Are “Cursing”, “Swearing”, “Profanity” and “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain” really the same thing?

In the context of a recent study on the Ten Commandments, a friend asked about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” and its relationship to the general prohibition against profanity that was enforced in her house as a child. I thought that this might be a good follow-up to last week’s discussion on blessing since very often both concepts are summed up under the general heading of “Cursing”. Don’t fear, though, this post will be completely #SFW.

God’s edict against the use of the divine name “in vain” is itself a fascinating area of inquiry. It brings to bare all kinds of things. What does it mean to really know someone’s name? What does it mean to use soemone’s name? What does God’s name actually mean and how do you say it? Stuff that would fill many more blog posts than this. What it boils down to though, I think, is that using someone’s name in reference to an action or commitment somehow binds them to that action. Thus, taking the Lord’s name in vain is to commit God, by using his name, to a course of action that he, himself is unwilling to take (i.e. Don’t promise that God will do something that he won’t ultimately do – don’t, by your words, make God a liar).

This may be a slightly strange concept to many today. We don’t tend tend to think of simply using someone’s name as being the same thing as committing them to something. Oh, if this were only the case each morning when I say “Hannah, Aaron, do your chores!” Interestingly, though, there is a body of liturature in contemporary sociology that looks at this type of phenomenon with respect to cyber-bullying and similar online relationships. Is tagging someone as a part of an activity the same as their actually having been there? Could it affect their reputation in the same way? It’s an interesting line of argument, even if its a little beyond the scope of this blog.

So, suffice it to say that according to this trick definition, there are only a very few “swear-words” in English that actually violate the third commandment. Being a relatively un-creative user of foul language myself, “Gosh Darn” (let the reader undersatand) is the only one that comes readily to mind.

It may, however, be the case that many of the polite things we say to one another do. Does God actually (have to) bless everyone who sneezes? Or, are we tying God’s hands in a significant way every time we bless a house or a meal or something like that. I don’t mean to create a scruple. But, it’s worth a thought.

What then of the rest of the non-God-binding corpus of foul language that our grandmothers so desperately cautioned against? If it doesn’t violate the Commandments, could it be that it is actually permissible? Perhaps. But chances are that rather than violating one of the Ten Commandments, it actually violates a deeper principal of community – the Law of Love – upon which Jesus says all other law and prophetic writings hang.

So much of what passes as explicit or foul language is, at its heart, a form of objectification. Particularly when used to describe or defame another person, calling someone a thus-and-so or committing them to a debased act they they never actually performed denies their humanity and their agency as a beloved child of God. thi is the opposite of Love and in a certain respect, I guess, actually does violate the third commandment in as much as it suggests that God is doing something other than in his nature. It suggests that God loves the individual less than he does.

In the end, I think your grandmother is right. Don’t swear. It’s just not becoming.

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