“What part of the South are you from?”
Taken aback by the Target cashier’s question, I glanced down to see if I was wearing my Atlanta Braves shirt. Negative. “How did you know?” I asked incredulously. For two years prior I had lived in the coalfields of rural West Virginia where the thick Appalachian accents drowned out my Georgia drawl. In fact, I was accustomed to people commenting, “Well, you don’t have an accent” when I told them that I grew up in Atlanta. Yet here I was, less than 6 hours into my new life in Minneapolis, already being asked about my place of belonging. And it was tipped off, as the cashier responded, “Because of your accent.”
Being identified as a Southerner anywhere outside of the South or by expatriate Southerners carries with it a whole set of negative assumptions. It has the inverse effect of hearing someone speak with a posh British accent, which immediately conveys authority, intelligence, and sophistication. Indeed, just this week I was at a pastor’s meeting where a South American pastor told a British pastor, “You make everything sound so…fancy.” No one ever said that to the Dukes of Hazzard.
Thinking over the 12 years that have passed since the Target cashier’s question causes me to ponder why very few traces remain of my Southern or Appalachian intonations that once were astonishingly strong. Certainly some of it has to do with adaptation to one’s context, but there is also the simple fact of how I want others to view me. I flatly reject the association of Southernness with backwardness and ignorance, yet I wonder if that subconscious part of me that desires the esteem of others has functioned as a governor to any natural drawl I have.
Perhaps this is all vain self-psychoanalysis. Regardless, these musings alerted me to a much more serious form of accent-hiding to which we are all susceptible. As followers of Jesus we have been made citizens of Heaven, subjects in the kingdom of God. Like the faithful believers of old, we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” who “are seeking a homeland” (Hebrews 11:13-14). We ultimately belong somewhere else–not necessarily to a different earth but to a renewed, resurrected version of our rebellious earth. This place of belonging has a distinguished accent to it that, if we are bold enough to speak with it now, strikes many as backwards. We believe the cosmos came into being because our God spoke it into being. We believe that our God created us as sexual beings and has the authority to dictate how we express that sexuality. We believe that God will judge all people and will eternally punish all who are not reconciled to him through faith in Jesus.
In our current culture, to speak from these assumptions has an otherness that will cause some to immediately categorize us as ignorant or bigoted. For most of us this is an unwelcome distinction that might tempt us to hide our accent and alter our language. But we must not do so. The very rule of God that causes rebellious humans to bristle is the rule that will bring about a new creation of harmony, prosperity, and peace. This is the shalom that all humans crave yet have never been able to create. If we hide our accent informed by God as Creator, Ruler, and Judge, we will have no good news to tell of him as Father, Redeemer, and Shelter.
During the months following the Target conversation, my lingering accent gave me at least one advantage. Whenever someone would ask me where I was from, it opened up opportunities to enlighten meat-and-potato Minnesotans concerning the glories of Southern cuisine, especially collard greens, black eyed peas, and sweet tea. In the same way, our heavenly accent may offend, but it may also give occasion for us to share about our heavenly home where God shines with unhindered brilliance and will be worshiped forever by his new society that is devoid of pain and permeated with love.
Let us not hide our accent,