Casual swearing. Routine profanity. Mainstreamed irreverence. These curses of our age don’t seem to shock us like they used to. Ever since Rhett Butler first uttered the “D” word in Gone with the Wind in 1939, the entertainment industry has gone from bad to worse in its moral offensiveness. Every modern venue of entertainment, from comedy to movies to late-night talk shows, has been coarsened by vulgar, profane, and obscene language and behavior that have now become the rule rather than the exception.
From a spiritual point of view, however, the sustained erosion of moral standards in word and image always builds to one terrible apex: blasphemy, that habit of reviling God that the Second Commandment warns us about: “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
If you don’t believe that blasphemy has become an industry standard just watch the next R-rated movie to come out in the theaters. For that matter, click on any new Netflix series in the comfort of your living room and you will be amazed at how far we have fallen into the pit of verbal and visual offenses against God’s most holy Name. It’s simply awful.
I’m not a culture warrior but I am a fervent Christian, and I am seriously concerned about the power of pervasive blasphemy to deprive us of God’s blessing as a nation and as individuals. The second part of the Second Commandment is very clear about this: “For the Lord will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain.”
As I have noted elsewhere, I believe that the horrible Harvey Weinstein scandal of recent months is related more to his blasphemy than to his atrocious behavior – and that is saying quite a lot. The man has a track record of anti-Catholic movies that would make Satan proud – Priest, The Butcher Boy, Dogma, Sin City, just to name a few. He is now reaping the ugly fruits of his mockery of God and the Church.
What to do?
But here is the basic dilemma: What can any individual do about the spiritual filth of the entire entertainment industry? How can we hope to have any effect on such a huge juggernaut of blasphemy? The answer is simple: don’t look at the forest; look at the trees. Address blasphemy one soul at a time and leave the rest to God.
To be honest, I was not always such a zealous defender of the Lord’s sacred Name. I have always had negative internal reactions to blasphemy, but I don’t recall ever speaking out or expressing my displeasure to anyone in the face of it. Hating blasphemy is one thing; confronting the blasphemer is another. To gain that kind of moral courage I needed an example, and I was given one in a most unlikely place: Marine Corps boot camp.
During one of my summers in college I attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. My ‘tutor’ in ‘Second Commandment Defense’ was another candidate, a young man who showed me what a true Christian ought to do in the face of the persistent abuse of the sacred Name.
Fighting for God’s Honor
I remember him well. He was not an extremely adept Marine as far as military discipline goes, but he was impressive in a more important category. He was an evangelical Christian and he did not hide his faith under a bushel basket. His faith was real and mature. He spoke of Jesus openly and even asked some of those tough Marines if they were “saved” – in boot camp! I initially wrote him off as a fundamentalist, of the kind that used to knock on doors in my neighborhood. But I quickly learned to appreciate this man’s holy “fanaticism” when it came to showing love and respect for the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was willing to fight for God’s honor.
The moral courage that it took to defend Jesus’ holy Name was heightened in the harsh environment of basic training, especially since the main blasphemer in the camp was our very own drill instructor. This particular warrior was arguably the toughest of the hard-core types that fall into the dreaded category of Marine Corps drill sergeant. He was in every way the perfect Marine. He was the epitome of military discipline, with battle scars from Vietnam to enhance his credibility – as if his credibility needed any enhancing.
The Model Marine
Our platoon of impressionable twenty-year olds both feared and respected him. He had a godlike quality. He seemed to be present everywhere and at all times. There was no evidence that he ever slept or ate. He always knew everything that was going on. What’s more he could outrun, out-hike, out-shoot, out-anything his candidates could do, at any time of the day or night.
This man pushed us hard in physical training, hikes and bivouacs, obstacle courses, inspections, you name it. He was all over us, and we lived with a very real dread that he could make our lives miserable. He had everything the Marine Corps needed in a drill instructor, but there was one thing he didn’t have – a healthy fear of God.
The sergeant had a habit of regularly blaspheming the sacred Name of Jesus in front of all the candidates. No one would expect a Marine drill sergeant to use dainty language in executing his duties, but this man’s blasphemy was simply gratuitous. To be painfully precise: at any given moment, he would vehemently yell the full Name of Jesus Christ at us, but with a vile expletive inserted between the Names “Jesus” and Christ”.
The first time I heard this foul abuse I cringed with horror. It was pure sacrilege. It had a feel of military aggression to it, almost as if he reveled in offending God. Perhaps in his own mind it reinforced his godlike demeanor in that super-controlled environment where no dissent of the system or its overlords would be tolerated. He used the term constantly and relentlessly. While I hated hearing it, I didn’t feel I had any other choice than to put up with it. What was the lowest of the low men on the totem pole going to say to his drill sergeant in boot camp?
Thankfully, the true Christian in the platoon didn’t suffer from the same disease of moral cowardice. He didn’t react precipitously to the constant string of blasphemies hurled at us each day, but patiently endured it during the first two weeks of camp. Perhaps he was hoping that the blasphemy was just some passing negative behavior in a stressful environment. Or it may have just taken him time to get up the courage to confront the drill sergeant about the abusive language. But confront him he did. And the encounter was not pretty.
On a break one afternoon, I was going to the camp store when I happened to be walking by a tent at the precise moment in which my platoon mate was speaking to the drill sergeant about his blasphemous language. Apparently the candidate made an appointment in order to address the matter in private, a method that is perfectly in accord with the biblical rules for fraternal correction found in Matthew 18:15-20. Hearing their voices, I confess that curiosity got the best of me. I paused at the corner of the tent to eavesdrop. What I heard was astonishing.
The candidate used terms like “my Lord’s Name” and “God’s Commandment” a number of times. I heard him say he felt “insulted” by the constant use of the blasphemous phrase and that it was “not right.” He respectfully insisted that the formidable Marine not use that term any more when addressing the candidates.
The drill sergeant initially sounded stunned at being called to account by a lowly recruit. But then his shock turned to sarcasm as he tried to make it look like the candidate was a fanatic: “You’re in boot camp, Candidate! What do you want?” Well, he wanted the vile blasphemy to stop. But as the conversation drew to a close I wasn’t convinced that the candidate had won the Marine over and I thought it best to exit the area – quickly.
In the next day or two I was filled with foreboding that there would be “hell to pay” for that little encounter. Amazingly, there was not. The drill sergeant came out of the confrontation chastened but not furious, as I expected. If he was angry about the respectful rebuke, he didn’t show it overtly or take it out on anyone. No one but me knew about his chastening because the candidate had told no one.
The drill sergeant later made a few snide comments to the platoon that “Candidate So-and-So was hyper-sensitive to cursing”, but he was not aggressive about it. Chastened, yes; repentant – not so much. Yet, from that day forward, we never once heard the drill sergeant take the Lord’s Name in vain, even in the rough and stressful environment of Marine boot camp.
An example of moral courage
I fully acknowledge that the candidate was a better Marine than I – and a better Christian as well. He exhibited more military courage on the field of battle than I did even though I was one of the top performers of the platoon during those six weeks. But he also exercised moral courage when and where it was most needed. In the single most critical category of our relationship with God, he was the company honor man.
I never saw the candidate again, but his measured, zealous example of moral courage has stayed with me. Now every time I hear the Lord’s Name taken in vain a fighting spirit awakens in me.
Believe it or not, there is a lot we can do in the face of the blasphemy onslaught of our culture. Nowadays, if I hear blasphemous language in conversation around me, I immediately cross myself as a sign to the blasphemer that his or her words were noticed. If the blasphemy is more serious, I grimace and find some respectful way to show my displeasure.
There was even one time when I actually yelled at a man who used the drill sergeant’s atrocious term. I am still that horrified by that term. But I regret that I was not a model of courtesy in that instance. I guess that was just the Marine in me coming out. Boot camp taught me the value of shouting. Yelling tends to wake a person up and lets him know that something important is at stake – like his soul.
Be the Church Militant
I think I’ve mellowed over the years, though. I’m not at all averse to walking out of a movie when the offensive language goes beyond the pale. But now when I need to employ a gentle rebuke for a blaspheming neighbor – i.e., when the blasphemy is serious and persistent – I keep it courteous and on point. I have the vivid memory of a time when a true Christian man respectfully confronted a powerful blasphemer in a very harsh environment to draw on as a guide.
Perhaps if we all confronted blasphemy instead of just ignoring It, we might be able to eventually change the culture. We might even change it enough to affect the movies we see and the music we hear.
Whether it caused any permanent change in the heart of the drill sergeant I’ll never know. But the effect on the one Marine eavesdropping on a conversation that afternoon was literally life-changing.
This article originally appeared on Catholic Stand.