Imagine for a moment that ‘barf’, is the filthiness four letter word in the English language. Now imagine you’re a native person in the middle of a jungle somewhere, and you’ve never heard English. Say you’re out in the woods and for whatever reason you randomly shout, “BAAAAAAAARF!” at the top of your lungs. Did you just say a bad word?
This position gets me in trouble with Christians (including my own wife) sometimes, but I don’t think bad words are actually bad. It seems to me that when talking about objective morality, as I continue to contend for, that we’re sometimes basing our moral decisions on half-truths. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor. He said all the law, and all the prophets, hang on these two commands. What these two commands guide us in, is intent, not specific actions. They’re a benchmark for every action. I think language is a good example of how we get this wrong.
I think that usually Christians believe there is some set list of words to avoid using. I would disagree. Language is just composition of sounds. The symbols and sounds that make up language in and of themselves are nothing. They’re just symbols and sounds. People ascribe meanings to them. The sounds and symbols themselves do not have any moral properties. If you sincerely curse me out in Russian I’ll have no idea what you just said, because those sounds mean nothing to me. What I’ll likely know if you do it in person though, is what your intention was. If you do it in writing I may not even know what your intention was. It will be as benign to me a the scribblings of a two year old. However, the generator of the language always knows what the intent was, even if the reciever dosn’t understand it.
You see, the objective morality with regards to language is not the language itself, it’s the intention of the language. I believe that I could say (remembering barf is a “bad” word), “have a barfing nice day!” and I’ve not violated any moral laws by the particular language I’ve used. The intent is much different from angrily saying, “barf you!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Christians should start using this sketchy list of words that we may or may not agree on in their everyday conversations. What I’m arguing for is that regardless of the words used, it is always the intent that should be considered. Real cursing is any language that carries the intent to harm somebody with your language, regardless of the particular sounds you make.
We’ve also got to be careful because there are a couple of other things to consider here. Just because I may not know certain words themselves to be bad, that doesn’t mean everybody is going to hold that same view. Even if I think I’m using some “bad” word with good intentions, it may still not be right to use it even though the word doesn’t carry the weight of any morality on its own. Paul found this same sort of debate happening over food in Romans 14 and encouraged his audience to stop passing judgement over disputable matters. He goes on to say that people should not put stumbling blocks in their brother’s way. This sounds a lot like love your neighbor! Perhaps I find a particular word to be benign, but the people around me don’t. Is it very loving to impose that language on them even if I mean no harm by it?
There is one other caveat to this discussion. Scripture does make it clear that the name of God is not to be used without good reason. This though, still clearly does not imply that use of the word itself is bad, since using God’s name in discussions of Him or with Him would not be morally wrong. In fact, this goes to prove the point. Since the name of God can be used both rightly and wrongly, it is clear that the rightness or wrongness isn’t in the utterance of the word itself, but in the way it is used. It is the intent behind the use of God’s names that provides the foundation for the morality. Using the name of the One who created you flippantly, and against His direction, isn’t very loving to Him.
This then, is what makes “bad” words wrong. To really determine the objective moral sense of the words I’m about to use, I need to ask myself what the intention of my language is, and how will it affect my neighbors. Does it violate the two greatest commandments to love my Creator or love other people? I assert that no particular string of sounds is morally wrong in and of itself, but also that any string of sounds can potentially be morally wrong, depending how it is used!
Finally, if you disagree with me on this point, and hold to the idea that “bad” words are determined by each culture and what they understand, consider how easily I will pin moral relativism you!