Christian Expletives and Public Discourse

The question was a test.

So it wasn’t a real question at all. He wasn’t seeking to advance his understanding, nor even to engage me in a conversation.

The question was a test.

“You have been talking about Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ in Romans. What do you mean by the gospel?”

If that was an honest question, I would have welcomed it. But it wasn’t. It was a test of evangelical orthodoxy. Would I give this man an answer that would satisfy him and assure him that I held to the very same understanding of the ‘gospel’ as he did?

Sylvia and I were speaking together on Romans, but it was clear that his question was to me, not her. I’m not sure that he thought that she had any business speaking at all.

So as the only concession I was going to give this man, I answered the question.

The gospel is the good news that in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come and that the empire of Caesar will inevitably fall.

“And how would someone accept this gospel?”

Get on board little children.

“And why would we need this gospel?”

Because we’re fucked.

“What did you say?”

We’re fucked.

“What about sin?”

“That’s what he means,” interjected Sylvia.

And then our interlocutor told us that he wanted to know exactly what we meant by the gospel, how one would accept the gospel, our understanding of sin and … (now we got to the heart of the issue) how we understood homosexuality because he (our questioner) believes that homosexuality is a sin and that the only legitimate expression of sexuality is in heterosexual marriage.

As he was giving his speech, Sylvia whispered, “let me take this one.” Sounded like a good idea to me. So she then explained Paul’s understanding of sin and redemption, rooted in Israel’s imagination, and that no, we were not going to answer his question about homosexuality at this time. Next question?

Since that public interaction some months ago, I’ve had one query about my use of the word ‘fuck’ and whether this was an appropriate use of language, or whether this just might be a matter of me enjoying to make people squirm in conservative settings by using street language. But what purpose does this really serve? Might it be that this kind of shock language is just Walsh being immature?

The person who raised this question about my language wasn’t testing me. He was asking an honest question, and a question that was going to ask me to give an accounting of why I used such language.

James says that we are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2.12). And then he goes on at some length to talk about the destructive potential of the tongue. Indeed, if you can’t control your tongue, if you can’t be wise and discerning in the way that you talk, then you shouldn’t be a teacher.

James is concerned about speaking that does not bring liberty. He is concerned not just about acts that oppress but also oppressive discourse. The two go together. How we talk and how we live are mutually reinforcing. That’s why we have to use demeaning, dehumanizing and violent language about our enemies. How else can we justify killing them?

So, back to my questioner.

“Why do we need the gospel?”
Because we’re fucked.

Discourse calculated to offend and shock. And, let’s admit it, a decidedly violent use of language.


Well, without attempting a total self-justification, and also acknowledging that maybe there is something in my personality that likes to go for the jugular, and also admitting that I am not always a person who speaks with wisdom and gentleness, and not taking the time to launch the argument that the word ‘fuck’ is a pretty sound theological description of sin if you think of all the prophetic language of sin and harlotry, let me put it this way:

I had a hunch, a gut feeling, that a lot of people in that room were suffering from “Post-Evangelical Stress Disorder.” It was precisely the kind of language, spirituality and evangelical culture that lay behind my interlocutor’s interrogation that had so hurt these folks and had pushed them to the brink of abandoning Christian faith. For these folks the questions and the tone in which they were presented reawakened all the bad memories of an oppressive past.

“So speak and so act as those who are judged by the law of liberty,” James wrote.

I may have been wrong, I may have pushed things too far and too fast. I may have not given my interlocutor the benefit of the doubt. But I discerned that the pastoral need in that situation was to speak in a way that might be liberating (while still biblically faithful) in the face of a discourse that I perceived to be binding and not freeing, oppressive and not liberating.

What do you think, Empire Remixed readers? Did I go too far?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

7 Responses to “Christian Expletives and Public Discourse”

  1. Catherine Cavanagh

    Perfect use of language for our time. Why shouldn’t we use the language of this generation? Well said.

  2. Dave King

    I used U2’s Wake Up Dead Man in a sermon on prayer and honesty. Didn’t bleep the f-bomb. Debated with a pastor friend before hand. He came around after hearing a sermon where Campolo’s famous quote was used but bleeped. “Yeah it really undermined it.” The psalms use the image of smashing baby heads, we’re fucked seems mild.

    We spend way too much time trying to appease our inner pharisee when that’s exactly the thing Jesus told us to stay the fuck away from.

    – Peace

  3. K. Elizabeth Danahy

    No, I don’t think you went too far. The level of shock and violence conveyed by “fucked” is probably the closest to describing what sin does. It’s certainly more accurate than “oh we’re cursed” or “in bondage,” which are, unfortunately, now cliches.

  4. Christina Nordlander

    I think “fucked” was the perfect word to use in the context. You didn’t use it to shock or seem edgy. It means something in this case.

  5. aimai

    There’s an oppression in civility and in socratic style questioning that, to my mind, is worse than the use of any given word like “fuck.” I sometimes find myself in these discussions online and I react very badly to people who condescend, who logic chop, who assume that I’m a child (I’m 53) or uneducated (I’ve got a Ph.d), or that because I’m a liberal I don’t know the bible. I hate those interactions which start with definitions and try to force a conclusion through pseudo socratic dialogue–the guys (and its always guys) who engage in them are never as smart or as well read as they think they are and they aren’t in a position to tell me (or anyone else) how to think about things. But they love to hear their own long winded speeches, they love to think they can force the discussion to go their way. And they invariably confuse what they are doing with real civil discourse and discussion. Its not. And sometimes you have to kick over the entire chessboard and speak your mind using the words that come to it, or that shock them, in order to get out from under the heavy blanket of fake theology, fake history, fake civility they are using to smother you. You know who else did this? Both Jesus and C.S. Lewis’s fictional character Puddleglum in The Silver Chair. He and the children are being lulled to sleep, pacified, and hypnotized by the witch’s beautiful words and singing–the only way to break the spell is for him to stamp on the fire and the stench of his own burning flesh (how uncivil!) wakes them up.

  6. David

    I sometimes think of the emotional weight that the word rape holds for some people. I understand cognitively what it means but it has no real emotional resonance with me because I have never experienced it and don’t fear it. The same isn’t true for the word fuck, which, in my experience, is a very male word, a violent word, a word used to intimidate. The point I am not making very effectively is that words have very different impact for different people. That is especially true of emotionally laden words or words that can imply a large power differential. So, I say this gently, but in my estimation, to use the word fuck in this way seems like a selfish act. If serves you with little concern or perhaps understanding of how it might impact others. It seems out of place and immature for someone publicly representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sorry.

    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      David – I really appreciate this comment. While I think the poignant use of such language, in context, makes sense, I am also very aware of the ways in which particular language can be a trigger.

      In this context, there were some obvious triggers for certain members of evangelical subculture, but who knows the ways in which such words would / will land for people who have been victims of sexualized violence. I think it’s important to keep these things in mind, and to be ready to answer for them if we intentionally choose to use some rougher language.


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