Sunday, September 2, 2012

'strong' language& Holy Living

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was struck in our Gospel reading by what our Lord had to say about 'evil things' coming from within. The idea stuck with me particularly because over the course of the last week I have thinking about an 'evil thing' that literally comes from within us and out of our mouths … I am talking about what is often referred to as 'bad language.'

There are two main reasons that I was thinking about this particular evil … the first is that I had occasion to re-read a document called 'The Didache' this week … for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Didache is one of the earliest documents of the Church … it was written around the time of St Paul's epistles … which means that it was written even before the Gospels … it is an early instruction manual for early Christians … the word Didache literally means the teaching … and it was written to teach the new members of the early Church of what it meant to be a Christian and how they were expected to behave … several times in the course of the Didache, the writer explicitly states that that Christians are to refrain from 'filthy language' … we should not be surprised that such a rule is to be found in an instruction manual for Christian living … after all, St Paul also condemns 'bad language' … St James in our epistle this morning says that we should 'bridle our tongues' ... and the ten commandments reminds us that taking the Lord's name in vain, which includes casual blasphemy, is sinful … but to find the subject mentioned several times in this short document – one might read it in about 20 minutes from end to end – emphasises I think just how important this particular rule was to the early Church … one of the defining marks of the Christian was that he or she would not speak in such a way …

The other reason I have for having this topic on my mind is the fact that I have been involved in something of a literary 'to and fro' on the topic of profanity in the letters pages of the Irish Times this week, as some of you may be aware. The history of that little exchange is as follows ... & I recount it mainly to demonstrate that I do not speak idly, but rather about a topic that I think is important and close to my heart:

On Monday an Opinion piece in the paper, written by a Cork hurler, talked about his experience as coming out openly as homosexual. In the course of the article, he used, and the newspaper printed in full, what we call in polite company the 'f-word.' I thought it inappropriate for a prestigious national paper to print this kind of language, and wrote a letter stating that if the time had come when it was acceptable to use that kind of language in the Irish Times then perhaps the time had come for a campaign to stamp it out.

My letter was printed on Tuesday (not the only letter objecting by the way) and on Wednesday, another letter writer wrote in saying that this kind of language was so common – and he gave examples of how common it was – that'd I'd have my work cut out for me trying to change things … and in any event he was more concerned by the fact that the author had suffered from homophobic abuse, by a man in the stands using a megaphone, while on the pitch.

I of course responded and on Friday, the Irish Times printed this letter of mine:
A chara, – Having occasionally strayed from my ivory tower, I am not unaware of the levels of profanity currently prevalent in our society, as Patrick O’Byrne seems to think. I nonetheless thank him for his list of where and how I might find such profanity used.

Regarding Donal Óg Cusack’s account of homophobic abuse from the terraces, Mr O’Byrne might wish to consider that if the use of profanity was socially unacceptable, then Mr Cusack might have been spared such a foul-mouthed tirade.

If not, then at the very least onlookers and officials might have felt empowered to deal with the loud-mouth with the megaphone.

 – Is mise,

That last point, by the way, is not mere wishful thinking. I once witnessed in the USA, where the use of profanity in public is no where near as acceptable as it is here, a man in the middle of a foul-mouthed homophobic rant being shut down in no uncertain terms by someone in a position of authority on the basis that such language was not acceptable. Freedom of speech may entitle one to hold whatever views one wishes, it does not however, entitle one to use cuss-words in the public square!

But the important point I think that emerges from my exchange on the letters page, is that bad language is becoming more and more common, and people either think it is acceptable or they don't care, which amounts to the same thing. They see it as 'part of our culture' … which begs the question, are we, as Christians, being counter-cultural in this regard … or are we blending in, with our voices and the words that we use no different from the secular world around us. If we were to follow the congregation of an imaginary church to some local hostelry for their Sunday lunch, where they mingled with those who had risen late from their beds for a bit of brunch, would we be able to distinguish those who go to church from those who do not ? Or would the use of casual blasphemy and other profanity be heard equally from both groups? I would hope not, but I wonder …

because an important part of being a Christian is to behave in a way that is different from those that are not … to behave in a way that is Holy in all aspects of our life … and one of the ways we are to show this Holiness is by controlling the language that comes out of our mouths … by not falling into the trap of thinking that since 'everybody else' is doing it, then it is ok for us to do so also … it is not: we are told this in scripture, in both the Old Testament and the New; the early Church thought it important enough to put it in to their short instruction guide more than once; and your rector thinks it important enough not only to write letters to the Times about it, but to preach about it to you … I am not sure which of these will convince you most … but I pray that one if not all will … in the Name of the + Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

2 September 2012 (13h after Trinity) 

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