“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.” (Matthew 12:26)
I have to admit, every time I read these words in Scripture, I get a little nervous. We are living in an age in which we are flooded with words – through advertising, TV, internet, and music. Like anything else in life, when there is an overabundance of something, we tend to take it for granted. I say “we” because I include myself in this as much as anyone else. When we are bombarded by words in every spectrum of life, they begin to lose their depth of meaning, their power and even their beauty. The noise of words becomes a racket, rather than a true form of communication.
This is sad because language is a gift from God given to us in order to come to a greater knowledge of Him and of one another. The greatest Word ever spoken, Jesus Christ Himself, can also be drowned out in by this “racket” in our lives. As a teacher, I believe it’s important to try to “slow down the tide” by helping students to stop and reflect upon their words.
Anyone who has ever been a student in my Theology class knows that their words are going to be taken seriously in my classroom. In order to prove this, a few years ago I introduced Cletus, the “Cuss Pig” to my class. (Before that, I used the proverbial “cuss jar” – but believe me, a “Cuss Pig” is much more fun!) It has been 25 years since I have been in high school. Many teens back then cussed a blue-streak in order to feel “cool,” and, generally speaking, that hasn’t changed much today! However, what I have noticed is that more and more young people do not realize that some words are inappropriate. Thanks to that flood of words inundating them from TV, internet, popular music (especially rap and hip-hop) and other forms of media, words are carelessly escaping the lips of our youngsters that tend to curl the hair and stop the hearts of their parents, teachers, and youth group leaders.
I have been asked several times over the years how it is that a word becomes “bad” and why it is improper to use those words. Actually this is always their first lesson when I explain class rules on the first day of school and talk about the cuss pig. Cletus has been a great tool to teaching the power of words. The cuss pig fees fall into three categories:
1. Unprofessional vulgarities = 50 cents
2. Cussing = 1 dollar
3. Cursing or other extremely offensive words = 5 dollars, letter home to parents and a detention.
#1 – So how do we define “unprofessional vulgarities?”
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4:29)
These are words that in themselves are not necessarily shocking, overly offensive or violent by nature. However, as I tell my students, the classroom should be a professional environment. Plus I remind them that their words should reflect their Christian dignity. School is their job and is a place where they are learning to be upstanding American citizens and holy Christians. If they speak to me, their boss and their religious leader, in a manner that is unbecoming, it erodes an important respect between us. Many of them marvel that these words are not appropriate for the classroom. I explain I wouldn’t want them to use these words in a job interview because they need to have a certain decorum when proving their dignity and intelligence. The classroom is no different. They seem to better understand what I mean when I put it in that context.
#2 – “Cussing” is easier to define.
“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)
Cuss words are vulgar words which, although they are not violent, filthy, or demeaning towards women, the students should instinctively know are unacceptable, especially in the classroom. Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t know and they need to be taught. What happens at this level is that the students begin to “rat” on one another when one of them slips. While I don’t enjoy “tattling,” I realize that through their humor they are showing me, and one another, that they understand the protocol of the class, as well as the significance of their words.
#3 – Words that fall in the third category are grave.
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10)
These are words that are extremely offensive and violent by nature, especially towards women. This category also involves “cursing” – when we use God’s name in vain and, even worse, call upon Him to do an evil act by “damning” another. I explain to the students that this is a serious sin. The repercussions are more than a strike at their pocket-books. The parents become involved, as well as the dean-of-students. I’m happy to say I have rarely had to deal with this in the classroom over the decade that I have taught.
Overall, there seems to be a bit of confusion about the “sinfulness” of certain words that we use. The Catechism of the Catholic Church obviously doesn’t spell out which words are sinful and which are not. The Catechism does, however, forbid using God’s name in vain or in a blasphemous manner and also misusing His Name by swearing falsely (CCC 2141-2142, 2146, 2148.)
So, how do we know when our speech “crosses the line?” First of all, if it offends those around us, we know that we have breached the law of charity. As we grow in our Christian life, we become more sensitive to those around us. We become more aware of each person’s personal dignity, as well as our own. Therefore that sensitivity is now reflected in both our spoken and bodily language. Second of all, we need to look inwards. Our speech often betrays the thoughts of our hearts. Jesus pointed this out when he said, “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Mt. 12:34) If I find myself tempted to use harsh language, I need to sit back and reflect, asking help from the Holy Spirit: “What is stirring in my heart? Is it anger, fear, sorrow, impurity, or carelessness? Is this disposition of my heart something I can work out myself in prayer, or do I need the help of another? Is this something I should bring to Confession?”
Language communicates our interior life. Cussing, cursing, swearing or vulgarities – these are often rotten fruits growing from the soil of the heart. I believe that Jesus would first have us ask ourselves, “Is what is happening in my heart sinful?” before asking, “Is that word sinful?” I remember, as a teen, having experienced going to Confession and confessing certain instances when I misused language. I often heard the priest say, “It is not a sin to say that!” Well, maybe he was right. However, if I had confessed the disposition of my heart which caused me to speak out like this, I think Father would have recognized right away the sinfulness that was present.
So, where does the money go that is collected in Cletus, the Cuss Pig’s, fat, pink belly? Well, I assure my students that the money is given to the pro-life cause. When I hear a student use an improper word, I simply call out, “Save a baby!” and they know it’s time to pay-up to the pig. If they argue that they didn’t know this was an improper word, we discuss the situation and I challenge them to consider the meaning in their heart when they spoke it. Often times they’ll concede and begin to search their pockets for spare change. One day, after I called out, “Save a baby!” to a sophomore student, he stood up; grumbling to himself, and slowly began the “walk of shame” to the front of the classroom. As the coins clinked into Cletus’ belly, someone in the back of the classroom yelled, “It’s a boy!”
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