Evangelist Tony Campolo famously and controversially likes to use this opening line his speeches:
“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.”
Well, that’ll get people’s attention. One of those words is off-limits in most public conversation, especially at church. Sometimes I wonder why we draw the lines about that where we do. Why are some words offensive and others are just fine? Ultimately, I’ve decided it’s not the words themselves, but the stories behind them. They have a definition because that’s what Mr. Webster has given us; they have a connotation because of the context and history of how we’ve used them. Words are charged with all kinds of subtext, but that’s true of all of them, not just the swear words. They have incredible power. That’s why I don’t flinch when I hear most of the things I would’ve gotten a spanking for saying in elementary school, but slurs and hate speech set me off. I see one as just another tool for communication, but the other is a battering ram that has been used to beat down whole chunks of God’s children.
Each word we use is a story in itself, telling our listeners something about where we’re coming from and where we’re going. So guarding our speech and speaking with respect is about a lot more than avoiding the use of profanity. We can be profane without cussing. When we expect others to adapt their speech to our comfort level (by, for example, refraining from swearing) but we dismiss people’s requests to use particular language about them as overly-PC semantics, we are profane. Like I said, our words have power. Clearly we know that because we get flustered when we feel people are using them irresponsibly. When then is it so common in Christian circles to persist in using the word “homosexual” (a term that the was used very offensively as a psychiatric diagnosis of “sexual deviance” up until the 1970s) when many prefer lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, or another identifiers? Why do we say it’s too much trouble to keep up with whether Black, or African-American, or Afro-American, or something else is how someone chooses to describe themselves? When we value convenience in conversation over another human being’s feelings and identity, we are profane.
Just because someone isn’t swearing does not mean that they have chosen their words carefully. Just because they are swearing, doesn’t mean that they have not or that they just “need a bigger vocabulary.” If we think it’s not too much trouble for someone to rein in the swearing around us, then it’s not too much trouble for us to stop ourselves from using words that make them uncomfortable either.
The older I’ve gotten, the clearer this feeling has become for me as I hear four-letter words in everyday conversation about everything from weekend plans to theological debates. They’re not directed at anyone, they’re just unassumingly sprinkled into sentences among their more respectable brethren. And the thing is, it’s not a deal. It doesn’t hurt anyone, it doesn’t detract from conversation, and just like any other word, sometimes one of them is exactly the right word for what you’re trying to express. They’re tools of the imagination and relationship just like all words, slats in a rickety bridge from one heart to another. Of course, like anything else, there’s a time and place for them, but it seems silly to write off those tools of communication so arbitrarily. It gets on my nerves when a knee-jerk reaction without a real reason gets to make the rules, especially about who gets to say what.
That said, obviously I don’t think we should all go around swearing all the time. And the kind of swearing I’m talking about here is conversational, not maliciously directed at anyone. But for some folks, even just the presence of the words at all can be a problem. Our ability to hear what is being said is strongly tied to our perception of how much the person speaking to us respects us and vice versa. Personally, I have a really hard time hearing the message behind a condescending vibe, where it feels like the speaker is talking down to me. I am so busy trying to filter out my reaction to the offensive way the material is presented that I’m not as able to focus on what he’s actually saying. And when I do get there I am more likely to be a little (ok, fine, sometimes a lot) uncharitable about it. I’m likely to interpret the content of whatever he said in a more negative light because it was poisoned by a presentation that bugged me so much. On the other hand, when a speaker or writer or conversation partner is engaging and warm, when something about the way they speak makes me feel like I can trust them, they fade into the background and cease to be such a distraction to what they’re trying to get across. And then my reflection on their speech is much more gracious, offering them the benefit of the doubt even on parts I may not necessarily like or agree with. Maybe it’s unfair, but it is how we filter things.
As much as I reserve the right to speak my conscious in whatever words I think most faithfully convey my message, I also recognize that for some, swearing is where I lose them. It’s the same as the smug little I’m-smarter-than-you-let-me-show-you tone that pushes me out of the conversation when I hear it from others. It’s a barrier. Part of being in community with each other is compromising and being okay with the fact that we’re going to have to adapt our message if we want certain people to hear it. We meet people where they are, and for some, that requires G-rated language.
So if I recognize that, why don’t I just stop swearing altogether then and not risk offending by accident? Because for some, it’s not a barrier; it’s a door. For me to listen to Tony Campolo or Nadia Bolz-Weber slip a four-letter word into the conversation is a moment of grace, the assurance that there’s room for me here, too. There is room for a trying-not-to-be-such-a-yuppie grad student with a few tame tattoos and a subtle nose ring whose mother occasionally frets about her “sailor mouth” to be a faithful servant in the kingdom of God. There’s room for what’s undesirable and offensive in me (and which parts of me that refers to– the tattoos, the swearing, the preppy button-down Oxford shirt, the letters my Masters degrees will soon place after my name–will vary greatly depending on the angle you’re looking from), even and especially at church. There’s room for people who are dealing with rough stuff and feel the need to talk about it roughly. There’s room for people who don’t quite jive with all the “supposed to’s” at church, but love God and this community enough to stay with it anyway. It’s okay to let our guard down and just talk how we talk and recognize that that does not mean we forfeit the right to speak meaningfully to and about God. Honesty and transparency are encouraged, and having other Christians–even prominent Christian leaders– choose to cuss if they need to cuss is proof that we really are welcome whether that transparency reveals a sailor mouth or a disciplined non-swearing tongue. We’re not just paying lip-service to “all our welcome.” You really are welcome here.
So yes, sometimes I swear. But I also choose my words very carefully. What I have chosen to say, I have chosen to say on purpose with the mind and the voice God gave me. I’ve thought about what I’m communicating to whom, and I stick by it. Whether you swear or not, I would encourage you to do the same. All words matter, and they’re chosen, consciously or subconsciously, as doors by which people are inviting you into what they think and feel and see and want for the world. Words are weighty– all of them– so let’s agree to be careful about wielding them with each other. It’s a delicate balance, weighing authenticity to ourselves with loving accommodation to our listeners, but I think we’re up for it.
How do you express your voice? How do the words you choose remain true to you and your message? How do you adapt them to your listeners to make sure they can hear you?