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04 March, 2011

What About Foul Language?

I recently read the Sermon on the Mount again. It is one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible. One segment jumps out at me every time, and it's not because it's confusing or especially great, but it was one thing that I always thought was really strange in the way people used it:
33You know that our ancestors were told, "Don't use the Lord's name to make a promise unless you are going to keep it." 34But I tell you not to swear by anything when you make a promise! Heaven is God's throne, so don't swear by heaven. 35The earth is God's footstool, so don't swear by the earth. Jerusalem is the city of the great king, so don't swear by it. 36Don't swear by your own head. You cannot make one hair white or black. 37When you make a promise, say only "Yes" or "No." Anything else comes from the devil. (Matthew 5:33-7, CEV)
Every time I've heard somebody use this text throughout my years, it's been in reference to foul or vulgar language. But the passage is clearly not talking about the usage of foul language. The verse that always made it sound weird to me was v37: "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'. For whatsoever is more than these is from the evil one." This verse has nothing to do with "swearing" as we use the term today. Taken out of context, and especially if one omits v37, this passage could be used as a prohibition on such intensifiers as "Oh crap!" But including v37 makes the passage about trustworthiness, which is ever-important in the life of a Christian.

So if this passage doesn't place a ban on vulgarity, what does? I think something that would be more conducive to the ends of the misquoters is Philippians 4:8: "Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don't ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise" (CEV).

In order to understand why we should stay away from foul language, we sometimes need to understand its origins. Here are three "bad" words that are in the Bible: hell, ass and damn. Why, then, are they considered to be foul language? Well, let's start with "damn".

To damn is to condemn, or to curse. The Bible says that only God has the power to judge, and therefore we should not condemn people or things. The word's use as an intensifier is probably more common than as a curse today: "Damn, that was close!" is just one example. An acceptable alternative would be, "Wow, that was close!" but it does lose some of the intensity that the less desirable word adds to the sentence. It can also be used as an expression of disdain, which is closer to a curse: "Damn, I was hoping that would have worked out."

The usage in the expression, "Damned if I do, damned if I don't," for expressing an impossible and undesirable situation is perfectly legitimate and is not foul or vulgar in the least. It's another way of saying, "Either way, it will end in ruin for me." The only thing is that since the word "damn" has been added to the list of foul words, all instances of it are barred from modern "polite" conversation.

Many words have come to replace "damn": man (as an intensifier), blast, curse, etc. But are we really avoiding a certain series of muscle movements, or are we avoiding the actual curse itself? We as humans naturally want to curse things undesirable. If not, why would Jesus have warned us to "judge not, lest ye be judged" (Mt 7:1)? Blasting is a form of condemnation; cursing something is a form of condemnation; everything we replace "damn" with means essentially the same thing. We have no reason whatsoever to judge something because we are not perfect, and we will not be until after we ourselves are judged.

Now let's look at "hell". The only reason that word is considered a bad word is that we hate to talk about the ill fate of the wicked. In many Christian circles, Catholic and Protestant alike, Hell is described as a place where the wicked and sinful will feel the wrath of God for all eternity. It is a place of torment and of suffering. Sounds like a nice vacation, doesn't it? Of course not! Nobody wants to think of this as being anybody's fate, and it was (and still is) often used as a scare tactic. "If you don't repent, you're going to hell!" say some ministers. "Gays will burn in hell!" says Fred Phelps and his thralls. Hell this, hell that: everybody that isn't perfect is going to burn in hell. The Bible teaches something else, though: the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). With one notable exception in Exodus, in every instance throughout history, fire consumes. It consumes the wicked, for that is the only way they will have peace. Ellen White explains that the destruction of the wicked is an act of mercy, not of anger or hatred. Those who hate God and are beyond his grace (due to a little thing called free will) would find every day in the Kingdom of Heaven to be as torturous as the traditional definition of hellfire. They would want to be destroyed, and so God will give them what they want, that they would suffer no more.

Now let's get into the modern usage of the word "hell" in a more conversational setting. Often, people say, "to hell with it," which is essentially the same thing as saying, "damn it." A more kosher way of putting it is to say, "forget it," though more common is, "screw it." But the usual usage of "hell" is in an exclamation of confusion and surprise: "What the hell?" This is, of course, short for something along the lines of, "What in (the) Hell is that?" Similar utterances include, "What on Earth is that?" and "What in heaven's name is that?" They fulfill the same function while avoiding the usage of the undesirable word. "Hell" is not really a bad word; it's just something we don't like to think about, so we've ousted it from the "proper" speech.

Finally we come to the word "ass". This is an old English name for equus africanus asinus, the common domestic donkey. Never in the King James Bible would an ass be referred to as a donkey because the word simply hadn't been invented. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "donkey" originated in 1785: "originally slang, perhaps a dim. from dun 'dull grey-brown,' the form perhaps influenced by monkey. Or possibly from a familiar form of Duncan (cf. dobbin)." I myself have used the word in my poetry, referring to myself as stubborn. And that's exactly what calling somebody an ass used to mean: stubborn. And they're not necessarily known for their intelligence, either. Again, this is not a bad word. Likening someone to an ass is no worse than saying they're stubborn, thickheaded, and so on.

There is, however, a text that advises us against doing such a thing, found in Matthew 5:22: "But I promise you that if you are angry with someone, you will have to stand trial. If you call someone a fool, you will be taken to court. And if you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell" (CEV) Since asses weren't good for much more than being pack animals, calling somebody an ass is essentially calling them worthless.

I won't get into some of the less desirable language. Some of it was created as profanity, so naturally it doesn't fall into that which is good, pure, praiseworthy, etc. Let's instead have a look at what swearing used to be. Nowadays, it means anything that includes foul language. But in the past, when you swore, you made a promise. It was the equivalent of signing a contract nowadays. You would swear by something you cared about: a parent's grave, the Bible, the rising of the sun, etc. Taking that last example, you could say, "I swear by the rising of the sun that I will repay you," or you could say, "As surely as the sun rises, I will repay you." They meant the same thing. Jesus cautions us against these things, for if we make a promise that is as binding as the rising of the sun, then we are bound to it. Circumstances beyond our control could get in the way and prevent us from fulfilling the contract. It could keep on like that for years, for all we know. Instead, Jesus, in his usual habit of uncomplicating things, said, "Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No' be 'No'." If we were trustworthy, which we should be as Christians, then nobody would need proof of our word in the form of an oath. Our word would be enough for people to have the comfort that we would fulfill our end of the bargain.

That is not to say that all oaths are evil. I have sworn two oaths (other than contracts, license agreements, and so on) in my life: one of allegiance to the United States of America and the ideals of her Founding Fathers, and one to God. And my pledge to the USA has never been concrete. It's been contingent on whether or not I agree with her values, which are growing increasingly counter to my own in recent days. My oath to God, however, is simple: I will serve Him no matter what trials and hardships come my way. I didn't have to make any complicated promise held in place by some truth; it was a simple answer to a simple question. "Will you serve Me?" "Yes." My word is bond. And that's how it should be.

Your Brother in Christ,

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