(Rated R for language)
No, I’m not going to teach you how to cuss. My guess is you already know how. When I was in my early 20s, I was proud of my liberal use of profanity. It was what set me apart from the uptight older generation (i.e. my parents). They needed to “get over it.” Words were just words.
Or were they?
For good or for bad, profanity has reached a new level of cultural acceptance. The movie Midnight Cowboy received an X-rating when it was released a few decades ago. Not because of graphic sex or violence, but because it used the f-word. Once. Today the film regularly plays on daytime television—with no restrictions.
What is profanity. And why does it matter? Broadly, it can be broken into two categories:
- Cursing (cussing, swearing), in the traditional sense, is to invoke a curse on another, usually in the name of a deity: “G-d damn you!” In its clearest form, it is judging another, putting oneself in God’s place. In its most casual form it is referencing God in order to spice up dialogue: “Jesus, that’s the coolest g-d damn car I ever saw!” Why should that be offensive? In a word: respect. Using God’s name “in vain” (casually or without respect) is forbidden in the Old Testament because it demeans the Author of life.
- Crude Language is not cursing, but rather the evoking of unpleasant or private images. We don’t relieve ourselves or have sex in public, so neither should we evoke verbal images of those things in public, because language is visceral–we see the things people talk about. There are shades of grey here, of course. “Crap” is somehow less crude than its cousin “s—t.” We look to “spice up” our language with crudities, and sometimes it’s acceptable. Sometimes. But other times its overkill, like pouring so much Tabasco sauce on your food that it’s all you can taste.
The glue of civilization is civility, respect for others. But civility is quickly losing its value. And this is across the boards. Yes, liberal youth display increasing disrespect for others’ sensibilities, insisting that f–k is just a word, for example (disregarding the fact that for many it evokes the image of a loveless, self-gratifying sex act). Conservative elders, on the other hand, recently elected the most foul-mouthed president in American history. People from all ends of the social spectrum are participating in the growth of a profane culture, a culture pierced with the fault lines of disrespect.
It’s time for of us to rethink, not just the words we use, but the attitudes that underpin them. If it’s only you who need to “get over it” when I offend you, not me, then we are one step closer to the devaluation of life, to kill or be killed.
There is a counterpoint, however: it’s called grace.
I was serving at a church in California some years back, when a huge construction worker came in, his hands shaking with emotion. “Do you have God here?” he asked.
“Good. I gotta talk to Him. Right f-ing now!” He proceeded to tell me that he’d been running from God “for a long, long f-ing time,” until an hour ago when he’d fallen from the top of a five storey building. And sprained his finger. He held up the digit and said in a trembling rumble, “No more running, man.”
I told him how much “the God of second chances” loved him, and he nodded as tears streamed from his eyes. Then he prayed for the first time in his adult life, inviting God to come and live in his heart. It was the most profanity-laced, and also the most beautiful, prayer I’ve ever heard.
Respect and grace.
No other combination can heal our shattered world.