I recently asked one of our older young people to oversee the ‘sung’ worship at the start of our youth fellowship meetings.
He is incredibly talented in all things music but he’s also getting to that age (18) where he could easily drift off from things. That’s not to say that they would leave things, but I always think it’s best to think these things through.
I wanted to give him an opportunity to lead others. To be valued for his contribution.
Since then, a couple of people have come to me because of obscene things on this person’s ‘facebook’ page.
Now, I had been aware that on occasion, this person had used swearing on his page but didn’t think much about it.
But it got me thinking.
More specifically, can language be inherently offensive and should we be stopping young people from using language that we find offensive?
1)Swearing was, in a way, a form of subversion between the middle/ upperclass and the working class.
2)words find their meaning in culture and are culturally bound.
3)the meaning of words evolve: words that were considered swearing a generation ago, are no longer considered that by the younger generation.
So what are we to do?
What I don’t want to do is write off the views of the person who spoke to me. I understand their view. They find those words offensive even if the young person doesn’t. This persons’ views are important.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He called them to ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy‘ (Lev 19:2).
Many of the levitical laws found in the pages of the OT concern this issue. God asked these people to be set apart. to be different. He wants them to stand out. Jesus continues this idea when he compares the followers of ‘the way’ to salt or light (Matt 5).
So, as followers of ‘The Way’ should we demonstrate our difference to our culture by not using terms that others find offensive? That would be one solution. But then we have to ask ourselves, who is it that finds these words offensive and why do they find them offensive? After all, there are words that others would consider swearing that I wouldn’t. It makes the issue all the more complicated.
Perhaps we could offer a list of words by mutual consent that we don’t say to certain people? I know that at YF or in church there are words that I will not use. No one has said that explicitly but I know it to be true.
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
Paul is building up a picture of how the church should be. What a true community of humanity looks like. And in the midst of it all he says to rid ourselves of filthy language. But what did that mean to Paul?
The greek is aischrologia which literally means ‘dishonouring words’. The words around it, “anger, rage, malice, slander” are all oppressive words. Things you do or say about someone else to strip them of honour. Words that abuse them. Oppress them.
“filthy language (as it’s translated) is not then simply about swear words. It’s about how we treat one another.
So here’s my point:
the meaning of words are subjective. Language is not inherently offensive. swear words then are only swear words if we define them as such.
to say that certain words are wrong is disingenous. It’s what’s behind the words that I would have an issue with.
If swearing comes from a place of anger, if we are using those words to offend or belittle someone then that is not right. But if we are using them because they are simply part of our vocabulary and allow us to express out views succinctly (as was one of their original intentions) then I do not see that an issue.
Some Practical Thoughts
So what about the young persons use of language on facebook? Objectively, I don’t have an issue with it. If words are not inherently offensive then there is no problem.
because facebook is a public place and people who may be offended read what we say, then I do think we have a responsibility to at least be aware of that.
For me then, moving forward, I think it would be profitable to have a conversation about language and how we use it with the whole YF and discuss together its implications at YF, church and the wider world (both on and offline).
Secondly, following that it may be worth putting together a set of terms that we should not use in certain contexts because of who may be listening/ reading.
Thoughts? Have people done this? Has it worked? Any other suggestions?