When I am particularly pissed off, like right after the Man City supporters club kick me out because I refuse to wear the hijab or after everyone laughs at me in the swimming pool for sinking straight to the bottom and then falling unconscious or any time at all that I am in my car, I get foul mouthed. I am not quite offensive enough to prompt you to wince but if the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan or the stupid door falls off the cupboard again you will get to enjoy your favourite local seminarian descend into a thirty second long tirade that combines the juiciest swear words with innocuous nouns for the most potent of effects.
Sometimes I use Christian swear words when preaching just to provoke people.
There are folk who still think damn is a swear word.
Darn them to heck I say.
You don’t have to go to the Aristocrats for filthy language. Ben Jonson seems to have loved the word “fackings”. When Shakespeare wrote “zounds” or “sblood” he was using the most noxious swearwords of his day, literal contractions of “God’s wounds” and “God’s blood”.
Christians don’t swear because there are lots of passages like this:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph 4:29)
But there is a problem with the position because while my tame and very serious Bible translation of choice, the TNIV, translates 2 Kings 18:22 as
But the commander replied, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?”
The far more revered King James Version renders it thusly:
But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
Isaiah 64:6 talks about our best deeds being menstrual rags before God. According to Ezekiel Israel “lusted after lovers who were hung like donkeys and ejaculated like horses”. Paul certainly regards everything as “shit” compared to Christ in his letter to the Philippians.
God is not above talking profanely. In 2005, the US Congress debated passing laws that would place heavy fines on the broadcasting of any words designated as “swearing”. This follows Tipper Gore’s famous Parental Advisory sticker we all grew up with from the mid-1980s onwards.
The R.E.M. song Star Me Kitten is really called Fuck Me Kitten by the way. The lyrics make much more sense when restored to the original but they didn’t want a Tipper Sticker on Automatic for the People.
So if we are happy to use words like slobberchops (the most offensive insult you could throw at someone in colonial America) and don’t pass an eye over the Shakespeare pun that serves as the title of this post (O-Thing is a vagina), then surely we can remember that a well placed punchline swearword or an in-the-moment-the-mayonnaise-jar-falls-on-your-foot expletive is legitimate.
If then even Paul of Tarsus swore, then surely there are means by which swearing might be not just ok but an actively good thing? On his latest album Derek Webb has a good song called “What Matters More” which challenges American Christians who are utterly preoccupied with political discussions about the role of homosexuals in the public square while children die of hunger. He sings,
Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today
In this case, swearing looks to me like a prophetic action:
So what is the Christian prohibition on swearing? Jesus is very clear about the danger of slander and repeatedly warns us that it is not what we put into our mouths that makes us unclean but that which comes out. The most serious and clearest warning on language comes in the Sermon on the Mount:
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
We don’t really have the wherewithal to translate “Raca”. It is almost certainly a most grievous of swears. It seems to be based in the noise that we make right before we spit at someone in the face. It is crystal clear then that Christians ought not to use language in anger that seeks to offend, demean or verbally “spit in the face” of another. Bonhoeffer interprets this passage for us in Discipleship (p. 80):
Even anger is enough to overstep the mark, still more the casual angry word (Raca), and most of all the deliverate insult of our brother (‘Thou fool’).
Anger is always an attack on the brother’s life, for it refuses to let him live and aims at his destruction. Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and unjustifiable anger. The disciple must be entirely innocent of anger, because anger is an offence against both God and his neighbour. Every idle word which we think so little of betrays our lack of respect for our neighbour, and shows that we place ourselves on a pinnacle above him and value our own lives higher than his. The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart; it seeks to hit, to hurt and to destroy. A deliberate insult is even worse, for we are then openly disgracing our brother in the eyes of the world, and causing others to despise him.
Research has demonstrated that when a swear word is used, there is a physical response in the listener. Swearing literally gets a rise out of people. But fascinatingly, the exact same instinctive anatomical response is illicited when well educated people hear bad grammar. We don’t think it virtuous when pedants get pissed off at the (de-)evolution of grammar. Yet from a socio-biological perspective, swearing and bad grammar occupy the same space.
I like talking proper. You like talking clean. When the words are not used in anger and attack, they are not matters for Christian contemplation anymore than the civic rudeness of slowvertaking, listening to your ipod so loudly that you force everyone else on the bus to join you or picking your nose and eating it while preaching.
Your Correspondent, A fribbling, boslopping, bantling of a slobberchops!