Foul Bawl

They had threatened to wash our mouths out with soap if they ever heard us using foul language, so what choice, really, did we have? Most ten year olds can only exercise so much restraint.

My friends and I uttered the words cautiously at first, lest they provoke instantaneous divine wrath, as we had been led to believe they might. Yet after uttering a few “God Damns” and some other forbidden phrases, and not being struck by lightning, we felt bold and bad and free. Now we were at liberty to spew forth all those forbidden words (as long as we were out of earshot of the parental, academic and religious authorities wielding bars of soap).

Perhaps this act of verbal rebellion was a necessary step in my spiritual journey. After all, we do need to explore a bit and learn life’s lessons for ourselves and not just do as we’re told, lest we remain like sheep. One credible interpretation of the mythical story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis is that that this story symbolizes a necessary step in the evolution of human consciousness – our coming to awareness of ourselves as a moral agent. According to this take on this ancient tale, Adam and Eve needed to defy the Divine Command and eat the forbidden fruit to fulfill their human potential. So that’s my justification for eating the pungent fruits of forbidden language.

To be sure, I was never really that good at being much of a bad dude – It’s one of the personal failures I have to live with. But I held my own in regards to my use of foul language. For years many expletives were not deleted from my oral communication any more than any of my young foul mouthed peers. NOT to use such language would have been a disturbing sign that one was repressed and had not yet achieved personal liberation.

We just knew there was something wrong with the way our strait laced, uptight elders futilely forbade the use of certain words, and how they were obsessed with obliterating obscenity in the name of decency, and were fixated on “being nice” when there was so much that wasn’t nice about the world. After all, you need certain words that express extreme displeasure and outrage – sometimes “gosh darn,” and “O fudge” just won’t do.

One day – in my mid-twenties, by now a seasoned swearer – I was looking all over for a friend of mine in downtown Atlanta. Finally, I saw him talking to someone else and walked up, swearing profusely – (*@!&&++=##! Vernon (his real name). Where the *&%%## have you been? I’ve been looking all over the **^#@! Place for you!) I thought nothing of this – I wasn’t really angry – just freely expressing my frustration by lacing my language with some of the choice words I often used.
A bit later Vernon told me I had put him in an embarrassing position. You see, he had been counseling someone in his role as a Unitarian Universalist minister (a chaplain). And then, I suddenly entered that sanctified scene, swearing like an old salt.

At first this amused me – I had “blown Vernon’s cover.” Later I reflected – maybe I hadn’t blown his cover – maybe he legitimately lived in two worlds – one, amongst his free spirited, foul mouthed friends, and another, in places where such language did not serve a purpose.

In spite of this episode it was Vernon who first suggested to me that I might have a call to serve in the Unitarian Universalist ministry and later, when I did enter this life of service, I began to pay more attention to my words, for words do have power – the language we choose to use – consciously or unconsciously – has an impact. In truth, language shapes our thoughts which shapes one’s heart and mind and this shapes our relationships– which is why all the major religious traditions have something to say on this matter. The Jewish tradition reminded me not to bear false witness for bending to truth for selfish ends is a betrayal of trust; the Christian tradition reminded me to “speak the truth in love,” for “unvarnished truth” can be wielded as a bludgeon; the Buddhist tradition emphasized how “right speech” needs to be an ongoing practice on the path of spiritual growth lest you lapse into patterns of speech that contribute to delusion and discord. I began to realize how you should not only think before you speak, but also feel before you speak, and consider the impact of your words.

So I took another look at foul language. From this I concluded that I see no particular need to expurgate scatological language from our vocabulary. After all, this would put many stand-up comedians out of work. They’ve come to rely so heavily upon these words that describe certain bodily functions to earn their laughs and their daily bread. Nothing worse than having a bunch of starving comedians roaming the streets of America. So I say “let ‘em swear.”

Yet, I began to see that using foul language to curse others is a different matter. Curse words! – the monster trucks of our vocabulary- souped-up, verbal vehicles used to transport ill will from one person to another, one group to another. They stand ready with their engines running and giant wheels, ready to drive forth and crush other vehicles. All you have to do is hop and put the pedal to the metal. It can be O so tempting to hop into one of these monster trucks and drive forth cursing and crushing the many malefactors in the world (at least in your own mind which is how I have cursed others).
Here’s when I have mentally hopped in one of these monster trucks: I’m watching the news and hear certain politicians, who surely know better, deny the reality of global climate change because it’s politically expedient I get angry. How can they put their political ambitions over our children and grandchildren’s, our whole planet’s future well-being? We need to do something! So “$#%% them!” I think to myself. Or when I consider how large, multinational corporations and powerful wealthy interests have taken over our democracy and turned it into a plutocracy I lose my cool. “**&&^^((@!! ‘em!”
What really, really got my internal monster truck running a while back was ISIS (aka “Daesh”) – that vicious apocalyptic cult that betrays Islam and all of humankind’s highest and holiest values. On the radio they were describing how they had massacred Yazidi man, raped the women and turned them into sexual slaves. I felt such anguish for those women. Then I saw images of ISIS fighters with innocent hostages just before beheading or burning them alive – I couldn’t help but imagine the extreme anguish the family members of those hostages at having to see their son or husband or daughter in such hellish circumstances. In my mind I cursed this organization which has perpetrated such unspeakable cruelty and created such a hell on earth. I admit it. I cursed them.

Then I read about the Frenchman Christian de Cherge. In 1959 de Cherge was part of the French Army’s “pacification” forces in their colony of Algeria. He became good friends with Mohammad, a Muslim policeman. They often discussed their religions (Christian and Muslim) and eventually came to recognize that all life affirming faith comes from the same sacred source. Their friendship transcended their religious differences.

One day on a walk they were ambushed by Algerian rebels, and de Cherge was about to be killed. Yet Mohammad appealed to the rebels and said that this Frenchman was a “godly man.” They spared de Cherge’s life. Later, however, they assassinated Mohammad.

De Cherge was heartbroken to lose his good friend. After a few days reflection, he decided to dedicate his life to God and the cause of peace. He became a Trappist monk back in France, and eventually asked his superiors to assign him to a base in the Atlas mountains in Algeria – a move his superiors thought unsafe. De Cherge went anyway – he did not go to Algeria to proselytize (convert people to Christianity) but rather to serve the people – offering medical care, employment, literacy classes. He invited Muslims into the monastery for interfaith discussions to promote trust and understanding.

De Cherge had high ideals but he was not naïve. He knew that Christians in Algeria during the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990’s faced great danger. He had a premonition he would indeed, be killed. So he wrote a letter, held in safekeeping by his mother, to be opened after his death, should this happen. Tragically, it did. This good man was killed by those who “knew not what they did.” Afterwards they opened his letter. In it he wrote that he wanted to “forgive, with all my heart, the one who will strike me down.” He concluded the letter saying to the one who took his life: “I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.”

It seems that de Cherge really was a follower of the Jewish prophet Jesus, who long ago preached in Galilee: “but I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and bless those who curse you…”
When I read about this French Trappist priest I was taken spiritually aback. Bless those who curse you? Really? Not sure I want to or can do that.

And then I remembered: I am a Unitarian Universalist – with the stress at this moment on the Universalist part of our tradition. Long ago the early American Universalists denied the doctrine of eternal damnation saying that God does not and will not curse and condemn any soul for an eternity – because God is love. Then this thought struck them: just as God does not curse and condemn any soul, so, too, is the Universalist called to give up saying “to hell with you” to anyone. Anyone.

And I wonder – hasn’t there been enough cursing? Hasn’t this just led us into the trap of perpetual enmity, hatred, endless bitterness. Can we escape from this cursed trap of cursing one another? Is it possible for people to stop cursing? And beyond that “to bless those who curse you?” I think that’s the question each one of us has to answer.