By Michael Duncan
When I read Charles Hewlett’s article about swearing (NZ Baptist, November) I couldn’t but recall the bother that Tony Campolo got into during a talk he was giving in a College Chapel service in the United States.
He was lamenting that over 30,000 children a day die a preventable death and then he said, “and some of you couldn’t even care a s***.” He later reflected that what most of the student and staff remembered from his presentation was not the horrific plight of poverty in the world but that he had used a swear word.
But then, possibly Charles is a closet-prophet. Since his article we have had the whole saga of Hone’s swearing and excessive use of expletives. Likewise, the famed hand of God football player, Maradona, has just been suspended from coaching Argentina for two months because of his graphic language. Swearing is the topic of the month and Charles got there first!
As a principal-elect is want to do, Charles carefully raised the issue in the form of a question or set of questions. Well, if principals ask the questions then I guess we teachers attempt to answer them!
But first, I have to fess up. In 2008 at the huge Canterbury Easter Camp in one of my talks I expressed my growing frustration with nice-Christians who refuse to walk towards the people that Jesus as a rule always walked towards. At one point I said, “I am just so p***** off about this.”
One of the senior pastors in attendance came up to me afterwards and gently questioned me over the appropriateness of using such language in a youth gathering. I remember in earlier years where in one of this country’s biggest Baptist churches I had used the word ‘orgy,’ and no sooner had it slipped out of my mouth than the senior pastor of the church, who was seated in the front row, abruptly interjected.
Just recently I was at that same church and during a baptismal service the youth pastor, who was introducing someone who about to be gloriously dunked, made the comment that this person had experienced “a lot of s*** in their life.” I turned to the senior pastor who had rudely interrupted my sermon years earlier but this time not an eyebrow was raised.
On the issue of swearing, Christians fall into four camps. Some lace every sentence with whatever expletive comes to mind. Others are more selective in what swear words they will use. The third camp go for replacement words. So they use “freaking” instead of “f******,” “sugar” instead of “s***,” darn instead of damn, and “crickey” instead of Christ. The fourth camp use none of the above.
Personally, I am in the second camp. In using some “swear” words I do not think I am acting contrary to Scripture. When Jesus said that we are not to swear, he had in mind oath-making, not cussing. When Paul said that no unwholesome speech was to come from our mouths he had in mind unkind criticisms and the like, not cussing.
In fact, if we are to try and build a case about swearing from scripture we must remember that the Bible at times uses rather graphic and indelicate language.
What then is my rule of thumb? It revolves around the motif of profanity. To be profane is to treat something that is holy as unholy. I prefer therefore not to use swear words that relate to sexual activity. Sex in Scripture is a holy thing and therefore must not be mouthed about in an unholy manner.
Likewise human bodies are a holy thing and so swear words related to body parts are, I think, inappropriate. But what of the stuff that is flushed from the human body? Are these things holy? I don’t think so and so when using words that describe waste, I don’t think I am being profane.
But in this I am not suggesting that therefore we Christians should use such language as a matter of course. At this point, this non-profane language that is nevertheless swearing becomes what Paul describes in one of his letters a disputable matter. I mean, there are words that are good and noble and words that are profane, but there are also words that are neither good nor bad, but nevertheless disputable. And when it comes to the disputable issues, we need to be guided by a number of principles:
• Let your heart tell you what is right and wrong on this and other disputable matters.
• If you have freedom then by all means partake but if the behavior only serves to weaken your Christian walk, then abstain.
• Don’t pass judgment on others who have chosen to behave differently from you.
• Never let your freedoms cause new Christians to stumble.
Was it wrong of Campolo to use the “s” word? I don’t think so. Did Hone go too far in his choice of words? I think so, but not with all of them. Interestingly, the NZ Herald columnist Tapu Misa in her piece on Hone and swearing echoed Campolo: Harawira’s remarks were damaging but “by the same token we’ve had hundreds of thousands of acres of land confiscated still not given back to us, people driven off their land and we’re still feeling the effect of that. So when you compare an insulting remark of that nature to some of the things that happened in New Zealand history it doesn’t even compare” (NZ Herald, November 16, 2009).
Some might argue that if Hone had used ‘nicer’ words then maybe the issues he was raising would have been heard. I don’t think so. As with Campolo and so with Hone, by people attacking the words they used, it gets them off the hook of actually looking at the issues they both rightly raise.