Monday, August 26, 2013

On Cussing in Front of Pastors

I am a pastor. Although I’m not ashamed of my vocation, I still break into a cold sweat every time someone asks me what I do for a living. Why? Because discovering that the person with whom you’re talking is a pastor seems to be equivalent to discovering that the unmarked vehicle in front of you is a police car.  As soon as I say, “I’m a pastor,” people immediately slam the brakes on our relationship because they assume that I’m pointing a moral radar gun at them. It's so predictable that it would be funny if it weren’t so alienating. Usually, you can expect one of the following responses: people will start trying to convince me that they're a good person or they will avoid talking about my work altogether. Most of all, people offer us profuse apologies out of nowhere. If someone cusses or tells  dirty joke or loses their temper in my presence, they stop themselves, turn to me and say something like this: “I’m sorry for doing that in front of you.” [1]

I recognize that this kind of apology is meant to show respect to my religion in general or to me in particular. That’s fine. The irony, however, is that such an apology creates the very effect that it sets out to avoid: it forces me to judge them. Honestly, when someone I don’t know cusses (or does something else) in front of me, I don’t judge them. In fact, the Bible commands me not to. Although Christians are called to “judge” in certain settings, it is always to be done with extreme caution and it is never to be directed at strangers or even acquaintances. [2] So when I meet people at social gatherings or talk with them in a business environment, my “moral radar gun” is turned off. However, if they offer an apology to me, then I have to judge because they have implicitly put a judgment in my mouth.  The unspoken premise that precedes the apology is this: “Whoops. I just did something that you believe is wrong and therefore that offends you. Consequently, I’m sorry for doing that in front of you.”

I want to reply, "Did I ever say that the action was wrong? You're just assuming that." In all likelihood, I wasn't "judging" their action either as morally acceptable or morally flawed when they made the comment, but now they've asked me to make a public statement about it. When they say, "I'm sorry," I have to either confirm or deny the wrongness of their action in my response. If I say something like, “Well, thanks for apologizing,” then I confirm not only that that the action was wrong but also the assumptions that I was judging them and that I am easily offended, which I really want to do that. On the other hand, if I say something like, “Oh, that’s ok,” then I have given my moral approval to their action, which is also not something that I want to do. Either way, I have to make a judgment. Thus, I almost always come away from these situations not feeling very good. [3]

But I think I’ve come up with a solution. As I was thinking about this last night, I realized that a person who apologizes to a pastor for their action not only forces the pastor to make a moral judgment but also defers taking moral responsibility for themselves. When you say, “I’m sorry for doing this in front of you,” it’s unclear whether you see the action itself as wrong or whether you are only apologizing for doing it in front of a pastor. So my solution is to turn the act of judging back on the person who apologizes. The next time someone apologizes for cussing around me, for example, I plan to ask, “Do you believe that cursing is wrong?” If they say, “yes,” then I can forgive them in accordance with their moral values. If they say, “no” then I’ll tell them not to be ashamed for doing things which they don’t believe are wrong. In either case, I can let them know that cuss words don’t have the same effect on me that water has on the Wicked Witch of the West: I don't melt when I hear them.  Pastors are not super-sensitive people, any more than we are super-holy. So, unless you commit an action that is aimed at me specifically, don’t apologize to me for it. If you do, I’ll use it as an opportunity for me to explore your moral values rather than mine.

End Notes

[1] This experience is not unique to pastors. Anyone who is known by their peers to have a high ethical standard is likely to experience something like this.

[2] To talk about the Biblical perspective on judging is to enter a heated discussion. Most people, looking to Matthew 7:1-5, assume that Jesus taught his followers never to judge, but that isn’t what it says. The point of that text is to emphasize that we must judge ourselves first and foremost rather than being self-righteous or hypocritical. Later, in Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus offers a model for how we should confront other people about their sins, which implies that we must judge them.

Another passage that I find very helpful is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. Here, Paul argues that we are only supposed to judge those “inside the church.” From my Anabaptist perspective, I believe that this means we are only encouraged to “judge” those who have voluntarily entered into a covenant with us to follow Christ and to engage in mutual correction, rebuke, and encouragement. It is not license to judge any who call themselves Christians.

[3] Because this happens to pastors so often, we often respond in one of two ways. The first response is that we try too hard to make people feel morally comfortable around us. Some pastors dress down, get tattoos, frequent bars, and swear just to convince people that we’re not judging them. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these actions, it makes it very difficult for this kind of pastor to offer a prophetic or moral critique when this becomes necessary. The second response is that we stop resisting the “holier than thou” image that is imposed upon us and just pretend that we are, in fact, better than other people. This, of course, leads to hypocrisy: it encourages us to hide our flaws and to force ourselves/our family members to play into this image of perfection. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have a “third option” for pastors to take. We can’t change the fact that our vocation makes people uncomfortable. The best we can do is to continue interacting with people and let them see that our moral judgments are aimed at ourselves (with some exceptions). This may not be “relevant” or “effective,” but it is faithful. 

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