What do the Jehovah's Witnesses make of Serena Williams' cursing?

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Sept. 15 2009 6:18 PM

Serena Williams Swears to God

What do the Jehovah's Witnesses make of the tennis champion's tirade on the court?

Serena Williams. Click image to expand.
Serena Williams points her racquet at a U.S. Open line judge

After being called for a foot fault in her U.S. Open match against Kim Clijsters Saturday night, Serena Williams let loose on the line judge: "I swear to God, I'm [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that? I swear to God," she said. Williams, a practicing Jehovah's Witness who won't vote for religious reasons, got into trouble with the United States Tennis Association—she's been fined $10,000—but could she also be in trouble with her church? How do the Jehovah's Witnesses feel about cussing?

It's frowned upon. The Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian group that believes Armageddon is imminent, discourage members from any sort of foul language on the grounds that it's expressly forbidden in the Bible. When pop star Prince joined up in 2001, he told Gotham magazine that "when you use those [curse] words, you call up all the anger, all the negative times the word has been used before you bring it toward yourself. Why would you want that?"

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Serena Williams used two distinct forms of bad language in the course of her weekend tirade: taking the Lord's name in vain ("I swear to God") and plain old profanity ("[expletive]"). The first is a blatant violation of the commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."*  Awake!, a magazine published by Jehovah's Witnesses, also discourages the second. The Aug. 22, 1998, edition states: "In moments of high stress, blurting out a swear word may seem to help you to 'let off some steam.' Nevertheless, the Bible specifically condemns doing so." For biblical prohibitions on nontheological foul-mouthery, Jehovah's Witnesses point to Ephesians, in which the apostle Paul wrote, "Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth." He also counseled followers to abstain from "things which are not becoming," including "obscene jesting."

Cursing, then, is a sin among Jehovah's Witnesses, but it's a "nonjudicial" one—meaning it's not sufficiently grave to merit formal censure from Witness elders and cannot lead to "disfellowshipping" (expulsion from the congregation). Infractions for which you might be disfellowshipped include abortion, sexual abuse, adultery, heresy, and murder. The Sept. 8, 1989, edition of Awake! recommends that "if a fellow Christian lapses in his or her speech," the best corrective is "a kindly reminder—not a lecture." Habitual cussing, however, may warrant a talking-to from a fellow Witness or some kind of disciplinary action from family members.

Jehovah's Witnesses, of course, aren't alone in discouraging bad language. Other small, tight-knit Christian groups such as the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Brethren strongly disapprove of curses, particularly those involving the words Jesus or God. They recommend substitutes, like goodness for God. Among Catholics, cursing is generally considered a venial but not a mortal sin—so the foul-mouthed won't be automatically excluded from the kingdom of heaven.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bryce Hemmelgarn of the Watchtower Office of Public Information and Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College.Thanks also to reader Marquez Devera for asking the question.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2009: This article originally stated that "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" is the Second Commandment. That's true among Catholics and Lutherans, but other Christian sects, as well as Jews, refer to it as the third. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.