Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Paying Heed to Plural Pronouns

Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. is fond of pointing out that the preamble to the US Constitution begins with the word “we,” as in “We the people,” not “We the persons or the individuals.” He says that in our increased individualism in this country, we have lost our sense of community and are in danger of becoming more and more isolated from each other.

This is an important point to keep in mind when reading Bible as well, which is mostly addressed to whole communities of people, and not intended primarily as a book to be used just for one’s personal meditation, as helpful and important as that is.

One of the ways the Authorized (King James) version of the Bible is helpful here is that it distinguishes between what is addressed to a personal “you” from what is a plural “you” (as in the good Southern “You all”).  According to the English language of the time, when “you” refers to an individual, the pronouns “thee,” “thou” and “thine” are used. When the “you” is plural we find the words “ye,” “you” and “yours”. Unfortunately, our modern English no longer makes those distinctions.

As an example from the KJV, when Jesus offers his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, we can see that his so-called “Lord’s Prayer” is meant to be a communal prayer, introduced with “When ye pray...” Note the plural pronouns "we," “our” and “us” used here rather than our praying “My Father who art in heaven,” and “give me my daily bread.” Rather, we are praying to our one God (note the use of the singular “Thy” and “Thine”) that all of the hungry everywhere be fed. Even the prayer for forgiveness of our debts (or trespasses), while certainly including each us as individuals, is for all of God’s people to be forgiven--as we in turn forgive others.

But later in Matthew 5, Jesus gives instructions for personal prayer, introduced with “When thou prayest.” Here we are told to do our individual prayers privately, avoiding any outward display of piety for the purpose of gaining others' admiration or approval. There is no mention of keeping those prayer brief. Alone with God, we can pray with as many words as we wish.

It was something of a light bulb moment for me when I began reading the Bible through the lens, of it being addressed primarily to congregations of people, or to the leaders of such congregations, and not just to us as individuals. It becomes personal, yes, but is not just for our private interpretation or edification.

In short, the Good Book is about one God, singular, for all of the people of God, plural.

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