CAUTION- This blog contains strong language not suitable for children. For a censored version, please click here:
This is my second week of internet web logging. I staved off most of the controversy for this long (a whole two weeks), to try and hook you in. Crafty, huh? In all honesty, this may be where I lose some of you as fans. I’m pretty sure that my own mother will stop reading after this. I am sorry for that. It is not my intent to be controversial. Rather, I am attempting to be honest. It is my true hope that this week’s blog is as edifying for you as it is shocking. And, should you stick around, I’d like to warn you that it’s probably going to get a lot worse.
My aunt Suzette says that the first time she ever saw me, after driving the two days from Ohio to Colorado, was pulling up to our driveway just in time to see my three-year-old frame, heaving back an aluminum baseball bat, in an attempt to play tee-ball with my then baby sister’s- still mostly soft with cartilage- head. That was thirty-eight years ago, and she still has not forgiven me. Along with this, she adds to her first impressions the fact that most of my vocabulary consisted of obscenities, and that I peed more often off of our front porch than I did in the toilet. I would like to, in my defense, bring up the fact that her daughter was obsessed with pinching me. And it hurt.
According to Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t, a history on swearing in the English language, what we commonly refer to as swearing, cursing, cussing, being profane, obscene, or vulgar all take the same place in language, no matter what their etymology. Every society in human history has deemed specific words or phrases to be off limits. Mohr says in her book that they can be broken down into either something that challenges or offends a religious belief, or something that refers to a bodily function or body part that is deemed to be vulgar. Historically, these words that have been considered to be “off limits” have changed within each society and variations in culture, and with changes in language. However, the specific thing that they do is the same, no matter what each culture or version of language that people are speaking. Somehow, our brains store words that we have been conditioned to respect as being vulgar or profane in a different section of our brains than the rest of our spoken language. They are stored in our Limbic System.
Our Limbic System lies in the bottoms of our brains, and is tied into our Autonomic Nervous System, as opposed to our cerebral cortex, where most speech is controlled. It is the part of our brains that holds the “Fight or Flight” response, where our deepest reflexes, impulses, and instincts lie. It is why our sense of smell triggers the strongest attachment to memories, and more importantly for this blog, why we almost always bark out involuntary expletives as soon as we stub our toes or hit our thumbs with a hammer. It’s just how our brains work. For some reason, because we know we shouldn’t say them, it puts those words in a place where we do not usually access them for day-to-day use. We use them when we sense a threat or feel pain. It is because of this that they, in turn, wield so much power. When using them in the presence of others, depending on how sensitive they are to specific words and phrases, it can trigger a deep emotional response. It can work as a bolt of lightning to their own Limbic System, calling upon something very visceral, drawing from those same instincts of feeling threatened.
It is important to note that every well known society, in all of human history, has some record of what we consider obscene or profane. And what those things are, or were, varies to some pretty amazing extremes. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the absolute worst names for any body part could be thrown out with reckless abandon; yet, to falsely make an oath before or about God was enough to warrant capital punishment. There are multitudes of examples of persons being hung, then eviscerated -and then chopped limb from limb- for swearing falsely before God. It was widely believed that in doing so, one would actually tear apart the infant body of Jesus Christ. Basically, you could say the “c-word” in church while urinating in the corner without offending a soul, but if you exclaimed “By God’s bones!” while shoeing a donkey, or whatever the heck people did in those days, you could be burned alive. So, things change, but not the idea behind them. The fact is that, biologically, we store memories of things that we are supposed to fear in our Limbic System. When we speak those things aloud, we are bound to offend.
I know. You’re still pretty sure that Christianity is about being good, and especially not swearing. There’s that verse in James about controlling your tongue, and Paul imploring us to never let any “unwholesome talk come out of our mouths.” If so, I would like to challenge your interpretation of scripture, because I think at times, swearing can be a pretty good thing. There is definitely no definitive Biblical command to not say any specific words. Not in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, or English. There are also copious examples of people in the Bible doing what actually appears to be swearing. On purpose.
Mostly, this is done in the New Testament, and mostly it is done by Jesus or His disciples and aimed at the Pharisees. It seems to have been done to drive home the fact that they were using scripture for personal gain, and that no one really wanted to be associated with them. John the Baptist called them the “Brood of Snakes”, or some translations “the Brood of Vipers”. Jesus also used this term when driving the moneychangers from the temple in Matthew 21 and John 2. This is all lost on our culture, who for the most part would only shrug off such epithets. We have no visceral response to being informed that our parents are actually snakes. But these animals were considered unclean by Levitical law- the same animal that the Book of Genesis describes Satan as being represented by. Nothing in our current English vocabulary even connects with that. But that is why most modern theologians believe that Jesus, and his disciples... swore. It would have been horribly offensive to any Jewish person in first century Palestine.
Along with the “Brood of Vipers” use, there are countless other examples of these same types of vulgarities. For example, in Matthew 5 this happens:
“But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
This is Jesus speaking again. The Greek translation uses the Aramaic word “Raca”, for idiot. Which means - by all accounts - shit. Not poop... shit. The old 5 hit wonder. The corn-eyed butt snake. It was, and is, considered offensive to people speaking Aramaic, the main language spoken by Jesus to His disciples.
Elsewhere, Paul uses the Greek word “skubalon” to mean “rubbish” or “dung”, while speaking to the church at Philippi:
“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[ Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
- Phil 3:7-10
Many theologians, including J.I. Packer, argue that what Paul said here, and we have translated as “garbage”, is another first-century version of swearing. Then, in Galatians 5:12 he goes further, by metaphorically asking his legalistic detractors to cut their penises off.
It didn’t start there though. The old Testament is rife with examples of the same coarse vulgarity. Like Isaiah 6:6, where that prophet compares our attempts at righteousness to menstrual rags (something uber-unclean to Hebrews under Levitical Law), or Ezekiel 23:20... If you even want to read it, I think my point will be made. This is not just wishful thinking, not me asserting my own will into some Biblical context, hoping that I can get away with an F-bomb here or there. It is something that theologians have been arguing for centuries. Whatever your take on scripture, be it that it is God-breathed, just inspired, or maybe just good reading- there is a lot of very vulgar stuff in there. It begs the question: why, then, are we so serious about not swearing?
I know the arguments against it. James telling us that we need to control our tongues. That our speech can corrupt our entire bodies. That a person could be sinless if in fact anyone could control just their own tongue. But I believe here, the context is to illustrate our own corruptness, not to leave a laundry list of sins that we must overcome to be good. Because, as I touched on last week, I don’t believe that we can ever truly be good enough. It is not a spectrum of being a good or a bad person. We are completely unable to do good without God’s intervention. That intervention is Him, loving us. If we act from that point, in love, we can do good. We can speak- even swear - out of love.
One of the best illustrations of this in my mind involves the evangelist Tony Campolo, who was slated to speak early one morning to a large group of Christian businessmen. He rose from his seat and approached the podium to lackluster applause, and then made modern church history by uttering the following statement:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
This story has been told and retold so many times that it has become a thing of legend, part of American Protestant lore. I think the reason it gets bandied about so often is that firstly, Christians want to believe it. We want it to be okay to swear. And secondly, it succinctly sums up just about everything wrong with the Church: that we are more concerned with obeying rules than we are about loving the world. Here, Campolo perfectly uses a swear word, shocking the entire room, to illustrate this point. They are more concerned with being good, than love. Is this not the teaching of Christ, who railed against the established religion of the Pharisees? Who hated the falseness and superficiality of those who attempted to be good? Who accepted tax-collectors and prostitutes as His friends? Who summed the entirety of Jewish Law into two commandments: to love the Lord God with all of our hearts, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? And, of course, who swore?
The reality of this for me, and I’m sorry for this, Mom, includes me swearing. I, like most of you, was, as a young boy, emphatically taught not to do so at all. It was seen as rebellious, and coarse, and after I became a Christian, horrifying. I, like so many of you, was taught that Jesus did in fact die for all of my sins, but in practice- was led to believe that I still had to be good at all times, to avoid the perilous fires of hell. Even under this fear, I have to admit that I still swore from time to time. A momentary shot from my limbic system would erupt in a spurt of panic, or a brief lapse into rebellious teenage angst. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties, when I met one of my heroes, that this changed.
Justin McRoberts is like the Michelangelo of cussing. He can slide at least four swear words into a seven word sentence. It is utterly beautiful. One would have to be raised by generations of construction workers to gain the skill he has to swear with such natural grace and fluidity. He is like the unholy union of a priest and a truckload of Marines. What I realized in getting to know him, was that his grasp of this aspect of the English language, although terribly shocking, somehow edified me. If he were to say “Gosh darn that band, whatever illness should provide them impetus to swindle lesser bands for monetary gain?”, it could never carry the weight of “Fuck those guys. They are wholesale ripping your shit off.” He was, and is, brilliant. He taught me that one can actually swear, and even encouraged me to do so, as a Christian. Because, those words are very powerful, and if they are used in the right place- and definitely in front of the right ears- they will work as a lightning bolt. A mother-fucking lightning bolt.
All of this being said, let’s continue to watch what we say, because love is in the balance here. Our words can stab people, straight in the old Limbic System, and sometimes in the heart. James is telling us the same thing Paul is, and that Jesus is: if you truly believe that God loves you, turn from the part of you that is an animal. Don’t do this out of a sense of fear or a desire to be good, but out of love- first for God, and then for others. Swearing in front of small children or old ladies is not very loving. Their reality is probably not the same as yours. Stop doing things that are destructive to you, or the people you love. Not out of a sense of fear of punishment or a desire to be better than others, but out of love. The love of Christ should be compelling you. Love.
Last week, I overheard my three year old daughter talking from the other room. I’m sure you can see where this is going. She just sat there, happily playing along with her princess Barbies, singing the word “shit”, back to back with more “shits”, for about twenty seconds. “Hey, Linden,” I said, gently. “That is a word for grown-ups. Only grown- ups get to say that word.” “Why?”, she asked. “Because some words are much more powerful than others, and grown-up words can sometimes hurt people. Like Grandma,” I lightly chided. Like my mother-in-law, who would collapse into a complete pile of tearful heartache on the floor, were she to hear what I just had. On the other hand, my Father, who is an Atheist, and most likely the direct genetic path for those swear words to have traveled down, would cry out of pride. Someday, I hope that she has the maturity to see the balance of these two extremes.
From now on, there will be two versions of my weekly internet web log. One with all of the coarse vulgarities I feel are necessary to convey my point or to tell a story, and one that my mother might approve of. Please insert a winking smiley face here.