Prison Profanity and the Meaning of Advent

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While spending two days in jail for trespassing to save life, I read Paul’s prison epistles. This helped me understand what I heard.

What I heard coming from the cells around me and above me was raunchy. Almost all the talk was dirty and harsh. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Which means that these men’s hearts were overflowing with filth and venom.

I sat there in cell 143 trying to figure out why the only form of discourse was nasty, harsh, lewd, and lecherous. Even in “friendly” conversation, the mood was mean-spirited. Why? And why was everything from wives to waffles labeled with four-letter words?

Of course this is habit now for most of these men—like saying “um” when you talk. But where did the habit come from? If a husband beats his wife nobody would be content with the explanation: “O that’s just a habit. It doesn’t mean anything.” This habitual filth begs for an answer.

Here’s one suggestion: there is a kind of macho ego-satisfaction that comes from pointless swearing and foul, sacrilegious talk. The thing that makes it macho is that offensive language feels assertive and virile. So if you are weak and insecure, one way to camouflage it is to pepper your conversation with social no-nos. Using verbal no-nos is like playing with switch-blades and brass knuckles. It feels tough and gutsy. It gives an insecure person a sense of swagger. It’s the verbal form of spiked hair and torn jeans.

Now why is there this bondage to braggadocio?

Interestingly, in Ephesians the alternative to “foul talk” is not “clean talk”, but talk that builds up and ministers grace to those who hear (4:29). Another name for that is love. And the alternative to “coarse joking” is not “clean joking” but thanksgiving (5:3-4). A spirit of thankfulness is so at odds with a spirit of coarse jesting that when one rises the other falls. And a spirit that yearns to edify is so at odds with foul talk that when one rises the other falls.

What hit me as I sat there and listened, was that the “foul talk” and the “coarse jesting” were a pitiful attempt to fill a void which God meant to be filled with gratitude to him and love to others.

Both of these vacancies relate to the bondage to braggadocio. Gratitude to God is a response to being cared for by a great God. It signifies that God is the source of our safety and meaning in life. It’s the mark of a secure, healthy, mature person. Bragging is excluded because our strength comes from God. Love for others is the overflow of God-given security for the good of others. It signifies that we have the resources to care about others because God cares about us. Bragging is excluded because our overflow comes from God.

The crying need at Hennepin County Correctional Facility is for God. You can hear it in every raunchy word. This is what Advent is about. “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

Pastor John