Liberal Christian author Tony Campolo is famous for having audibly uttered the following, which I have censored with asterisks. More asterisked profanity follows.
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 s***. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said s*** than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Discussion of hunger aside, with ironic apologies to Dr. Campolo, you probably were or are offended. Why exactly? And why does it matter?
Consider how scripture addresses the topic of the nature of our speech.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
(Colossians 4:5–6 ESV)
Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.
(Titus 2:7–8 ESV)
In these passages, the focus is not merely on avoiding individual curse words but on sound and gracious speech. This itself is a proper extrapolation from the second greatest commandment. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, not merely to avoid doing things to our neighbor that we wouldn’t want done to us.
Even for now, “f***” and “s***” are still vulgar. The Federal Communications Commission in the year 2021 has still found it fit to keep them public airwaves to a large degree. But they did issue a mere verbal wrist slap to NBC when U2’s Bono, inexplicably hailed by seminary professors as a Christian artist who preaches the Psalms by music while also advocating for legalized baby murder in Ireland, fleetingly uttered “f******g brilliant” at the 2003 Golden Globe awards. But they may be becoming less taboo over time. None of us should be surprised if the FCC lightens up on them in the next decade.
According to linguist John McWhorter, “d***” and “h***” once occupied the level of offense we now attribute to “s***” and “f***.” After all, things of God concerned people far more than things of the human body’s physical functions. As English-speaking Christians, we recognize that there is a difference between using these terms recreationally and proclaiming the biblical truth that God will at some point damn sinners to hell. One is the necessary proclamation of an uncomfortable truth, and the other is hyperbole, perhaps even taking too lightly the things of God. But whether such speech offends depends more on the hearer (and potentially his perception of appropriate or inappropriate setting) than the speaker.
Outside the church, a cultural shift has occurred over the last century. Of the words mentioned here so far, the comfortable terms are those whose background is God’s righteous judgment of sin. The less comfortable terms concern the bathroom and the bedroom. The most universally problematic terms of all nowadays are racial slurs, some more offensive than others, a development that has arguably taken a stronger foothold in the last fifteen years.
Within the English-speaking church, we reject cursing on the level of “f***” and “s***” altogether. Have you ever stopped to ask why, and why these particular terms? It’s not merely their underlying etymological referents. We can have polite discussion of sexual relations in the proper context, but even in these polite contexts, we don’t just throw “f***ing” in the middle of it without some expectation and intention of adversity. And how many English-speaking parents have children who will make it to the age of three without telling a poop joke? We helplessly attempt not to laugh at them while telling our kids not to say them. I even wrote the word there. But if your seven-year-old makes a “s***” joke, you’ll be launching a congressional inquiry as to where he or she learned that kind of foul language.
Why? It might interest our inner linguists, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change much. Even The Gospel Coalition isn’t going to publish a blog article called, “Why It’s Okay to Use Curse Words and S***.” The offense of such terms is buried deeply into our culture. So long as we care about the scripture passages cited earlier, we avoid these terms and teach our kids to avoid them once they finally figure them out (and they will). All that is to say this: what we — whether in the secular culture or the church culture — consider to be profanity is a matter of culture. When we speak and write, we do so not only with our own hearts in mind but also the ears of those with whom we communicate.
Let me say that again: the heart of the speaker and the ear of the hearer BOTH matter.
Let’s consider two forms of communication that have become more popular as of late. The first one is “Let’s Go Brandon.” You may believe yourself that it isn’t vulgar. Much of your audience believes it is. Sure, the words themselves don’t warrant asterisks, but the intention is clear. If you disagree, would you actually write “I hope Joe Biden gets sexually violated”? “But there aren’t any curse words” wouldn’t excuse that phrase. You’d might as well just say “Eff Joe Biden” because it means the same thing and contains no asterisks.
The second issue is memes and tweets that compare President Biden to Hitler, e.g. “Herr Joe Biden,” compare the COVID vaccine to the Holocaust, etc. Much like how single-word vulgarity can invoke sex (including rape), feces, or divine judgment, these communications invoke a crime against humanity. They are clearly hyperbolic, much like how you “akshully” don’t want President Biden to be sexually violated. They utterly disrespect and reject the fellowship of any and all readers who disagree with you, and they profane our witness. They are not unlike cursing with racial slurs.
We shouldn’t use Godwin’s Law to reject any and all comparisons to Nazis. But if you wish to make that kind of comparison with respect to government officials or health care, there are ways to do without distasteful hyperbole.
I’ve come under fire lately for executing a multitude of Twitter blocks. By and large, these are why. No, I didn’t have these thoughts fully developed in mind and think carefully about each one. They were rather swift and determined, even right-brained, and not unlike had I seen cursing from a fellow believer. It took some processing, but I understand this now and stand by my actions.
I hope we can do better someday.