• Ross Moughtin

When words shock

This is a family blog and so you will be relieved I will not be quoting President Trump verbatim in reference to his opinion of the good people of Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries.

It was the lead story on the BBC Website earlier this morning: Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants’

Here I quote (almost) “Why are we having all these people from s* countries come here?” The BBC gives the full quote whereas most American news outlets used the word “blank” instead.

It reminds me when the Nixon tapes were published in that age of innocence in 1971/72 we were shocked to see how often those in the White House used the phrase “expletive deleted”. Maybe it was the pressure of running the country or just bad behaviour.

However, Trump is different. Regardless of any diplomatic furore he articulates a worldview which is profoundly unattractive.

“Times and levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, commented. He added “Right along with the rest of our culture.”

Using words to shock is becoming more difficult in our tolerant culture.

I recall the outrage on 13 November 1965 when Kenneth Tynan, the flamboyant (that’s my euphemism) theatre critic and writer, first use THE WORD on BBC, in the days when we had just two television channels.

No less than four censuring motions in the House of Commons, were signed by a total of 133 Labour and Conservative. Accordingly the BBC issued a formal apology. But that was 50 years ago!

We all have a deep instinct to use words to shock, if only to express our inner turmoil. Certainly President Trump seeks to articulate a deep sense of fear, however unfounded, of our culture and way of life being overwhelmed by a tide of immigration.

Here we are not just talking about bad language. As the apostle Paul urges us “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)

Indeed, as I often hear, when some people become Christians, one of the first effects is seen in their speech. One friend commented that on becoming a disciple of Jesus, his vocabulary was cut by 50%.

No, we are talking about using particular words to shock. Often it is just offensive, ill-mannered profanity. Christian don’t do that.

But there are situations when we shock people into action, to see another viewpoint, even to hear what God is saying.

I’m sure that there are some great examples in the Old Testament. But sadly my daughter and currently-resident Hebrew scholar is still in bed, sleeping in after last evening’s successful book launch.

However, there are some great examples in the New Testament, especially when the apostle Paul is passionate that his churches continue to live by faith in Christ and not to return to their old life of living under the Jewish law.

So he warns the Philippians; “Watch out for those dogs. They are people who do evil things. When they circumcise, it is nothing more than a useless cutting of the body.” (Philippians 3:1).

Certainly in his culture to call anyone a dog is profoundly insulting – as is the case in Arab culture today. The apostle is seeking to jolt these Christians into recognising the danger.

And then he tells his own story. Such is his joy of knowing Christ that in comparison “I consider everything to be nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. To know him is worth much more than anything else.” (Philippians 3:8)

The apostle continues: “Because of him I have lost everything. But I consider all of it to be σκύβαλα so I can know Christ better.”

It is possible that your phone, tablet or desktop may be too shocked to show the original Greek word σκύβαλα. Suffice it to say that σκύβαλα is a scurrilous word referring to excrement. It has been found in ancient graffiti and in manuscripts linking it as pure profanity!

Accordingly some scholars consider the best translation would be the same S* word used by POTUS. However, English translations have toned it down to dung or filth.

Very simply Paul is seeking to shock his readers, including us, to see that life apart of Christ is simply S*. So why would any Christian want to return to their former existence?

And our goal?

“I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10)


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