When Jesus' name is abused
Reading the obituary of playwright Ian Curteis in yesterday’s Times, one sentence unexpectedly jumped out right from the screen. “As a Christian I find the casual expletive ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ momentarily sickening,” he wrote, “not because of its sound, but because of the cauldron of belief it encapsulates for me.” The obituarist added: “It added to his reputation as an outsider at the BBC, a man whose ‘diversity’ was a little too rich for the corporation’s blood.” Maybe I’m becoming a grumpy old man but when a character in a film or programme not only abuses the name of Jesus but compounds it with a sexual profanity, I find it hugely hurtful. At that point I would normally stop watching, not wanting to be abased in my own home. Of course, I realise this is how some people speak, especially when they are under stress. From all accounts such language is not unfamiliar in the corridors of power currently reeling from this morning’s news from Shropshire. But here I am not talking about swearing and profanities as such but assaults on the name of Jesus. However, when his name is used deliberately by one of Mr Curteis’ former colleagues, maybe to give effect, possibly simply to shock the audience, I do find it hugely offensive. I’m not sure whether such language against gay people or people of colour would be as readily tolerated. Certainly the threshold of being shocked has moved hugely in my own lifetime, certainly since Kenneth Tynan moved the boundaries by using a particular expletive on a live BBC broadcast in 1965. However, it is not a simple shift because there are some words, especially those with a racist meaning, which would not be tolerated today but were allowed then. Of course, it is not just the words themselves which offend but as Curteis explains, it is the “cauldron of belief” they would represent. Good choice of word cauldron, as you would expect from such a gifted playwright. It suggests words bubbling from constant heat of anger and rebellion, even boiling over. And cauldrons are used in witchcraft; think of the opening scene of Macbeth as “fair is foul and foul is fair.” But why such profanity, especially against Jesus, “the image of the invisible God?” (Colossians 1:15). As we celebrate this season we acknowledge that he is God’s gift to a broken world, the gift even of himself. Above all his cross speaks of an incredible love, an astonishing act of grace. If there is one verse in the Bible which says it all, it has to be this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). This is good news of great joy for all the people, to quote the angels in the shepherd’s field, what our hearts long for, the hope of the ages. And so to abuse the name of Jesus and more, link it with a sexual profanity, is not only an act of total rebellion, it is a word of rage deliberately hurled into our creator’s face. Of course, such words are meant to offend and to offend deeply. Similarly sexual profanities would debase God’s gift of male and female becoming one flesh, the most profound of all human relationships. It is to take what is most precious to us as humans to drag through the sewer. As a young Christian I often wondered how you could take God’s name in vain – and still live. Which, if you think about it, tells us a lot about God’s relationship with his world. For as John writes in his prologue: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:10f) From the outset Jesus has been rejected, even to the extent of being nailed to the cross, in the words of the apostle Paul as a curse on the land. And to curse his name is to crucify him afresh. But this act of rage may not simply be against God, it can so easily become a form of self-loathing, even calling down God’s punishment on themselves. We’re not told what Peter said when he was cornered in the courtyard of the high priest but we are told how he responded. “He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’” (Mark 14:71) Clearly his aim was to disown Jesus and whatever words he used he was soon to bitterly regret. That’s why the risen Jesus rehearses this denial when he asks Peter three times “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:17) Peter’s restoration shows God’s predilection to pardon, his readiness to forgive, even the most hurtful of betrayals. So to hurl abuse at God, to rubbish the name of Jesus, does not have to be the last word. Of course, you can’t pray for the character on our screens who wilfully abuses the name of Jesus but we can pray for the person who put those words into their mouth - if written just for effect along with the gratuitous violence.
However, I trust that I may never become inured to the name of Jesus being abused; the very opposite, in fact. For remember it is “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 10f)