Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More to the Point...

I figured there would be more to say about the language usage of Christians.

In my last post, I wondered about the tendency of many Christians to sanitize their language, sometimes to the point of becoming a reincarnation of Caspar Milquetoast (here's the Wikipedia article about this cartoon character).

I think we need to dig deeper into this, because often what happens is that the Jesus-follower is a model of decorum and circumspect language when among his Christian friends, but a profanity-spewing four-letter-word machine when among his non-Christian friends. In other words, he's a hypocrite.

On the other hand, Jesus is the very model of an integrated person. What he told you could be depended upon to mean exactly what he intended. His "tough" sayings are mostly meant to be tough, to force the listener to think and perhaps confront his preconceptions and prejudices and ultimately, his sin. Some of the tough ones, though, are hard to follow because we're not living in first-century Palestine, and frankly, don't have the cultural context in which Jesus' words were said.

When Jesus went after a person or a group, assaulting them with the force of his words, he was quite offensive. How would you like to invite someone to your house and be told that you and your friends were a "nest of serpents," "hypocrites!" and so forth? Jesus pulled no punches. There was none of the Caspar Milquetoast role for him.

Why did he go after the Pharisees and other officials in the Jewish religious establishment? Was he merely being mean, or was there something deeper at work? In various commentaries, it's explained that he was attacking the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. They were strict keepers of Torah, but failed to live up to the spirit of that law. They gamed the system so that they could be very punctilious, but always turned it to their own advantage. They were status seekers, corrupt in following what God had directed man to do. This corrupt nature wasn't universal among the Jewish leaders, though; there were some who had real interest in hearing what this new rabbi had to say, and could respond with a yielding heart. Most, however, were in love with the place where they found themselves, with all the power and prestige it commanded.

So does Jesus attack us if we're hypocrites, by our use of language and the way we live lives that are compartmentalized into religious and secular pigeonholes? Do we really believe that we're going to get a pat on the head and be told that it's okay, that he understands? It's just my own opinion, but I completely doubt that's the way his Gospel works.

I believe there's a place for forthright language among Christians. I'm saying that we should be aware of the power of profanity, of cursing, and of how we use words of that sort.

For instance, I hope I never have the urge to say something like, "Well, he was caught sleeping with her." For one thing, I doubt if sleeping was really on his or her mind. For another, it disguises what was going on. Call it what it was--he was screwing her repeatedly. Be honest.

Or maybe, don't say anything. We're told in various parts of Scripture that gossip is one of those things we should not do. Repeating tales about someone's moral failings, in titillating detail, probably qualifies as gossip. So am I wrong if I determine that I can gain nothing by repeating something damaging about someone else?

And let's be clear on the difference between cursing and profanity. Cursing, to me, sounds akin to pronouncing a curse on someone, an act of verbal aggression against another person. What do we experience when we shout, "Fuck you, you moron!" at another human being? We're hurling hatred, murderous intent, at another man or woman, and that makes us guilty of murder itself in Jesus' view.

Profanity, on the other hand, is "words that people don't want to hear," as I told my son when he was growing up. I refused then, and I refuse now, to call these "bad words." They're not bad words, they're words that make some people uncomfortable. Use them judiciously, if you're going to use them at all. Don't diminish their impact by peppering every sentence you utter with frequent repetitions of them. Sometimes they're appropriate, sometimes not. Good judgment on when the time is right will develop over the years as one grows older.

I suppose I should let the apostle Paul, the great writer of letters to churches all over the Mediterranean, have the last word. I've heard it said that Jesus founded the church, and Paul (and Peter and some others) worked out the details of how to actually implement it. In 1 Corinthians 10 we read this:

10:23 “Everything is lawful,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is lawful,” but not everything builds others up. 10:24 Do not seek your own good, but the good of the other person. 10:25 Eat anything that is sold in the marketplace without questions of conscience, 10:26 for the earth and its abundance are the Lord’s. 10:27 If an unbeliever invites you to dinner and you want to go, eat whatever is served without asking questions of conscience. 10:28 But if someone says to you, “This is from a sacrifice,” do not eat, because of the one who told you and because of conscience – 10:29 I do not mean yours but the other person’s. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 10:30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I blamed for the food that I give thanks for? 10:31 So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 10:32 Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, 10:33 just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. 11:1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

So, everything is lawful (in the new Kingdom reality that Jesus ushered in, and Paul spent his life proclaiming), but not everything is beneficial. Do we feel that way about our language? Are we choosing our words carefully, or are we just operating by shooting from the lip? Like just about every other part of the Christian life, how we express ourselves requires thought and careful intention. I don't believe that precludes using forceful or even "dirty" words, but we need to know what we expect to accomplish when we do so. Is that goal part of our life of honoring God, or is it self-indulgence? I believe we'll one day have to give an account of what we did during our lives. How will we explain this sort of thing?

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