’t believe us!
“Not how old you are,” she clarified. “How many years were you in school?”
“No, seriously,” we insisted, “We’ve been in school for that long!”
When you’ve been in school for a long time, you risk sounding more academic than accessible. And this is a problem. Deep thinkers must communicate clearly.
The revised Social Principles are relatively inaccessible. There were sentences that I had to read multiple times in order to understand them — and I know that I am in a very privileged position compared to many United Methodists.
The Social Principles need to be run through a readability checker that looks at both sentence length and word length, aiming for a 4th-8th grade reading level.
Without watering down the academic rigor, the following suggestions will help make the Social Principles more accessible. They may also achieve the stated goal of making them more succinct.
Replace passive verbs with active verbs.
Define technical terms like “precautionary principle” and “food sovereignty.”
Use inclusive language for God (e.g., “God saw everything that GOD had made”) and God’s work in the world (e.g., “reign of God” instead of “kingdom”). Our Book of Resolutions calls us to eradicate sexism and engage feminist theologies. Doing no harm means listening to women who have been calling for inclusive and expansive language for multiple generations.
This draft features long sentences. Shortening sentences would help with the accessibility of the document. For example, this cumbersome sentence was part of the section on “Food Systems”: “The land, food, and water rights of all people, and the food cultures that rely on knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, must be respected.” It would be easy to turn this sentence into two sentences. Even better would be to use active verbs!
We can delete each instance of the words “We believe.” Just say what you want to say — it’s more succinct and more powerful! This can be found, for example, in the section on the “Death Penalty.”
Throughout the document, there are inappropriate commas and quotation marks. I assume that these will be cleaned up before the next iteration that the public sees.
Paragraph headings could be more clearly titled to reflect the structure that follows. For example, “Ecosystems: Air, Water, Land, Plants, and Animals” would clearly indicate that the paragraphs within the disciplinary paragraph would cover first air, then water, then land, etc.
Thesis/topic sentences would be a help throughout the document. For example, the section “Wisdom” needs a thesis sentence like the following: “Wisdom emanates from God and can be known through indigenous ways of knowing as well as through science and technology.”
Delete the “a” and “b” division in the “Suicide, Death, and Dying” section; they can be woven together into one coherent unit. It is also the only example of divisions that I saw within the Social Principles draft.
Many of the paragraphs should be combined and condensed. I write more about this here. At the very least, the paragraphs that cover similar topics should have cross-references.
In addition to merging whole paragraphs, the sentences under “Marriage and Divorce” on infertility and unplanned pregnancies need to be moved to “Reproductive Health.”
- Community of All Creation
- Loving Communities (combining Nurturing and Social)
- Communities of Justice and Righteousness (combining Political, Economic, and Global)
Then add a conclusion to each of these three sections. For example, the final paragraph under “Space” appears to be a conclusion to the entire “Community of All Creation” section, and could easily be set off as such.
What would you change in the proposed Social Principles?
Comment here before August 31, 2018!
This post is the fourth part of a five-part series on the United Methodist Social Principles:
- Part 1: A New Structure for a New Era
- Part 2: The Inadequacy of “Rights”
- Part 3: Theological Grounding
- Part 4: Succinct, Organized, and Accessible
- Part 5: Global Relevance