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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kim

The "F" Bomb

The other day at our family devotional we found ourselves talking about swearing. Kyan chimed in “Yeah I realized when we went on that overnight camping trip that kids at my school swear a lot. The S- word… the F-bomb… they were dropping them all over the place.”

“Ohhh – kaayyyy… do YOU swear at all when these kids are swearing?” I asked.

He paused. Then with a sheepish look replied “ummm…. yessss?” But he was quick to qualify “but I do it a lot less than them!”

I took a deep breath and held my tongue as a passage I’d read from McLaren’s Faith After Doubt played through the tape recorder of my soul. In describing the phases of the faith journey, McLaren writes

“To help you, your parents and other significant adults began teaching you that some ways of meeting your needs and desires were acceptable and others weren’t, that some would be rewarded and others would be discouraged. Smile, say thank you, share … and the Big People responded one way. Scream, steal, bite, and hit … and the Big People responded another way. Adults around you had one primary teaching goal: to help you survive independently in human society and in the natural world by learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous, appropriate and inappropriate, permitted and prohibited.

For us to become fully independent adults someday, we need to start life fully dependent on the guidance of older, wiser Big People. They make the rules and we follow them. We ask questions and they answer them. They give commands and we obey them. We have problems and they solve them.

I call this first stage Simplicity because it revolves around a simple mental function of sorting nearly everything into one of two categories. Is this berry edible or inedible? Is that person or tribe a friend or an enemy? Is taking your friend’s toy permitted or prohibited? Is telling a lie or using violence a clever and effective way to get what you want or is it a punishable offense? Did this make me happy or sad, glad or mad?

For that reason, in Stage One, you set out to master the mental skills of dualism, of seeing the world in twos: this or that, in or out, right or wrong. Dualism may be simple, but it’s not so easy when you’re first getting started. That first, “No! You can’t!” or “Yes, you must!” comes as a bit of a shock for an infant who is used to being coddled and given whatever she cries for. Her original innocence is disrupted by a new responsibility: to figure out what the Big People want, what they will reward, and what they will punish.

The Big People—your parents, grandparents, teachers, chiefs, and religious leaders—are central to your world in Stage One, because they’re the ones who know the rules and show them to you. They’re also the ones who enforce the rules. So Stage One is the stage of authority as well as the stage of dualism.

As far as you’re concerned, the authorities know everything, and you don’t, so you feel highly dependent on them. You trust them and want to please them, and you aspire someday to be as certain and all-knowing as they are. Sure, sometimes they make you sad or mad when they don’t let you get your way, but in the end, they’re the Big People, and until you become a Big Person yourself, you need to fall in line.

Before long, you find out that your Big People dislike or distrust some other Big People, and your dualism adds a new category: us versus them. Our Big People are good; their Big People are bad. We are right; they are wrong. Familiar and similar is safe; unfamiliar and different is dangerous. This social dualism creates a strong sense of loyalty and identity among us. It also creates a strong sense of anxiety and even hostility about them, the other, the outsiders, and the outcasts.

Stage One is built on trust, because for the child, trust is an absolute necessity, a matter of survival. If you distrust the authorities, you’ll ignore their warnings and venture too far into

the woods, where the wild things will eat you. You’ll run out in the street, where the cars will hit you. You’ll get too friendly with the other tribe, and they’ll kidnap or corrupt you. If you don’t trust, you won’t obey, and if you don’t obey, you won’t survive. So you’d better not blur any edges or allow any shades of gray: life is a war, and your survival depends on you becoming a good, obedient, trusting soldier who follows orders as an absolute necessity.

Simple trust; simple obedience; simple, unquestioning loyalty … that’s what matters in Stage One.

Nearly everyone you’ve ever known was born and raised into Stage One, and in fact, that’s the baseline of what being raised means in our culture: being taught the basic dualisms of Stage One. Many people spend their whole lives in Stage One. They submit to the authorities and follow the rules. Then, when it’s time for them to become authorities themselves, they demand the same submission from the next generation that they themselves gave to the previous generation. It’s that simple. For that reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that faith and religion are a strictly Stage One phenomenon for millions, even billions, of people.

From the age of two to twelve or so, Stage One works pretty well for most of us. But as we mature into adolescence, we naturally desire more independence and we begin to chafe against Stage One rigidity. We may begin to question some of the rules that Big People have imposed on us since childhood. Our social circles widen, and we discover that some of them are every bit as nice as us, maybe nicer, so we see some of the dualistic judgments of our Big People as prejudices. With more age and independence, we read new books, make new friends, travel to new places, and we start to see that there are other groups with their own Big People and their own differing rules and beliefs, and they are just as human as we are. Still more questions arise.

Up until this point, Stage One may have felt like a school to help us learn the basic morals necessary for independence, but now it starts to feel like detention, a cage, even a prison.

The only way out is doubt. We may doubt that the authorities are always right. We may doubt that all the rules are always absolute and appropriate. We may doubt that they are as bad or dangerous as our authority figures warned us or that we are as good and exceptional as we were told. Add hormones, puberty, sexual curiosity, and changing bodies and brains to the mix, and Simplicity stops feeling so simple anymore.

Whether it happens at twelve or twenty-two or fifty-five, eventually, many of us doubt our way out of Simplicity and enter Stage Two: Complexity.”

I knew in my bones that the answer I’d been given as a youth wouldn’t work for Kyan. Telling him that swearing is a sin and he shouldn’t do it would most likely drive him even further from faith, which is exactly what happened to me. It’s the kind of answer that parents, Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders give because it works and works… until it doesn’t. (McLaren talks about how one pastor told some boys at church that if they masterbated their penises would fall off. Wow.)

So I tried something that was a bit new for me.

“First, Kyan I want thank you for trusting me enough to tell me that you swear sometimes. It means a lot to me, and as you enter into this era of your life, I know there will be a lot of experimentation to figure things out for your own. I want you to know that you can always come to me to ask questions, and I will always do my best to give you a loving and non-judgemental answer.

Second, I’ve been reading about spiritual development and doubt, and I’ve realized that it’s important to sort the world into categories to start, but eventually the world gets more nuanced than that. So I’ll stop short of saying swearing is a sin and it’s wrong for all people all of the time. In fact, I remember a Christian rapper named Andy Mineo making a pretty strong argument that swearing wasn’t necessarily wrong.

And finally, you’ve actually heard me swear before, so no judgement from me. But I think most of the times where I swear, it comes from a place of lack… a lack of self-control, a lack of love, a lack of intentionality. I also remember swearing a lot when I was about your age, and I think a lot of that came from the desire to impress other kids. So I guess I’d encourage you to think about whether swearing comes from a healthy place in the context you’re in. If you think it through, I’d guess that you’ll find most of the time it’s pretty inappropriate, not beneficial for your aims, and not from a good place.”

I’m not sure if the answer I gave was the best one. Part of me wonders whether he could use this answer to justify more swearing. But well, I guess I’ve done my best, and I’ll let God do the rest.

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