Last night I stayed up watching the Oscars with my wife, and following along on Twitter. One of the accounts I follow is from “The Onion”, an online satire site that I had read since the 90’s. Late in the evening, they posted a tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9 year old actress nominated for Best Actress for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. I won’t repeat exactly what they said, but they called her a name that rhymes with what football players have to do on the fourth down after they fail to score.
I’m not a fan of censorship, and I’m not one to jump on “moral decency” bandwagons. But I’m also keenly aware that the word in question only gets applied to women, or to men who are being mocked, typically because they are not seen as “masculine” enough. And, can we agree that a 9 year old is off limits, regardless? It’s bullying, plain and simple, made even worse because it’s an adult targeting a child. Girls shouldn’t have to grow up worrying about whether adults will be calling them sexually derogatory names, even if it is just for a laugh.
And I know “The Onion” thought it was funny. They’re a satire site. They probably thought they were pushing the limits a bit, maybe even poking fun at culture as a whole. But, really, if your job is to be funny, and you have to call a 9 year old the “C” word in order to get a laugh, then you must really be bad at your job.
So, what does this have to do with Lent?
A year or so ago I listened to an interview with one of my favorite spoken word artists and rappers, Dessa, on NPR. She was talking about her work and the language she used saying, “there’s definitely adult language. In fact, when I came in today, you know, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and I was like, Dessa, no swearing. You know, we’re doing a radio show and you’re not allowed to use the language that you do with your friends. But there are definitely some words that I avoid. And when I work with other artists, I’ll say as much, hey, I don’t want to appear on songs that use the six-letter F word and the C word for women. And the N word, to be honest, is not a word I use. So I’m real conscientious about those, not necessarily because they’re profane but because I think they forward a really regressive world view that I have no interest in participating in.”
And that reframed the conversation for me. It wasn’t about forbidden words or what you do or don’t say in polite company. It was about how our words can be regressive, and how they can contribute to holding the world back. In this case, the words chosen last night were regressive because they negatively influenced the world that a 9 year old African-American girl has to navigate everyday. I don’t want The Onion to be censored because of that. But I do want us to take notice of it, not because it was a “bad word” but because it was a regressive word; a word that sets our world back.
And that’s the part for me that ties in with Lent. How do we Christians use regressive language? How do we say things that make the world harder for people we should be standing up for in our lives? When a preacher gets in the pulpit and goes off on a tirade against women, they might be using words that no one finds objectionable. It may be perfectly acceptable for coffee hour ofter church. But the language can still be regressive. When a Christian talks about gays and lesbians, they might not use language that causes outrage. But it still can be regressive. When bad theology gets passed off as Gospel, no one might be calling it profane. But it’s still regressive. And being regressive, in my opinion anyway, is worse than saying a word that gets you bleeped out on TV.
And so in Lent, I try to watch my language. Not for four letter words. But for language that is regressive. For language that sets the world back. For language that words against the reign of peace and compassion and justice that Christ taught us was God’s will for us. Our words are our witness, and whether they are camera-ready or not doesn’t matter. But how they change the world for the worse will… and for longer than it takes to say them.