Blessings, Curses, and Vulgarity, Part 1

So this image has been circulating lately around my pastor friends on Facebook.  It certainly rings true, for the most part, with some friends commenting that the blue slice is entirely too big (thanks, Rachelle), or that the Orange should have a footnote that includes profusely apologizing for earlier “cussing’ (thanks, Claire).

I would also add, considering the spaces I often find myself in here in progressive Massachusetts, there should be another sizable chunk that is “Assumes I’m a judgmental bigot who hates them for their gender identity, sexual orientation, or non-Christian religious beliefs.”

But there’s a couple of serious questions and theological questions that arise for me from this meme. They are: “What is cursing?” and “What should offend us?” In this post, I’ll address the first question.

Cursing is one of those Biblical words with multiple meanings in English, and one of those special cases that a formerly ancillary definition has become the main one in popular use.

In the Bible, cursing is the opposite of blessing. A blessing typically is an invocation that God should keep whatever it is being blessed in His sight and favor.  Some famous blessings in the Bible include, the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, That said, blessings are also a recognition of the holiness that already exists in something- hence the Taize chant, “Bless the Lord, my Soul.”

Thus, a curse is an invocation or acknowledgement that God rejects something.  My favorite cursing in the Bible is Amos’ cursing of the surrounding tribes of the Kingdom of Judah for war crimes, as well as Judah and Ephraim(Israel) for damage done to the poor(Amos 1-2).

Blessings and Curses are especially associated with the biblical prophets; prophets are folks who stand as intermediaries between the people and God. Typically, they see problems in the world around them and declare oracles and prophecies, warnings of what will happen if and when the people do not get back into right relationship with each other and with God.  Amos’ curse upon Israel and Judah is a public declaration of the rending of the relationship between God and the Israelites because of their treatment of the poor.

This comes not only from the Hebrew Prophets, but also from Jesus, who stood firmly in that tradition, and the Apostle Paul.  The Beatitudes and the larger Sermon on the Mount is quite literally a list of blessings and curses, a description of who is favored in God’s sight and who is not.  Paul, for his part, calls out the Corinthian church for not sharing the Lord’s supper (then practiced more as a potluck and shared meal than the more ritualized, but equality driven version we have historically practiced) in an equitable manner(1 Cor: 17-22,32-34). Although this isn’t a direct curse, his letter does imply that those who fail to carry through with this will have God’s favor withdrawn from them, with consequences including death (1 Cor 11: 27-32).  As such, I believe Paul clearly stands in this tradition.

That cursing now almost exclusively refers to vulgar language is a sad evolution of language. Rev. Dr. William Barber is reminding us, first through the Moral Mondays movement, and now through the revival of the Poor People’s campaign, that we have a duty to call out evil in society, cursing that which damages the poor and destroys our relationships to each other.

So yes, pastors, prophets, poets, Christians, we are allowed to call out the evil which exists in this world and curse it, particularly if it involves those who are hurting most. Do this through discernment within the context of your communities, and with consultation in scripture, prayer, and through listening to those who are hurting.

Oh, and if you’re using vulgar language to get a rise out of me, it probably won’t work…But more about that next time.