Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Growing up Catholic, I knew whenever I heard my mom call the names of the Holy Family in order--"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph" or just plain "Jesus Christ"--it was time to duck and run. She was mad.

While those expressions disappeared from our house for the most part when we became Evangelicals (they tend to frown on such expression), they are still very familiar.

So when the Chicago Tribune quoted Chicago alderman Richard Mell using "Jesus Christ" as a curse word in an article about his relationship with his daughter Deborah, who is lesbian, it sounded perfectly natural. I don't know if he's Catholic, but he sounds like the Polish, New England Catholics in my family.

The article got a lot of attention, in part because of Mell's colorful "take no prisoners attitude" as the Trib put it, and the fact that his son-in-law is Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

Here's a few of Mell's quips:

On parents who won't accept the homosexuality of their children: "I'd like to slap the bastards. I'd like to give 'em a slap. Pleeese. Come on! If your child comes to you and tells you this and you really have a problem with it and it becomes a real issue, you really don't deserve to call yourself a parent. "

Mell says his "main reason" for his new activism is to show that a gay child or sibling or relative "does not
affect a loving family whatsoever."

And then this one:

On legalizing gay marriage: "Jesus Christ. I mean, give me a break! I mean what is the big thing here? I mean, is this going to be Sodom and Gomorrah? Jesus Christ. Half the marriages end up in divorce right now. Half the . . . people who are beating the hell out of their wives are good heterosexual married people. I mean give me a break!"

His use of "Jesus Christ" prompted a number of complaints and this response from public editor Don Wycliff, entitled "Should the Tribune have cleaned up Ald. Mell's language?"

A typical letter came from Carl Edstrom, a retired missionary (a Covenant missionary, someone from my tribe of Christians). Wycliff quoted Edstrom's letter in his piece.

Jesus Christ is my Lord, my savior, my best friend," wrote Carl Edstrom, an 85-year-old former missionary who now lives in Northbrook. "Ald. Mell can say what he wants to, but you don't have to put it in the Tribune."

Edstrom apparently "described Mell's use of the name 'Jesus Christ' as 'profanity in its purest sense.' "

Wycliff, who does an excellent job as public editor, described the process the Trib use to decided whether
or not "Jesus Christ" would stay. The Trib stylebook does apparently limit the use of "Obscenities,
profanities and vulgarities should not appear in the Tribune unless they are part of direct quotations, whether from spoken or written sources, and there is a compelling reason for using them"

There are always exceptions to this rule.

In the case of the Mell story, it made its way up the line to James Warren, deputy managing editor for features, who approved the excision of a great many of the alderman's other profanities, but decided that the two "Jesus Christ" exclamations could stay.

"I thought," James Warren said in an e-mail exchange with Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski and me, "it was important in conveying an accurate sense of the man and was being used by him not as an expletive but as emphasis to underscore his passion toward his daughter."

Wyclff then quotes a Rev. Gary Riebe-Estrella, who explains how many American's use "Jesus Christ" as "exclamation."

"When most people use 'Jesus Christ' in this way, said Rev. Gary Riebe-Estrella, vice president and academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, "they're not thinking about Jesus Christ as a person."

I found the piece interesting, but rethought it after talking to one of my colleagues, who has one of the sharpest editorial minds I know.

Here's her take--the Trib editor's decision to take out obscenities (presumable the F-word, the S-word, the AH-word, and others) left something even worse in the piece--blasphemy. Edstrom's point was not that the use of "Jesus Christ" was offensive as an obscenity, but that it was profane--that it mocked something sacred.

In the end, maybe it's not the vulgarities--not the "sh#ts" or "f%#ks" or even Janet Jackson's breast that will do us in. Maybe it's the loss of respect for the sacred. While there has been all kinds of outcry about "obscenity" on TV and radio and other media, something more important has been missed.


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