Some words are not to be used in “polite company,” our parents told us. But Christians know we are always in Polite Company.

All that I ever really needed to know about uncivil language I learned in the fifth grade.

At a small, Dutch Calvinist school in a New Jersey city, I was playing with other students just before classes started. Some black kids came by on their way to the public school. One thing led to another, and soon our two groups were yelling insults at each other. One of the black students tossed a rock, and it grazed my head. I was livid. I spat out the “N” word and ran back to school.

This was the early 1950s, and we weren’t thinking much about civil rights in those days. But the young stone thrower must have sensed that he had a case to make: He marched straight to my school and reported my verbal behavior to the principal.

Soon the principal and I were facing each other alone in his office. Mr. Dykstra told me how disappointed he was with me. I began to cry: “But he threw a stone at me! He hit me with it.”

Mr. Dykstra’s response was kind but firm. “Yes, he shouldn’t have done that. But Richard, you have done something much worse. He tried to harm your body. You responded by trying to harm his soul. God is much more saddened by what you did to that young man than by what he did to you.”

Mr. Dykstra’s preferred means of punishment was to assign “lines”—writing a prescribed resolution such as “Never again will I chew bubble gum in class” 50 or 100 times. In the more serious cases, the miscreant had to have the final product signed by a parent.

My punishment for saying the “N” word established a new record for “lines” writing at school. I had to copy the Ten Commandments 100 times—with parental signature required.

As ...

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