For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ.
~ Phil 3.8
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like bloody menstrual rags.
~ Is 64.6
She [i.e. Jerusalem, who represents the Southern Kingdom of Israel] lusted after lovers who were hung like donkeys and ejaculated like horses.
~ Ez 23.20.
Generally, when the topic of swearing is addressed by Christians, an appeal is made to certain passages that talk about controlling the tongue, avoiding cursing, and speaking only ‘wholesome’ words. Here are three examples:
But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing, my brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja 3.8-10).
Their [i.e. the unrighteous] throat is an open grave. With their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness (Ro 3.13-14).
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph 4.29).
From passages like these, the general conclusion that contemporary Christians draw is that all swearing, and all vulgar speech, should be thoroughly avoided and thoroughly condemned. Unfortunately, such a conclusion is drawn much too hastily and neglects the broader witness of Scripture (which is frequently watered-down by our modern English translations). When we read Scripture more carefully we notice that tensions arise because the biblical authors seem to be quite comfortable using ‘swear words’ and vulgar language to make their points at various times. Thus, Paul, who counsels against unwholesome language in Eph 4, isn’t afraid to describe everything else as “shit” compared to what he gains in Christ in Phil 3. Furthermore, Isaiah isn’t afraid to use language that was both vulgar and offensive, and Ezekiel, the most vulgar of all, is actually quoting the word of the Lord in the citation provided above. This means that even God uses rather foul language within Scripture! Indeed, Scripture as a witness to the word of God makes it clear that sometimes God doesn’t hesitate to swear and to use vulgar and offensive language.
So how are we to negotiate this tension in Scripture?
First, we need to be clear about the sort of swearing and cursing that Scripture condemns. Scripturally, cursing was understood in three ways (1) as taking God’s name in vain (e.g. “Jesus H. Christ!”); (2) as slandering others (e.g. “You’re a piece of shit!”); and (3) as wishing evil on others (e.g. “go to hell!”). Christians should never engage in any swearing or vulgar language that falls within these three categories — and it means that other words and other names that we use for people are just as wrong as our traditional ‘swear words.’
Secondly, apart from that threefold understanding of cursing, Scripture also shows us that there are times when it is both okay and appropriate to curse or use vulgar language. Indeed, at times cursing can be the best way to speak a word that is “good for edification according to the need of the moment” (Eph 4). A well-known example of this would be Tony Campolo’s famous talk about poverty statistics, wherein he concludes that the thing that troubles him the most is that “Christians just don’t give a shit.” Having personally heard him deliver that talk, I can confidently say that such a well placed ‘swear word’ did a fine job of both awakening and convicting his audience. I’ve also seen how a well placed ‘swear word’ can do a fine job of demonstrating empathy with those who are suffering. Sometimes, when people share their traumas with us, the most caring thing we can do is say, “Man, that’s fucked up” instead of brushing them aside with some throw-away remark about God being in control or whatever.
Ultimately, the most troubling aspect of the swearing debate is that not-swearing has become such a central marker of what it means to live Christianly in the public realm. Such a watered-down Christian public presence is devastating to both the Church and the world. Christians should be revealed in the public realm by the tangible ways in which they care for one another and for the disadvantaged, and not by the observation that they say ‘dang’ instead of ‘damn,’ ‘poo’ instead of ‘shit’ and ‘frig’ instead of ‘fuck.’ Indeed, when Christians publicly define themselves in this way, they have simply capitulated to a bourgeois morality, and middle-class sensibilities. It is that morality and those sensibilities which arbitrarily determine which words are allowable in public discourse, and it disallows a good many words, in part, to take away the voice from those (like the lower classes) who often have not had the opportunity to learn another language. Isaiah’s condemnation of the Jewish leaders, which is picked up and applied by Jesus to the religious leaders in his day, are just as applicable to us:
This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men (cf. Mt 15.1-9).
This means a few things. First of all, it means that we should be lot more comfortable around swearing and so-called vulgar language. When that is the only language that some people have learned, we should be open and receptive to hearing what they have to say in that language. After all, this comfort is also reflected in Scripture. Scripture records events wherein vulgar language used in ways that it condemns, but it doesn’t feel that it has to water things down in its presentation of those events (think, for example, of the advice given to king Rehoboam in 1 Ki 12.10 — we might miss it in our translations but the young men advise the king to tell the people that his little finger is bigger than his father’s penis!).
Secondly, that we can sometimes swear and use vulgar language does not simply mean that we are free to go around swearing like sailors, or engaging in any and every sort of vulgar talk. Our swearing and vulgar speech must be done in an edifying manner, just as the swearing and vulgar speech of the biblical authors (and of God!) is done in this way. Thus, for example, although I swear much more frequently around my ‘street-involved’ friends, I swear much less frequently around my ‘church’ friends. Sometimes it is worth picking your battles, and although God frequently doesn’t give a fuck about swearing, he does want us to be sensitive to our ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters (here, I can’t help but think that the advice Paul gives about eating food offered to idols is rather comparable to the issue of swearing [cf. Ro 14; 1 Cor 8]). Of course, even around our brothers and sisters, sometimes a well-placed swear word might be the best thing we have to offer.