In 2015, for the first time in nearly two centuries of publication, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary chose a suffix as its word of the year. That word was “ism.”
To name its winner, Merriam-Webster tracked two criteria: a high volume of look-ups and a significant year-over-year increase in look-ups. Who, pray tell, searches the meaning of suffixes? Will this year’s word be a prefix? Actually, I could see “anti” taking the prize now that I reconsider.
What’s instructive, however, is that Merriam-Webster discovered that “ism” was uniquely connected to words that people were quite curious about in 2015. Words like socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and, of course, terrorism, were abundantly searched last year. If you think about it long enough, you can probably figure out the events that spawned these queries.
We are living in an age of “isms” and it’s not a fun game of Scrabble, for “ism” can be messy. The distinguished dictionary describes it as “a distinctive belief, cause or theory, or an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief.”
I suppose your preferred definition depends greatly on which side of the “ism” you fall. For instance, capitalism is a positive economic theory to some and an oppressive belief to others. Likewise, feminism can be a worthy cause in some contexts and a discriminatory attitude in others. Even among Christians the “ism” attached to evangel—meaning to believe the gospel or good news—can be an issue.
It seems, actually, that this age of “isms” is increasingly divisive and angry. We appear more and more divided by our “isms,” swift to judge those of others “isms,” and astonishingly ignorant of the “isms” we believe in or oppress others with.
Thankfully, Jesus is no “ism.” At Lazarus’ tomb he doesn’t ask Martha and Mary if they believe the religious doctrine he is propagating. No, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Is “this” an “ism?” No, look closely. He is calling us to himself. He is asking his friends if they believe he is beyond any “ism.”
As the church expands by the acts of the Holy Spirit, she does not call people to a set of doctrines, although these do necessarily develop. Repeatedly and simply, Christians beckon those of all “isms” to Jesus.
This is why the New Testament evangel is not primarily a declaration of propositional truths or philosophies, but the declaration of an event: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).
The church is foremost a witness of the person of Jesus in the power of the Spirit to the ends of the earth. To reduce the good news to just another “ism” among many is to actually miss the point. It is, in fact, to miss Jesus, who still calls, speaks and asks even those closest to him: “Do you believe this?”
Phil Wagler (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Surrey, B.C., where there are lots of “isms,” and, because of Jesus, still optimism.