Swear words passed my lips hundreds of times—and a hundred others burned in my not-so-virgin ears—before a single utterance ever sent shivers through me.
The word rolled not off my tongue, but off the tongue of Mr. Francis. The man who for a season taught my history class and for a season taught my Sunday School class—and, for a time between the circles, both at once.
Memory fails but, within the walls of one or the other space, he responded to the sound of “goddamn” by repeating the same syllables. Unblinking, he said the word and then explained, with a surgeon’s precision, how that word appealed to the Almighty, literally asking God to damn someone.
A compound word, clarity attends its meaning. Yet when Mr. Francis spoke the definition in his low, unnaturally steady tone, I first recognized the power of words to call judgment down on others—and ourselves. In my young mind, the contours of a truth formed: A curse might function like a prayer, revealing the sort of God we fabricated.
Certain Scriptures stick in my head like songs. One minute I hum “Hey Ya.” The next, my lips mouth John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I might, without warning, break into a chorus of Lorde’s “Royals.” Or the needle might drop on James 3:10 and stay there. When that verse plays on repeat, it rattles my bones like a drum fill: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
Many words possess the power of a curse. Phrases downgrading another’s appearance or diminishing his or her intelligence; outmoded, unneeded labels defining someone’s ableness; words cutting an entire group down to the size of our basest and most baseless stereotypes all function as a type of curse.
Time and tone convert neutral terms into words of damnation. “Media” in one mouth describes the people in my profession; another spits it out as a vile damnation. To some, “liberal” and “conservative” help us parse our political system; to others, they name an enemy.
David Dark, exegeting James 3 whether or not he meant to, writes that “calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words.”
“It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it only speaks in shorthand,” he adds. “When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.”
I can spy a fellow church kid or Bible college graduate a mile away. Before they swear, an almost imperceptible pause. The split-second between inhale and exhale either the product of ingrained second-guessing—offering a final chance to steer out of the skid—or another moment to lather the word for maximum effect.
Christians turn phrases we invented into curses. Words like Calvinist, Arminian, egalitarian, complementarian, and charismatic hold historic import and symbolize fairly complex theological positions. Or they serve as shorthand for people we write off and would never worship alongside.
Our words won’t earn a PG-13 rating, so we take the loophole and carry on. Little old ladies who avoid anything with four letters hop on Facebook and rain down curses. Straight-arrow seminary types who would never stain their lips with worldly phrases stand in pulpits and damn the usual cultural suspects without a look within for the glue which binds us all together.
In comment sections, we casually traffic in “they’ll get what they deserve,” oblivious to the magnitude of grace. We dilute a person’s life to a single detail, missing how God ties our complicated stories into his greater one.
The Sermon on the Mount was no mere improv. Jesus meant it when he said calling someone a fool occupied the same space as murder. Any word or phrase we use to make someone less than human, to relegate them to the place of “other,” damns. To hear James 3 tell it, God will not accept our worship while our mouths still fill up with curses.
Some of us take James serious and swear we’ll never damn another. Yet in the words of genius rocker Thom Yorke:
“You do it to yourself, you do
And that’s what really hurts
Is you do it to yourself, just you
You and no-one else”
We may restrain ourselves from scorching the earth on which people from other political parties or denominations stand, but we go on singeing ourselves with the same fire. In just a few words, if just for a moment, we damn ourselves to pay for awkward party fouls or our deeper wells of shame. We feel less than human and make it so with our words.
We are most likely to curse when we lose our place in the story of Jesus. His frame hung from a cross to take on all the curses we dream up and deserve. His scarred flesh sounds a better word—no man or woman needs to be cursed again.
These days, my relationship with swearing has reached damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t status. In an effort to remove stumbling blocks and reach for creativity, I try to keep my lips pure. Sometimes, however, those words feel like the most authentic way to express reality, with all its potholes and pockmarks.
Wherever our tongues lead us, washing our mouths out with soap won’t solve the problem. I feel the gaze of Jesus, like the one Peter faced in John 13, and hear the call to be completely clean from the inside out. Only then will curses cease.
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