Blasphemy: How to respond when God's name is used as a swear word

Public attitudes toward the third commandment have undergone a radical shift in recent years. Megan Cornwell wonders what we should do about it

The woman plonked herself down next to me with a huff. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed, loudly. She was annoyed. The pizza she’d ordered from the hot counter in Sainsbury’s was not cooked enough for her liking and when she’d asked for it to be reheated it had arrived overdone. I bristled at the sound of my Lord’s name being used with such derision. I wanted to explain to her that what she’d just said was far more offensive than her delayed lunch order. I wanted to tell her that it was unacceptable to use that kind of language in public. That for many people the words “Jesus Christ” mean so much more than an expletive.

They are careful not to offend most other religious groups. But they think nothing of blaspheming the name of Christ

But we were in the middle of a busy café and my mouth was full and my heart was racing. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “I’ve only eaten half of my sandwich,” I reasoned with myself. “If I tell this obviously fuming woman what I’m thinking we’d have to sit in excruciating, awkward silence until I polished off my last morsel. Oh Lord, I really don’t want to get into an argument,” I prayed, feeling guilty for not defending him (not that God needs my help on that front). The woman and I sat in pregnant silence for a further ten minutes while I agonised over confronting her, until at last I swept up my rubbish and walked out, feeling defeated.

'Of little concern'

This kind of encounter is becoming more and more frequent. Whether it’s on the bus or in the supermarket, chatting to a friend or watching TV, blasphemy, it appears, is now completely acceptable. According to the latest Ofcom report on the public’s attitude to certain words, language such as “Jesus Christ” and “goddamn” is considered only mildly offensive. The report, which is carried out every five to six years, helps to inform the broadcasting watchdog’s response to complaints from viewers about things they see and hear on TV and radio. It uses a mixture of focus groups, in-depth interviews, online surveys and discussions to gauge the general public’s response to potentially offensive words and gestures. The report found that the words “Jesus Christ” were generally “of little concern when used to express emotion”, but were a concern for “older or more religiously sensitive participants when used as an obscenity”. It recognised that some “religious people” may be offended, but concluded that language categorised as “mild” could be broadcast before the 9pm TV watershed.

One of Ofcom’s stated responsibilities is to protect viewers and listeners from harmful or offensive material. In its guidance notes on how to apply its rules around offensive language it states:

“…broadcasters should be aware that the use of bad language directly coupled with holy names may have a particular impact on people with strongly held beliefs which goes beyond any offence that may be caused by the bad language itself.” Despite this guidance and the fact that their own research suggests there is concern among people of faith, “Jesus Christ” and “goddam” remain categorised as “mild”.

Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, believes broadcasters have a responsibility to Christian audiences and can tend to show double standards when it comes to faith. “They are careful not to offend most other religious groups. But they think nothing of actors and comedians blaspheming the name of Christ,” he told me. “Broadcasters like to pat themselves on the back for being more sensitive to causing offence to sections of their audience.

Christians have yet to benefit from any of this new-found sensitivity. It’s time for that to change.”

When I pressed Ofcom for more information, a search run by its communications team found that only 35 complaints were received in 2018 that included the word “blasphemy” and just 50 for “Jesus” or “Christ”. The last time it received any volume of criticism from Christians was back in 2005 after Jerry Springer: the Opera aired on BBC Two. The show sparked huge controversy at the time for its depiction of God, Jesus, Mary and Adam and Eve as warring guests on a Jerry Springer show set in hell. The BBC received 55,000 complaints before the show aired and Ofcom received nearly 9,000 after transmission. Many of those complaints came from readers of this magazine and listeners of Premier Christian Radio, who emailed Ofcom in their thousands. It was an “unprecedented” response for Ofcom or any previous broadcasting regulator at the time.

The BBC received 55,000 complaints about Jerry Springer: The Opera

I find it hard to believe that the low number of Ofcom complaints in the last few years is a sign that Christians no longer care about blasphemy. We know anecdotally that they do and Ofcom’s own research confirms this. It’s more likely a combination of desensitisation and fatigue. In the two most recent cases in which Christians complained en masse about blasphemous content – the second was in 2008 when 540 people responded to Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of a clergyman – Ofcom found in favour of the broadcasters.

In the bulletin outlining their decision in the Atkinson case, Ofcom said: “Many complainants accused ITV of blasphemy. Ofcom is not required to determine whether the ITV committed blasphemy, but whether, in this case, the provisions of its Code had been breached…Ofcom considers that the context of this programme was clear and justified the broadcast of this item.”

Perhaps we’ve decided this is a battle we aren’t going to win.

Changing the law

It’s unsurprising that, as Christians, we experience demotivation when it comes to standing up for ourselves. It can sometimes feel as if we’re shouting with all our might into a raging gale. Standards have changed so much that it can feel pointless – or even pernickety – raising our concerns.

The UK is post-Christian in many ways; every day its citizens appear to further embrace the trappings of secularism. Ireland, that once deeply religious country, voted in October to abolish their own blasphemy law, something The Guardian described as “the latest reflection of seismic social and political changes”. The referendum saw 64.85 per cent vote to remove the prohibition on blasphemy from their constitution, against 35.15 per cent in favour of keeping it. This vote followed closely on the back of the legalisation of gay marriage and the liberalisation of abortion laws: two results that were seen as further evidence of Ireland rejecting its Christian heritage. Closer to home the UK repealed its blasphemy law in 2008 after a sustained campaign by secularists. Those laws, though hardly invoked in modern times, gave Christianity a degree of protection and preference.

With no legal framework to protect Christianity from derision and abuse in the public sphere, and with broadcasters effectively given carte blanche to use blasphemous language before the watershed, it seems Christians have little recourse. So how should we respond?

Perseverance, truth and love

Firstly, we could consider that the Ten Commandments, which included a warning about misusing the name of the Lord, were given by God to the people of God, not to the surrounding nations. We can’t expect those who don’t share our beliefs to abide by our rules; the onus is on us to obey the commands of God. “In terms of how these ideas pertain to language today, Christians are called to imitate Christ, and he held God’s name in great reverence,” explains Lois Tverberg, author of several books about the Hebraic roots of Christianity. Although Tverberg recognises that the third commandment encompassed more than speech, she says: “To use God’s name in vulgar and crude ways shows a profound lack of respect for God. Worse yet, it suggests a functional atheism, that you do not actually believe that God is present and listening to what comes out of your mouth. If you would not speak of your mother in such a way, why would you speak of your loving Father this way?”

We must keep making our voices heard - even if we feel ignored

Telling an atheist they’ve offended a God they don’t believe in probably won’t get us far, but making sure our own language is free of profanity and explaining how these words hurt our feelings when confronted by everyday blasphemy might yield more fruit. Perhaps we could even turn our frustration into effective evangelism?

Secondly, the Bible exhorts us to run the good race with determination and commitment, so we must keep making our voices heard – even if we feel ignored. This might mean complaining to Ofcom about blasphemy where we see it on the TV or hear it on the radio. It might involve having that difficult conversation with a friend who continually uses the name of Jesus as a swear word. But most of the time, it will simply mean being obedient to God day in and day out in the way we speak and conduct ourselves, as his ambassadors on earth.

Every society seeks to protect its most cherished views and, sadly for us, ours are no longer held by the majority. But one day they will be. One day Christ will be honoured by all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Until that day, Christians living in Babylon will have to rely on the grace of God to keep us sustained. For now, perhaps the best course of action is to work harder at speaking the truth in love, including to the women we meet in Sainsbury’s!

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