I once worked with a delightful if earnest young man from a strict Calvinist background who lived his faith in a manner that often did me shame. He saw the entire world through the prism of Christianity, and while this sometimes irritated an old cynic like me, it could also be downright inspiring. He took the Ten Commandments very seriously indeed, but when it came to the third — not taking God’s name in vain — he could be a little pedantic. Which is a kind way of saying he was obsessive. He would twist and reshape the language to avoid using “God” in any form that might be even tentatively disrespectful.
I can’t help thinking that this is not what we’re being warned about in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, where the commandments are listed. Obviously the third commandment is about respect and reverence for God, but language is a means and not an end. In other words, how we communicate does matter, but how we act matters so much more. Expletives are regrettable; evil is inexcusable.
So, for example, we have countless conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals using God’s name to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. From denying equality to refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, the Christian right seems to view excluding the queer community in the name of God as a virtual sacrament.
Then there are zealots holding banners and placards outside abortion clinics. These men and women repeatedly and aggressively take God’s name in vain as they shout and try to shame and humiliate the women walking past who have just made one of the hardest decisions of their lives.
Or we have the appalling exploitation of God’s name when opponents of any form of assisted dying insist that those in agony and despair have no right to decide the time and means of their passing because God is opposed to this.
Invasions of other countries, forced conversions and even ethnic cleansing — all manner of atrocities have been committed in the name of the Lord.
Pretending that climate change isn’t real, while claiming all such concerns are pagan and God is in command, endangers not only our ecosystem but our very survival on this planet.
Proclaiming unbridled capitalism as “God’s will” and rejecting social democracy as “un-Christian”; persecuting religious minorities and restricting freedoms — all are defended in the name of the Almighty.
These, all of these, are the taking of God’s name in vain. God is love, and while a moral code is vital and Christ’s teachings do not lack judgment, we diminish the greatness and goodness of the Creator if we think that using God’s name in a meaningless phrase is what this is really all about.
In the name of God, we have to do better. God help us, we have failed. For God’s sake, we need to get it right in the future. And, oh my God, what the hell is wrong with Christianity when it doesn’t see this? So I’m probably damned, but so be it.
This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “To the point: A Christian critique of current affairs.”