Profanity, and why Christians get freaked out by it.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 April 2016

People mean three things by “swearing”: Oaths, curses, and profanity. Today I’m writing about profanity, meaning stuff that’s obscene, or stuff people consider irreverent towards God. Either various words or practices which are considered forbidden in polite company, or forms of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” as popularly (and incorrectly) defined.

Since the beginning of human history, different cultures have had certain taboos. Stuff that’s forbidden. Or forbidden to children. Or forbidden to one gender and not the other: Men can go shirtless in public and women can’t; women can wear dresses in public but men can’t; that sort of thing.

Some of these taboos are for very good reason. Forbidding sex with children: Obviously it discourages people from exploiting children. Forbidding people to poop just anywhere: If it weren’t taboo, people would poop just anywhere, and this keeps their elimination practices in private. Where we prefer it. ’Cause ewww.

Because of the taboos against the practices, it even extends to the words. There are people who get offended by my bringing up the idea of poop. And of course, using the word—even though I used “poop” instead of the popular Anglo-Saxon word which you can say on basic cable, but not American broadcast television. Starts with S. You’ve heard of it.

In English, a lot of the “profane” words are the Anglo-Saxon words. The “proper” terms (like defecation) came from Anglo-Norman. Those two languages (and a ton of loan words) came together to form the English we speak today—but again, even if I use the word “defecation,” certain people will flinch like I poked their funny bone. The taboo is just that strong with ’em.

Five main taboos you’re gonna find in the English language:

  • Sex talk. Particular acts, the body parts used to perform ’em, and paraphernalia.
  • Bathroom talk. What comes out of you, how, and cleaning up after.
  • “Blasphemy.” Whatever treats God lightly.
  • Hell talk. Anything about evil in general, the devil, its tempters, and eternal punishment.
  • Prejudice. A relatively new category: Slurs against gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference.

Most of us recognize that, under certain circumstances, we have to discuss these topics. Fr’instance children need to be educated about sex; otherwise they’ll do it wrong. At the wrong time, under the wrong circumstances, with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, with unexpected results. Likewise racism and sexism need to be discussed (and discouraged). Hygiene too. Silence means ignorance, and ignorance has terrible consequences.

But even though we’re willing to broach the subject, our culture frequently still frowns on using the words. Which doesn’t help. Trying to explain sex to your teenagers, yet refusing to use anything but euphemisms—“Boys have a pee-pee and girls have a hoo-ha”—isn’t just ridiculous (and either makes the kids laugh, or cry with shame at how utterly dysfunctional their parents are)—it makes it just as likely you won’t explain it adequately, and again, they’ll do it wrong.

And I’m still talking about using the proper words. Nope, I haven’t got to the profane ones yet. People consider them profane. When the American Family Association sends angry letters to the Federal Communications Commission about the horrors they’ve seen on broadcast television, most aren’t because someone used a profane word. It’s because they used a euphemism, or the proper word—and the AFA is still up in arms, because some youngster might’ve seen it anyway.

See, the problem (thus far, anyway) isn’t the words. It’s the taboos. People are mighty firm about this: These are lines you don’t cross. You just don’t. The naughty words—they’re just beyond the pale.

So what’s with the taboos?

I used to think people had these taboos because they grew up sheltered. ’Cause I’ve known plenty of kids who were plenty sheltered. All throughout my childhood; all throughout my adulthood. Lots of Christians raise their kids that way.

Lots of pagans too.

Seriously? Oh, I’m dead serious. I went to public school in the San Francisco Bay Area; I knew lots of pagans. They didn’t just clamp down on taboo speech because we were children and shouldn’t be using “grown-up words.” They continued to clamp down into adulthood and beyond. Plenty of pagans would never use a profanity if they could help it, because ”decent people don’t do that sort of thing”—values they attempted to drum into their kids, and sometimes succeeded.

“Well they got these values from somewhere—like Christians.” That’s the usual point I tend to hear from Christians. They figure the reason pagans practice Christian values is because they grew up in our Judeo-Christian culture and it rubbed off on ’em. So they continue to share “Christian values” about sex and scat and prejudice—although with very rare exceptions they no longer have any problem with hell and the Lord’s name. It’s not accurate: These taboos are found everywhere. You’ll find them in plenty of cultures which are predominantly non-Christian. They’re not universal, but they’re definitely common.

Still, where’d Christians get these taboos? Because I’ve read Shakespeare and the King James Version: There were a lot fewer of these hangups 400 years ago. Back then, the serious taboos were the very ones pagans ignore nowadays: Hell and the Lord’s name. Racism, sexism, and the like were fine—few realized there was anything wrong with ’em—but the other two subjects, while still somewhat taboo, could be joked about in “polite” company with few repercussions.

What changed? Well, the Puritans. In the 1600s they took over the British government (literally; they beheaded King Charles in 1649 and everything) and everything that was slightly inappropriate became reframed as totally inappropriate. The upper classes publicly adopted these positions (even though privately, they behaved as before) and anyone in the lower classes who cared to imitate the upper class, did.

History is cyclical, so people go through phases. In the United States we can point to loose morals in the 1920s; belt-tightening in the 1940s; loosened up again in the 1960s; tightened up again in the 1980s. We can find similar trends in every culture. Taboos swing back and forth, as kids rebel against their parents’ standards… then sometimes pick them back up again once they become parents.

Or they don’t, and their wayward kids wind up “getting religion” and picking them up on their own. Me fr’instance. I was raised Christian. But I wasn’t raised to be offended at prejudice. Mom, thanks to Christianity, is way better than average, but for a lot of years we went to a church with many closeted racists in it, and densely never noticed the rather obvious signs. (“How come my black friends never wanna join my youth group?”) Dad’s one of those people who’s polite in company, racist in private, and sexist and homophobic wherever he pleases. Bunch of racists elsewhere in the family. Largely I had to develop my sensitivity and convictions on my own.

But do our taboos come from the scriptures? Nah.

What we find in the scriptures are commands and common sense. Fr’instance sex isn’t banned, but promiscuity is. Blasphemy is banned—but popular Christian culture, as I said, has wrongly defined it, so Christians interpret all sorts of non-blasphemous things as blasphemy. And dark Christians are afraid of hell talk because they’re superstitious: They’re afraid it’ll invoke the devil and other boogeymen.

It’s because of these cultural standards Christians would never engage in profanity. (Or at least pretend we’d never.) It’s why we point to the following scriptures, and insist they’re talking about our cultural taboos.

Ephesians 4.29 KJV
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
Colossians 3.8 KJV
But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.

(I translate ’em just a bit differently, which is why I’m quoting the KJV today.)

But was Paul writing about profanity, as we define profanity?

That which tears down.

In Ephesians, Paul referred to pas lógos saprós/“every rotten word.” The context is to get rid of any language which tears down. Replace it with language that builds up. Profanity can tear down; a lot of times that’s precisely why people swear at one another. So we Christians should never try to drive people away, or rip them apart, with naughty words. That sort of behavior is wholly inappropriate.

In Colossians the “filthy communication” is iskhro-logía/“shameful words.” Now, whether the words shame the speaker, or the person being spoken to, is debatable. But since Paul was listing various things that could harm others—anger, wrath, malice, etc.—it’s reasonable to figure he was condemning words which shame or abuse the people we speak to.

Okay, the relevant question: Was Paul forbidding profanity? Not necessarily. He forbade hurtful speech.

  • When profanity is meant to be hurtful speech, then Paul‘s teaching applies: Don’t do that.
  • When profanity isn’t meant to be hurtful… but it hurts other people anyway, even though that was never the idea; when we unintentionally outrage sensitive people: Again, don’t do that. We’re not to make people stumble, remember? Ro 14.20-23
  • When profanity isn’t meant to be hurtful, and the people you’re speaking to aren’t offended by it, you’re fine.

I know; some Christians are outraged whenever I say that third thing. ’Cause the taboo is strong: The very existence of these profanities offend them. They’re convinced those profanities are evil in themselves: If you say ’em, use ’em, listen to ’em, they rot your moral character. Best to be rid of them entirely.

Besides, you never know: Someone in your crowd might claim they’re not offended by such things, but deep down they totally are. Or you might let a naughty word slip in front of the wrong crowd. Again, for their sake, eliminate profanity.

I get this reasoning. But just like vegetarians who are offended by all meat, Ro 14.2 or teetotalers who are offended by all alcohol, that’s their hangup. If they think it’s wrong, okay; for them it’s wrong. If we don’t, okay; we don’t. And no, that’s not moral relativism. That’s scripture. Ro 14.14 If my conscience is clear, ’cause I can’t find the bible verses which forbid it, then I can stand before God with no problem. And if your conscience isn’t clear, ’cause for you it’s wrong, then it’s best if you avoid profanity—and for your sake, I’ll try not to swear around you. ’Cause God has forbidden us Christians from being a--holes. Ro 14.15 (Which, you gotta admit, is a totally justifiable use of profanity. And I did censor it.)

So if you’re a Christian who likes to swear, and was kinda hoping I’d give you a free pass: Nope. Can’t do it. Sorry. We gotta think about our fellow believers, how this sort of language freaks ’em out, and protect them from stumbling. Ga 14.13 That’s why I avoid using profanity. I don’t wanna deliberately limit my audience. I might attract the counterculture, but I’d repel far too much of the wider culture, including the Christian culture. And there are plenty of other, better ways to attract the counterculture. (Like critiquing the culture, obviously.)

On the other foot: Christians have no business freaking out and condemning people for their casual profanity. When a Christian swears when he slams his hand in a door, that isn’t the time to rebuke him for his foul mouth, but minister to the hurting. When a new Christian enthusiastically shouts during worship, “Jesus is [naughty adjective] awesome!” don’t kill the mood by critiquing her then, but wait for a better, more private moment. When your little boy unknowingly says a naught word, save the paddling till she tries to use it rebelliously. And when your favorite comedian likes to drop F-bombs, you don’t have to quit listening to him forever; quit only if the profanity outrages you. You know where your line is. Don‘t cross it.

Stick with Paul’s actual teaching—which here, I’ll finally translate for you.

Ephesians 4.29 KWL
Don’t let stale clichés come out of your mouths.
Say something actually good and encouraging to the needy,
so they can appreciate what they hear.

Encourage one another. Build up instead of tearing down. And if it doesn’t actually tear down, don’t worry about it.