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Dad attended a small town high school on the plains of Colorado.  Every year, students who celebrate one of the tenth anniversaries of their graduation gather for their reunion. When my Dad spoke at his 70th class reunion, he got a standing ovation.  He told the story of a man who had missed his reunion for decades.  When he went, he wasn’t sure he would know anyone.  Finally, in the corner he spied a woman he thought he knew.  He told her: “You look like Helen Brown.”  Offended, she replied: “You don’t look so good in blue either!”

The community where Dad grew up had a fence line that was not to be crossed – a code of speech that was to be honored. Profanity was trespassing – out of bounds.

Today, we still find euphemisms such as “@$#*%!” in the comics and “OMG” in textland.  Such substitutes H. L. Mencken (1880 – 1956) called “denaturized profanities” — “darn,” “doggone,” “dadburned,” “tarnation,’ “goldarn,” “gee-whiz.”   There is simply no lift in them, no shock, no sis-boom-ah” (H.L. Mencken, “The American Language”).  Is it the “sis-boom-bah” that makes vulgarity attractive?

“Vulgarity” comes from the Latin, vulgus – “the common people, multitude, crowd, throng.” Among such folk, it was acceptable for the tinker (the tin worker) to give his “damn.”  In some situations common folk thought it was OK to swear “like a trooper,” or curse “like a sailor.”

But since coarse speech is a matter of the heart, it crosses class barriers and gender. The Watergate tapes from the 70’s revealed a President whose vulgarities were replaced with “expletive deleted.” When invited to speak to a corporate group at IBM, I asked them what they would like the topic to be.  The answer: “Profanity.”

Latin gave us the word, “profanity.”  Its origin gives us sense of proportion we might miss.  Pro fano is “not admitted into the temple” – literally, “out in front of the temple,” from pro– “before” + fano, “temple.”  If there is a gutter in front of the temple, then profanity is gutter language – as is any expression that seeks to deny the presence of the One who made language.

Although such knowledge gives us a better perspective, how do we keep our lips from gutter language?  Do we need gatekeepers who will censor us?  What standards could the wider culture accept?  Do we retreat to euphemisms?  Our lips speak from the overflow of our hearts, so what about our hearts?

The good news of the gospel comes to bear in our hearts.  When we belong to Jesus, he makes us a temple inhabited by the Holy Spirit.  A temple is “any place occupied by divine presence.”  Christians are occupied.  The Holy Ghost haunts us.

As we are changed from the inside out to treasure God’s person, his works, and our neighbors, ours is not some self-righteous, anti-profanity crusade.  No, we are grieved at the abuse the gift of speech.  The new possibility is: “Let your speech be always with grace” and, “Speak the truth in love” (Colossians 4:6, Ephesians 4:15).

In a real world, what does that sound like?  “Jesus Christ” is our Redeemer. “Damn” is reserved for the One who can send us to hell.  “Hell” is not trivialized but treated with the respect that Jesus gave it.  And what do we say about bodily parts and functions given to us by our Creator? In “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” Thomas Cahill quotes Jesus as saying, “What don’t you get? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean, since it doesn’t go into his heart but into his bowels, and then passes out into the shithole?” (Mark 7:18, 19).  What?!  Cahill comments: The Greek word “is aphedron, Macedonian slang that would have sounded barbarous to Greek ears. Jesus was not bashful about referring to bodily functions, even if His translators are.”

What Jesus does not tolerate is blasphemy and contempt.  Even as Jesus strictly warns us not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, so Jesus emphatically warns us about speaking words of contempt to our neighbor.  “And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ (an Aramaic word left untranslated – it can mean “empty one, fool, empty head”) shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire” (Mark 3:29, Matthew 5:22).

Whose lips – whose heart – is so pure?   Not ours. So, we call out with David: Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 143:3).

Who will hear that prayer?

“Jesus Christ,”
the One who left heaven – we’ll call it “The Temple” –
who came to earth and worked construction – who must have hit his thumb –
who on the cross was “damned” and endured the punishment of “hell” –
this One willingly went outside “The Temple” for us – he chose to become Profanity for sinners like us –
he will hear our prayer.

Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,

Steve Bostrom

PPS Historical note: Pittsburgh pastor W.O.H. Garman wrote to President Truman on Feb. 24, 1949. Garman told Truman (who he knew from White House visits with Carl McIntire and others) that public use of profanity put in question “the sincerity of your [Truman’s] Christian profession.” Markku Ruotsila says White House cooperation with the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) abruptly ended at that point (“Carl McIntire and the Fundamentalist Origins of the Christian Right”).

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