Saturday, October 4, 2008

Swear Not At All

My resolution this month is taken from Matthew 5:33-37 - an interesting part of the Sermon on the Mount. It is:

Keep my promises more diligently; make them a simple "Yes" or "No".

In many ways, it seems almost trivial compared to the obviously fundamental characteristics listed in this chapter. The Beatitudes are transcendent in their simplicity and power, while these verses seem to be almost menial and pedestrian at first glance. They aren't.

Initially, I am going to depart from my normal approach of addressing the definitions of the key words and discussing the mechanics of the actual resolution. For this post, I am going to address both what it means and what it does NOT mean.

The following is something I wrote for Mormon Momma this past April entitled "Swearing and Cursing":

The Bible provides the following admonitions regarding swearing:

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.” (Deut. 6:13)

“He that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth.” (Isaiah 65:16)

“But I say unto you, Swear not at all;” (Matthew 5:34)

Also, our scriptures include the following references to cursing:

“And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17)

“His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under his tongue is mischief and vanity.” (Psalms 10:7)

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.” (James 3:9)

There are dozens of other references to swearing and cursing, and all of them deal with swearing as a way of making a solemn promise (including taking the Lord’s name in vain) and cursing as pronouncing punishment. I chose the verses quoted above because they provide an interesting insight into the way that the original, scriptural meaning of these words has mutated radically since the initial pronouncements - coming to mean something now that simply was not included or intended in the scriptural admonitions.

It is interesting that neither term ("swear" or "curse") is defined in the Bible Dictionary. Given that situation, the following definitions come straight from the dictionary:

“to swear” = “to make a solemn declaration or affirmation by some sacred being or object, as a deity or the Bible - to bind oneself by oath.” (There are 10 definitions; 9 fit this general meaning.)

“to swear” = “to use profane oaths or language” (This is the only exception to the general rule.)

“to curse” = “to express a wish that misfortune, evil, doom, etc., befall a person, group, etc. - to invoke a formula or charm intended to cause such misfortune to another.” (again, the majority of definitions)

“to curse” = “to use a profane oath or curse word; to swear at” (one definition)

It is interesting and instructive to note that the second definitions (profane language and profane oaths) do NOT appear in our scriptures. Every instance of “swearing” and “cursing” throughout our canon involves the first definitions. What does this mean?

First, it is apparent that “swearing” means making a solemn oath or promise. ("I swear it shall be done.") In the OT, as a token of their status as The Chosen People, Israel was allowed (even encouraged) to make these sacred promises in the name of God - to swear by His name. However, one of the aspects of the Law of Moses that was fulfilled by Jesus was this practice. In its place, Jesus commanded to "swear not at all".

Obviously, He did not command that we stop making solemn promises, since His new admonition was the following:

“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:37)

By ending the Old Testament practice of swearing by God, and by shifting the responsibility to us - an individuals - to restrict our promises to “Yea, yea; Nay, nay”, He put the responsibility for keeping those promises squarely on us - as individuals. There no longer was the excuse that, “God just didn’t do it;” it was replaced by the only possible statement, “I just didn’t do it.” I see this move as one more example of the move from institutional responsibility to personal responsibility. Jesus said, essentially, “It’s up to you, so don’t even imply that it was someone else’s decision or is someone else’s responsibility.”

So, how did we get from the original pronouncements of Jesus - the great societal paradigm shift - to where we are now? The Puritan and Victorian societies of the past few hundred years simply took this basic shift and rejected it - returning to the old Law of Moses mentality and expanding the meaning of “swear” and “curse” even beyond where it had been anciently. Just as the ancient Jewish leaders expanded the original commandments by adding many prohibitions not included in the original law, modern Christians added layers of meaning to these ancient prohibitions and turned them into restrictions they never were intended to be.

Now, in our society, people have returned to “swearing by some sacred being or object”, but they also have created a completely new definition and category of swearing. Now, it includes “using unacceptable words” - words defined by the educated elite to distinguish those who are cultured and those who are not. They have changed the original meaning from “making promises for God” to "saying words that show you are more ignorant than we". That is a radical and divisive change.

These same people have taken “cursing” from a statement of malicious intent and desire to cause harm to the same generic “saying bad words” - also a radical and prideful change.

Here are just a couple of examples, using the most tame words I feel comfortable using here:

“Hell” is a proper noun that designates a location and/or condition. It is used in our scriptures hundreds of times, at least. It is sung in our hymns of worship. When used as a proper noun (”come hell or high water”), and not within a true curse, there is absolutely nothing bad or wrong with the word itself. Yet, “hell” is forbidden by many people as a “swear word”.

“Damn” is a noun meaning “something of little value”. A good example of this is, “That isn’t worth a damn” - meaning it is worthless. Otoh, “to damn” means to enact a curse - to cause someone to become of no worth, figuratively casting someone to Hell (the place where they are of no worth). Therefore, “Damn you,” is exactly what is forbidden in scriptures, for two reasons:

1) It incorrectly places the one who “curses” another in the place of God, the only one who can be the Judge and validly make such a pronouncement; and
2) it invokes that status in opposition to Jesus’ command to “swear not at all” - since invoking such a curse is, in effect, stating one’s authority to “promise in the name of God” that it will happen.

There are some examples that never were part of religion, but only came to be seen that way as a result of the elite division I mentioned earlier. Rich, educated, elite people found other ways of saying the same thing in an acceptable manner. That is an incredibly important point, but it is not understood by the vast majority of people when considering “swear words”. (What’s the difference between a one syllable word and a five syllable word if they mean exactly the same thing? Why is one forbidden and one allowed?)

Please understand, I do not advocate “swearing and cursing” as they are defined in our day and age. I try to avoid placing intentional offense in front of people, even when I feel that such offense is misguided and somewhat immature. I teach my children that “swearing and cursing”, as defined in our modern times, are not violations of religious command but, rather, violations of societal expectations - but I also advise them to follow that expectation. In this case, not putting a stumblingblock in front of others is more important than doing something just because it’s not wrong. It is a personal sacrifice for the overall harmony of the community, exactly as someone who would never abuse alcohol abstains anyway in order to help those who might. I teach them that the proper definition of “using bad words” in our time should be “using certain words out of original meaning as expletives (or words with no inherent meaning as used in the new context).” In this context, it is perfectly acceptable to use an alternate term for manure, as long as you are referring to manure, but NOT within the expression, “Oh, ____!”

I just wish people would stop telling other people they will be damned to Hell for swearing and cursing according to our modern interpretation. That simply isn’t scriptural. Remember, it is God Himself and His prophets who use the words “damn” and "hell" in our scriptures exponentially more than anyone else.

1 comment:

Justin said...

I found this post very interesting. I like your thoughts on modern swearing, with some reservation. Many modern swearwords are simply derivatives of actual curses ('d---' being an obvious example, in nearly all modern examples a simplification of 'd--- it'), so should be avoided as sin. I invite you to consider Ephesians 4:29-32. Language itself is a social construct - sounds have no meaning in themself, but only what we determine them to mean. Things must be edifying to the hearers, not some linguistic ideal of antiquated definitions. If society agrees with near universality that certain words are vulgar, they are corrupt communication. They exist only to belittle, which is certainly not edifying. Certainly the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 applies here, as you aptly point out. If meat causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again. Is using the 's' word to describe manure edifying? Or is it using a word with vulgar connotations and flaunting our liberty? Since a swearword can contain an entire thought, and that thought is corrupt and not edifying, I will refrain from using the except when necessary. Hell is a clear exception, since the original meaning still holds sway in the minds of people.

After Jesus commanded to swear not at all, Paul swore an oath in Romans 9:1. Since Paul did so under the inspiration of God, it is necessary to look deeper at what Jesus meant. Whatever it was, it must harmonize with Paul swearing on a solemn occasion. When Jesus said 'swear not at all,' he used the same Greek word translated 'commonly' in 1 Corinthians 5:1. But the word's connotation is stronger than that. It seems to mean something akin to our 'almost always.' So swearing, while not prohibited by Jesus, is strongly condemned under almost all circumstances.

Thanks for the time you spent on this and the thoughts it provoked!