By Rev. Chris Andrews
Former Angola Warden Burl Cain has been much in the news of late. He recently resigned as head of the large prison that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River just a few miles north of Baton Rouge. Warden Cain’s leadership of the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is being judged in the forum of public opinion, some claiming that he was a very good corrections professional and others that he ran a private fiefdom for personal gain.
I don’t want to take a side in the debate about Warden Cain and his effectiveness or lack thereof. I have enjoyed a very casual relationship with Mr. Cain over the years and always found his folksy way of communicating enjoyable. I also came to respect that the warden did make a significant difference in lowering the violence of the prison. He attributes that accomplishment to the innovative faith-based programs he encouraged inside prison walls. Angola has several chapels on its grounds that inmates use for worship and study. The prison has developed a relationship with New Orleans Baptist Seminary and now has seminary graduates ministering to fellow prisoners.
Like him or not, Burl Cain changed the landscape at Angola and I think for the better. I once heard Warden Cain say that one of his rules for Angola inmates was that there could be no cursing in the prison. He explained that when you curse someone you dehumanize them and then it is a short step to committing physical violence on the person being cursed.
That comment has stayed with me. I think the Warden is correct. The language we use vis-à-vis others shapes how we see the other. Think of how adults often use terms like “precious,” “adorable,” “cute,” when talking about or to children. These are words that prompt physical acts of love like cuddling, hugging and kissing.
My father was a cursing person. And he was physically violent. His blows were launched with curses directed at my brother and me as though the curse gave excuse to hit. He never cursed my sisters and consequently he never hit them. If my brother and I were just little #X#X#, then he seemed to have permission to hit us.
Outrage is fueled by cursing. Cursing another person denigrates in such a way that hurting them becomes permissible.
Maybe Warden Cain, for all his imperfections, has given us an idea worth pondering. What happens to me when I curse someone? My humanity is cheapened and compromised. What happens to the object of the curse? They are rendered of less value because now instead of a name they wear a curse.
It may not be your habit to curse another person. Good for you! But for those who are of a mind to throw epithets around the lives of others that in effect gives them a new, and lower, status, I say: Stop. Don’t curse another person. Through your curses you demean them and compromise your own decency.
The first instruction God gave to humans, through the patriarch Abraham, was to bless others. It is impossible to bless what you curse.