Remember when I did my very first blog and I mentioned that I would from time to time cover adult topics in an adult way? I am holding to that today in this post that will deal with curse words. But if you do not want to read what we call curse words from a pastor or from the Bible, back out now. You have been warned.
Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: "Shout louder! Certainly he's a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!" (1 Kings 18:27 CEB translation)
Around noon, Elijah taunted them: “Shout louder! He is a god, right?! Maybe he is musing on something, or taking a shit, or on the road. Or maybe he is asleep and needs to wake up!” (1 Kings 18:27, my translation, but trust me, I used a reputable Hebrew dictionary)
But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8 CEB translation)
But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as shit, so that I might gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8, my translation, but several Greek dictionaries politely say excrement, and come on, sewer trash? What else is that supposed to be?!)
The Bible is so much more interesting than we give it credit for. In particular, it is more interesting than we translate it as. We clean it up so that it is “less offensive.” After all, why cause waves unnecessarily? And I realize that publishers have to answer to their audiences, and that translating the Bible so that “curse” words appear is perceived as resulting in a sea of letters and a drop in sales. But why?
Well, let me just share this little story with you as an illustration. I once served a church where a woman mentioned that she thought the absolutely most offensive thing a pastor could ever do would be to cuss. If she ever heard her pastor cuss, she would walk out of the church that instant and never return. Now, mind you, we were within eyeshot of the wall of pastors – the wall where every senior pastor had his picture – and I could see the photos of two of the pastors who had cheated on their wives with staff members. Those two men had done great damage to that congregation, damage that I was still having to contend with a decade or more after it happened. But God forbid those men ever say, “Shit!” That would be REALLY offensive.
I am writing this blog, and the one that will follow that will deal with obscene language, so that we can correct a serious misconception about language and the Bible. It has become clear in the shadow of Charlottesville that we need to understand that words can indeed lead to actions, but we need some instruction on what actually constitute curse words and obscene language. I am also writing this blog because lately I have had more than one person say that they do not feel like they can come to church because they use curse words (or cuss, but cussing is just a sort of ordinary word for cursing), and they obviously cannot meet the expectations of being a Christian. First, none of us are going to perfectly emulate Jesus, but second, I don’t think cussing as they understand it has any bearing here. Because unlike George Carlin, the Bible does not have a magic list of words we should never say, on television or otherwise. What the Bible does have is an injunction against cursing, and instruction that we should not use obscene language. I will deal with the former here and the latter in the next blog.
No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God's likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn't be this way! (James 3:8-10 CEB translation)
James is not talking about specific words here, but how words are used. If James had specific words in mind, don’t you think he would have listed them? And then those words would also be useless, because we do not speak Koine Greek anymore. James is talking about what words are used for. In particular, he is injuncting us not to curse people. Now, I have a book at home that I was required to get as part of my PhD work that contains a number of spells from the time around when Jesus lived. There are blessings, and there are curses. Curses were particular spells meant to bring harm to someone else. They have nothing to do with the words “ass” or “shit.” They do, however, have something to do with the word “damn.”
You see, of all the words that are referred to as curse words, only one of them consistently fits the bill, and that is damn. That word should actually be the one forbidden word, and yet it has become one of the more acceptable curse words to use. If we truly believe in one God, however, then we also believe that God is the only one who has the power to damn anything or anyone. Whether we put God in front of damn or not, God is implied. And when we ask God to damn someone, that is when we are calling a curse down on them. We are asking for harm to come upon a fellow human being. That may not be our deliberate intention, but it is what we are asking for.
That leads to what constitutes a curse word. I hope we all realize that the words that we have designated as curse words were arbitrarily decided upon, and they were incorrectly associated with cursing. As I mentioned, there is no list of curse/cuss words in the Bible, and even if there was it would be too contextually bound to the eras in which the biblical texts were written. We could collectively suddenly decide that pudding is a cuss word, and if we acted as such as a whole, then it would become one. By the same token, we can collectively decide any of our current cuss words are not cuss words anymore. I have seen that happen in my lifetime. There is no way I could have gotten away with saying “butt” when I was in elementary school, but I have heard teachers in my son’s schools use it perfectly naturally and without any shock factor.
No, what constitutes a curse is wishing harm on another created being. That is offensive to God. Jesus, in fact, equates it to committing murder (see Matthew 5:21-24), and you can see why that would be the case, if you are calling damnation from God down on someone.
The fact that we give other words, chosen somewhat arbitrarily, more weight and power than G-d d--n shows just how little we believe in the power of God. If we were to truly honor God’s place in our world and hearts, then we would readily use these arbitrary words and take away their power, and we would stop cold from using G-d d—n ever again.
And let’s be honest. The prophets (like Elijah quoted above) tell us that there are some serious injustices in this world, problems that demand an angry or attention-getting response. So I totally get how one of my colleagues, a friend who is one of the kindest people I know and who abstains like me from alcohol and regular caffeine consumption, would say (upon hearing that another friend of ours has stage 4 cancer), “Fuck cancer.” I feel like God is echoing that sentiment. There are some incredibly fucked up things about this world, and sometimes that is the best way to express our frustrations with such injustices. What is problematic, however, is cursing specific people for those injustices. That is where such words can become curses (and how they become obscene language, but that is the next topic). So things and conditions and false gods can be shitty and fucked up, but people should not be described in those terms. After all, they too are beings made in the likeness of God, and it is not our place to call for their destruction or damnation. That is for God to decide.
And as for all of us, as long as we have God, and we honor God and God’s power, and as long as we honor God by loving ALL our neighbors, we have our priorities straight. Everything else is just shit.