I used to be one of those Christians that would roll my eyes and dismiss anything you had to say if you said any “four letter words.”
And h*ll, sometimes I miss those days.
Life was simpler then, living in a world where the avoidance of particular words meant I got to ignore other opinions and feel more holy.
It was simpler to think that I was better and others who didn’t follow that code were lesser.
It was simpler to avoid having to actually hear what people who disagreed with me had to say.
The Usual Theologies of Swearing
No one ever quite said those last parts out loud, of course. Instead, there’s usually lots of discussion of the second commandment—the one about taking the Lord’s name in vain. Often this Old Testament passage is paired with the passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, in which Jesus said people ought not “swear falsely,” “but let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
Let me first say that this is a weird pairing of passages when used as a blanket against all “four letter words.” (In my experience this is usually a cue that an approach to the Bible is actually deeply cultural rather than some sort of obvious theme everyone should just “get.”)
The first passage talks about taking the Lord’s name in vain, which has been interpreted by Jewish friends throughout the centuries as literally honoring the words for God by not overly or irreverently using them. This passage seems helpful in grounding discussions of religious swearing.
It’s a very thin explanation if you’re complaining about any other kind of swearing.
Why and How We Swear
If you need a quick primer in types of swearing, the book Expletive Deleted also draws out categories such as sexual swearing, excremental swearing, and swearing that puts groups of people down. (I learned about these things when I taught this book while getting my Master’s. It was at a stage when those in-class discussions were still REALLY awkward for me, but I learned as much as the students.) These categories are not at all the same thing, and yet Christians often wince equally at all swears.
The same book on swearing breaks down expletives into three usage categories: stub your toe swearing, social swearing, and insult swearing.
I would actually add a fourth category related to stub your toe swearing in the context of assertively calling people out on hurts they’ve caused: swearing used to express pain or to add oomph to a point when trying to address an issue relationally.
More on that in a moment.
In my experience, many conservative Christians in the US treat all usages of swear words as though they were insult swearing.
They treat the object of all these insults as God.
They put themselves in the position of being God’s righteous defenders against the heathen sinner outsiders.
Importantly, they avoid discussion of their attitudes or behaviors as they “snap to God’s defense.”
Ultimately, the technique becomes tone policing; this phrase refers to the ways in which people sidestep valid points of disagreement by calling people out on tone of voice, or in this case, the usage of language.
This attitude is particularly strange since the second Bible passage mentioned (Matthew 5:33-37) is actually about honoring commitments and contracts and promises rather than about swearing as offensive language.
It’s weird to me that it gets pulled into this argument at all, because the common interpretation doesn’t address the passage’s actual point. It’s about not using words lightly; it’s more about making your actions back up what you say than about not using “four letter words.”
The Bible’s point here is a guide to trust in relationships, actually, but it feels like Christians make it about offensive language as a form of biblical tone policing.
The Bible and Passionate Language
Let’s face it—there’s nothing that’s directly in the Bible about using earthy Anglo-Saxon excremental words like sh*t, especially if used in a social or “stub your toe” usage. And there’s nothing saying that swears shouldn’t be used passionately to express deep hurt and emotion to God or others.
It’s just not in there.
On the other hand, there are tons of passages, especially in the Psalms and prophets and the Gospels, where people express deep hurt and assertively call one another on hurting others, and not always in pretty language at all. A lot of it is really freaking strong language.
Here’s what it boils down to—swearing is often used as the line those in the church draw to avoid having to listen to those who think differently, especially as a way to avoid those delivering the message of that latter Bible passage, in asking Christians to live out the central principles of love toward their enemies and those they perceive as “less than.”
In fact, since I used to work in Christian publishing, I’ve seen the ways that the voices that use any kind of swears are completely cut out of the conversation, at least in Christian commercial and many non-profit venues.
Essentially, this means that many in the conservative church think they don’t have to listen to those who swear. It becomes a form of dismissal of those voices as being less holy and certainly not prophetic. It’s a way of avoiding genuine issues. And it ends up making people feel less than and excluded from the conversation. That affects relationships, and rightly so.
Those inside the bubble often justify their behavior and justify their cognitive dissonance about not listening to these others through telling themselves these people are “sinners,” which absolves them from listening.
It also means that those inside the bubble, those who don’t swear and who don’t listen to those who do, often feel protected and “safe” and “righteous.”
I totally get wanting to feel protected and safe and good with God. The problem, though, is that inside that bubble, there may be lots of ingrained attitudes that actually put God and those who are created in his image down that those in that bubble pardon themselves for that they shouldn’t.
Jesus Used Strong Language Assertively
The broader biblical problem is this: Jesus actually most critiqued religious leaders of this day in very assertive, convicting ways for doing exactly these kinds of witting or unwitting ostracisms of others with markers of religiosity.
He was way less likely to call out those who the religious leaders stigmatized as “sinners.”
In other words, he saved his most forceful critiques for those who used religion to put down others.
In my humble opinion (with which you’re welcome to disagree provided you’re not putting people down by doing so–I will assertively call you on that!), this means that Jesus would have had the biggest issues with those who used the fourth kind of swearing I mentioned. That and the type of swear-policing that allowed them to evade being called out passionately on the ways their words, attitudes and behaviors put others down.
Jesus would have especially called out “holy codes” used to put down assertive prophetic voices that don’t use language Christians easily identify as holy. Words or attitudes or behaviors, whether they’re “four letter words” or not, that make others feel like they’re less than worthy to be loved by God in some way.
So let’s please stop swear-policing in the church, especially since it often tells others who are using swears passionately that their voices are not valid. This is important, d*mmit!
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