Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

Everyone knows this one, right?

Rev. Meg Barnhouse‘s lovely variation on the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and the first woman known to have written a book in English.

This is one of the songs, and links to a song, I keep in my back pocket for troubles, my own and others. It helps me. When I think I know when it will help a friend, I apply it to them gently. It seems to work; I don’t think it harms. It heals by virtue of being beautiful, in many different ways.

When I first encountered the next song, I’d passed through my first period of fascination with mystics and visionaries–Smart, Blake, Sor Juana, and St. John mostly*–so I didn’t see Julian of Norwich in it. Probably the authors didn’t either; I find the ways of the Spirit are even more mysterious to us atheists than to any believer. I was also far too hip to like anything Big On The Radio, and this whole record was big! Big! BIG!! It took my great and wasted friend Orlis to make me actually listen to the damned thing–on a cassette, no less, in a house stuffed with vinyl records–and discover it was really good. It took listening since him to see how it was great.

That video is a vision of The Beloved Community, or as my Christian friends call it, The Kingdom of God on Earth. How can we tell?

  1. It takes place in the big bad beautiful world, on a public street, not in a huddled group in a small sanctuary.
  2. Everyone is welcome, and it looks like they all showed up.
  3. The people in the parade look like the people lining the streets, just in different outfits.
  4. Every body is having a good time, and I do mean every body.

I’m sure there are more reasons, and you are welcome to provide them. Those jump out at me.

  1. It takes place in the big bad beautiful world: Look at where this happens. It’s on a public street. It rains. We see a plane fly over. This is a special occasion–a parade. Is it in honor of the woman in the middle back seat of the car Alanis Morissette is driving? Maybe. Or is it just an Occasion and she one of the many celebrating and being celebrated? Someone organized this parade. It didn’t just happen. It cost them time and money and effort. But they didn’t keep it to themselves! What good is that? They took their Joy into the streets.
  2. Everyone is welcome: Look at that crowd. It’s deliberately multi-racial and multi-cultural. There might be more women than men–there are a lot of both. We see drag queens and women with buzz-cuts–and there’s a buzz-cut woman kissing a man. A few suits and dresses, quite a few Outfits, Costumes and Uniforms, a lot of people just plain dressed or dressed plain, and two naked people running as people cheer. No one is being called out or chased away or chased down or criticized or critiqued. They just all strut their stuff and see everyone else strut theirs.
  3. The people in the parade look like the people lining the streets: This is not an Imperial Victory March or an Show Of Force. Even the cops are just riding their horses. This is members of this ordinary community doing Something Good for themselves, each other, and their neighbors. There’s one nice convertible with the top down and four people wearing cardboard taxis, one of which has LOVE scrawled on its trunk. All but two of them are dressed and quite a few are dressed up or dolled up. There are drag queens walking and nuns watching. A couple in a suit and dress run by laughing, trying to shield themselves from the rain.
  4. Every body is having a good time: Not just everybody, but every body. You don’t just see the happiness on the faces, but in the movement. Look from the kissing pair at 2:08 through the dancing pair at 2:16. Look at the sweep from the cops on horses at 2:22 to the puppet giving that toddler the Good Scare at 2:26. Look at the petite flagholder looking at us looking at her at 0:31 and the hefty baritone player at 0:36, who doesn’t even know we’re there.** Look at the drag queens at 0:37 to the two guys (a couple or not? I can’t read them) at 0:43. And if you can show me one person–just one person–not having a good time, please, go ahead and show me.

There is only one good reason not to use this video in a church service, and that is the word “chickenshit”. I know I don’t care for the visual pun on it, the one discordant note in the video. That’s the one thing wrong with this great song video.

Perhaps the video’s treatment of the word was justified at the time. But this is a new day, one in which we have a moral responsibility to bring the word “chickenshit” into polite discourse. We need that word, even more we need the word “bullshit”. Both words describe sicknesses that haunt our species and our century.

But we need “chickenshit”, badly. Why?

To kill another word, one which is useful but which is does way more harm than good, one I will only say once here: Pussy.

I ached to hear someone say that word against the current President, whose rank cowardice (and, I think, his self-awareness of his cowardice) drives so many of his actions.

Donald Trump faces justice.

There are totally convincing reasons for my not using the word, even against a bullying coward, and pretty good reasons for no one to use it. When I did finally see Samantha Bee say it, I felt relief but not the expected pleasure. It was more like moving my bowels: It had to be done, but it leaves you with a mess to clean up and a bad smell.

The damage its use does everyone isn’t worth the damage it does That Guy. I think Evil just might come out ahead on that exchange, if only by our lowering ourselves.

The word is tied up intimately with misogyny. The concept it represents is shaped by misogyny. We need a word, powerful and crude, to displace it, and to reshape that concept. Because the concept is good, less the misogyny.

It’s good to be steadfast, to be loyal, to practice solidarity, to say no to wrong orders, to stand up when told to sit down, to face the dogs and hoses, to serve time at Parchman Farm, to be brave, to be courageous, and to live a life that matters.

In other words, it’s good not to be a chickenshit.

That last–living a life that matters–that’s the other half of chickenshit, the part that makes it more than just chicken or scaredy-cat. This is the part with which I’d like to push out the misogyny: Triviality and meaninglessness. Being a chickenshit also means avoiding the things that really matter in life. It’s a private, personal aspect of cowardice. It’s something to emphasize in our understanding of the perils of being a chickenshit, and of the virtues of not being a chickenshit. We must move from the other word’s hard connotation of “unmanly” and move instead to something higher up the Maslow pyramid of human needs.

We won’t kill that other word–and I don’t propose to eradicate it. None of its other meanings, including the literal one from which the slur derives, are inherently harmful–with something polite. Human language needs pejorative and obscenity. We will only kill this obscenity by replacing it with a different, better obscenity.

So don’t be a chickenshit about this, okay?***

*I regret getting knocked out of studying Spanish just as I was beginning to speak it haltingly. It was my own hubristic fault, but I still wish it had been otherwise.
**Along with the censoring of the word “chickenshit”, the track for this video also has some extra guitars on it. I mention this because as I was listening to this over and over again, and I suspect the bass note at 0:37 is overdubbed or augmented with a single low horn note. But I could be wrong. If you know about it, I’d love to hear from you!
***Some other time, let’s talk about the use of hands in this video.

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