When I was an undergrad at what was then Eastern College, now Eastern University, I was a student of Tony Campolo who often told his famous curse word story. It goes something like this:
“Years ago, I was speaking at a very conservative Christian college, one of the ones that require you go to chapel every week and I noticed that most of the students weren’t interested. I knew that I wasn’t getting through to the students so I decided to tell them: ‘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 sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.’ Needless to say, I was never asked back at that college ever again! But, I think the point got through to them.”
Tony recited this story many times during my student days at Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary). Every time he told the story, I knew what was coming, so I would look around at people’s reactions. Typically, about a third were shocked, a third laughed and a third were incensed that a teacher, author, worldwide speaker and Christian leader would utter a profanity. However, I always thought Tony had a valid, albeit crude, point.
Newly-elected U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan uttered a profanity to make her point when she declared her resistance to the presidency of Donald Trump: “And when your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama, look, you won. Bullies don’t win,’ and I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the m*****f*****.” In response, Trump, who has publicly uttered the same profanity, told reporters, “I assume she’s new. I think she dishonored herself, and I think she dishonored her family.”
Predictably, conservative Christians and politicians quickly denounced Tlaib. The Christian Broadcasting Network labeled her a “foul-mouth Islamic congresswoman.” Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sought to win points by pointing to how Tlaib’s comments speak to the character of her political party.
“Much of the outrage over a single word equates to a kind of selective moral inequality.”
On social media, a Christian writer and author with whom I often engage expressed a growing sentiment among Christians who have reacted to Tlaib’s profanity with shock, anger and condemnation. This writer bemoaned how corrupt our culture has become with politicians using off-color language and incivility. In response, I expressed my unease with the growing anger towards Tlaib. If Christians were truly concerned about incivility, crude language and morals, then where is the moral outrage over impoverished children? Where’s the Christian outrage about Trump’s language, not to mention the obscenity of constant fearmongering, exaggeration and mistruths repeated at an astonishing rate?
Online, I lamented the selective outrage over one profanity in contrast to the relative silence about the needs of millions of children. What followed was a social media-troll-induced response that accused me of being un-Christian and un-American, among other things. Of all of the possible obscenities a Christian could protest, much of the outrage over a single word equates to a kind of selective moral inequality. True, words are important, but Jesus stressed orthopraxy in kingdom priorities – such as care for neighbor, the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized – above superficial, public piety.
Tlaib’s comments, even considered in context, were ugly and unnecessary. However, to jump on a politician from another party for using foul language when the president of the United States and leader of their own party talks about women as objects, curses at others, uses crude slang for a woman’s anatomy, flippantly talks about shooting people on 5th Avenue, conjures up demeaning monikers for people he dislikes and insults citizens of “sh*thole countries” is hypocrisy at its finest. I recall that Jesus had a few things to say about hypocrites.
I am not well versed in the scholarship of ancient equivalents of modern-day curse words. The Bible speaks of curses, but in a slightly different way. To pronounce a curse was to call for a divine malediction against someone or something. It was to inflict ill-will, like what our profane, modern equivalents are intended to do. Such ancient utterances or oaths of malcontent against someone were prohibited, especially against God. However, there were exceptions. In the case of Joshua 6:26 and Deuteronomy 27:15, a divine curse was used to prophetically and righteously compel people to obey God’s command. According to the Jewish Talmud, pronouncing a curse upon someone or calling for ill will was only permissible when motivated by religious motives to call out persons guilty of reprehensible acts.
“Jesus often employed sharp language motivated by the spiritual and moral conviction to reinforce the vision of God for God’s kingdom on earth.”
Jesus often employed sharp language motivated by the spiritual and moral conviction to reinforce the vision of God for God’s kingdom on earth. The Pharisees, in turn, accused Jesus of blasphemy of the highest order. The religious elite was incensed at Jesus’ use of language.
Over the years, when I hear selective outrage about what a politician or a religious leader says, I think back to Tony Campolo’s famous curse word story to ask, “Can someone curse as a legitimate way to make a point?” I suppose the response for most Christians is “No.” However, could it be that the language – and the tactic – Campolo employed was rooted in a righteous concern for the most vulnerable? Did his use of a curse word serve a purpose in a prophetic call meant to disorient our modern and selfish sensibilities, much like the prophets of old?
If you have fallen into the trap of selective outrage, denouncing one politician’s utterance of a curse word without the same level of response to the language of the president and other elected leaders, please consider the hypocrisy of that stance. Ideally, no leader should use profanity. However, if you expended more energy in your outrage towards Rashida Tlaib than your outrage over tens of thousands of children dying of starvation, malnutrition and disease – and a host of other social injustice obscenities – perhaps it’s time to weigh carefully what you truly value in God’s world.