Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Trouble With Cussing (CT April, 2013)

My April Christianity Today column has gone online. I'm tempted to introduce it with dozens of caveats, clarifications and "other-hands," but I best just let it speak for itself, at least to begin. I'd love to have a conversation about it, though. Let me know what you think.

The Trouble with Cussing Christians

Do Christians have a unique call to avoid strong language?
Carolyn Arends [ posted 4/15/2013 ]
The Trouble with Cussing Christians
Recently, rushing late to my son's orthodontic appointment, I missed a critical left turn. Much to my surprise, I exhaled a "bad" word by our family's standards. (Please understand, dental receptionists don't suffer tardiness lightly, and my punctuality track record isn't strong.)

"Mom!" exclaimed my children.

"What?" I stammered, feigning innocence, and adding the sin of deception to strong language.

Apparently my mother was right all along. One sin leads to another. And we shouldn't use bad words.

Except … it's cool these days to be a Christian who swears. It gives the curser an "I'm into Jesus, but I'm not legalistic" badge. A recent tweet about a behavioral study that linked swearing and honesty went viral among my church friends (although no one could produce a link to the actual study). Many of these friends point to the arbitrariness of the cuss-word system.

"What if table was a swear word?" asked my daughter. "Or elbow?"

She has a point. There is something absurd about the designation of particular words as profane. And yet, neither table nor elbow is in the curse category, and the majority of swear words have earned their designation according to a certain logic. Other than words associated with deity, most profanity involves associations with biological function in the areas of sexuality and waste elimination. The God-related curses are right off the table, if one takes the third commandment seriously at all. But what is a Christian to do with the remaining "strong language"?

All language is a kind of social contract. We agree—as heirs of centuries of etymological development—to call the pointy thing in our arm an elbow, just like we agree to label things we find despicable with words we identify as profane. The words themselves hold only the power we give them. But curse words tend to be powerful indeed, because to linguistically reduce something or someone to the level of biological functions (and their resultant products) is almost always an act of contempt. And contempt is toxic.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologist John Gottman. In Gottman's lab, spouses were asked to discuss something mildly contentious while sensors recorded their physiological responses. After years of studying the nuances of these exchanges, Gottman became startlingly successful at predicting which couples would divorce. The most telling indicators, he claims, are expressions of contempt. An eye roll or a mildly disdainful put-down was more worrisome than outright conflict. In fact, the presence of contempt in a marriage affects not only the survival of the relationship, but even the immune systems of the parties involved; spouses who live with chronic contempt get more colds than those who don't.

Contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, expressed from a position of superiority. It denigrates, devalues, and dismisses. It's not hard to understand why even subtle levels of contempt are damaging—not only in marriages but in all human interaction.

If profane language has a privileged place in the lexicon of contempt, then Christians have a unique mandate to avoid profanity. It's not that abstaining from pejorative language outfits us with some holier-than-thou halo. It's that we are called to live with a servant's heart, affirming the dignity of every human and the sacredness of existence.

Theologian John Stackhouse points out that our primary vocation as Christ followers is not to "stay pure," but rather to cultivate shalom. From Isaiah's picture of a wolf living peacefully with a lamb (11:6), to Paul's description of a new reality that obliterates racial, socioeconomic, and gender-based power structures (Gal. 3:28), the biblical vision of shalom dissolves any notion of hierarchy. All of creation joyfully submits to the beautiful rule of its Creator. There's no room for one creature to hold another creature (or creation itself) in contempt; God alone occupies a superior plane.

Of course, it's possible to religiously avoid disdainful language while being seized with contemptuous thoughts. But, as the Book of James reminds us, our tongues are like rudders to the ships of our thought lives. Taming our language, in other words, is a good place to start.

And so I am trying to avoid language that expresses contempt towards people, situations, and yes, even traffic lights that dare to defy my will. Such an endeavor goes beyond comedian George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"—even the most innocuous words, if uttered from a contemptuous heart, can mutate into curses. Conversely, certain evils can indeed be worthy of contempt and there are times when "adult language" is appropriate. But in every case, our words should reflect our calling to participate in hallowing, rather than profaning, the world. If it's truly strong language that we're after—language with power and impact—what could be stronger than the language we use to cultivate shalom?


Dewey said...

I have been curious about the whole topic of why some words are okay and others aren't for a while now. Different words for the same thing have different impact. Thank you, though, for getting to the REAL issue.

Carolyn Arends said...

Hey Dewey, Yeah, I've wondered the same thing (and so have my kids!) But it helps me to think in terms of the "social contract" aspect of language - these are the words our culture has agreed to use to convey contempt, anger or disgust. So we need to be very cautious how we use them. Thanks for being such a faithful (and thoughtful) reader!

Unknown said...


I don’t know if you get e-mails notifying you of responses to your blog, so I don’t know if you will ever see this, but I figured I would give it a shot. I just found your blog entry when trying to refer your fine essay to a friend, and I was glad to see it was still available. I then thought that I would offer just a couple responses. Full disclosure: I am a Christian who is also a clinical psychologist. On a side note, I can’t remember if I ever wrote you about this previously, so if I did, forgive my failing memory.

First, I agree that cursing can be about contempt, and you have really made an excellent point. I also think that cussing is even more about illusory control, and contempt is just one manifestation. Aggression is even more common. People swear when their illusory self-sufficiency (e.g., the desire to perceive that I can control everything) is thwarted by their own fallibility (e.g., breaking a shoelace, hitting a thumb with a hammer). Swearing thus is typically an act of aggression that brings some restored sense of control (e.g., "well, at least I can do something (cussing) about this that makes me feel powerful."). In contrast, I believe that increasing spiritual formation and growth involves increasing surrender of the illusion of control and trust in God's control. Make sense? The more I know in my core, accept, and give thanks that God is God and I am not, the less I will be motivated to cuss.

Second, I would be interested if you might provide an example of a time where you think that “adult language” is appropriate. I confess that nothing comes to mind for me, but I am keeping an open mind and would appreciate knowing more of your perspective.

Thanks again for writing one of the best essays I have seen on this topic.

Peace of Christ,
Jeff Bjorck