Your god is defecating! He’s gone for a sh*t!’ In our age of sanctimonious civility, no religious leader would dare to deploy this polemical barb in interfaith dialogue. The introduction to my column on Reformation Sunday, marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, is intended to shock; but it is the exact translation of the Hebrew from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. The right to offend, mock, and insult has now morphed into hate speech, especially when it comes to offending religions or religious people. Tell that to Martin Luther!
The great Protestant Reformer would down his tankard of Bavarian beer, burp rudely in your face, arch his rear-end sideways and let out a thunderous blast of flatulence, thus underlining his right to offend, mock and insult. Luther wasn’t defending his right to mock a minor bishop. He was flinging verbal javelins (and earthy insults) at the world’s most powerful and revered religious leader, His Holiness Pope Leo X.
‘Why would anyone tolerate such things from someone like you, a rotten paunch, crude ass and fart-ass?’ he writes in his work Against the Roman Papacy. ‘You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!’ he tells the Holy Father. Luther’s insults are legendary and Luther is an equal-opportunity insulter, making no distinction between pope and prince.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation marks the historic moment a German provocateur churns up high drama and nails his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther’s great skill is combining lowbrow offensive speech with highbrow intellectual argument. His rhetoric captures and convinces both the basket of deplorable peasants and the gallery of snooty princes.
Luther is a medieval Elijah, the Old Testament prophet-provocateur who doesn’t give a damn about the niceties of inter-faith dialogue in his contest with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah pokes fun at the god Baal and provokes the priests into a frenzied bout of self-harm. Yes sir, he does ask them if their god has gone to the toilet. And this is just one sound-bite of unholy mockery from the Holy Bible!
The right to free speech, even to offend and insult, is deep-rooted in biblical tradition. The prophet Isaiah delights in extensive diatribes of mockery aimed at idol-worshippers. ‘You blockheads take a block of wood and carve it into a god and fall down to worship it and the rest of the wood you chuck into the fire! Only a jerk would do that,’ says Isaiah, who combines the most sublime poetry with his coarse insults.
Jeremiah is worse. ‘You are like a wild ass sniffing the wind while in heat. Anyone looking for you will find you during your monthly period,’ he tells the recalcitrant Israelites. ‘Whore’ is a patent insult in the vocabulary of most of the biblical prophets. Most English translations find such language awfully embarrassing and substitute the offensive lingo with sanitised euphemisms.
Jesus makes it to the top of the charts when it comes to the Bible’s best insults. ‘Anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell,’ says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But a few chapters later, he’s calling the religious leaders blind fools, hypocrites, vipers, wolves in sheep’s clothing, white-washed tombs, telling his followers not to give dogs what is sacred or throw pearls to the swine, and calling King Herod a fox! Phew!
St Paul is no less acerbic in his letters. He warns the Philippians to ‘beware of dogs’ and goes on to tell them that everything is ‘sh*t’ compared with knowing Christ. Our idiom ‘suffer fools gladly’ comes from a passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, dripping with mockery and sarcasm. Citing a Cretan poet, Paul characterises the Cretans as ‘always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’.
Were there holy mockers in the church in between Paul and Luther? Plenty! A collection of polemic in the Latin Church Fathers from Tertullian to Augustine (Die Polemik in der christlichen lateinischen Literatur von Tertullian bis Augustin) contains a twenty-page index of Latin terms of abuse listing 1,400 offensive words.
In an age of ambiguity about hate speech, how do we define insult? Thomas Conley in his scholarly book Towards a Rhetoric of Insult defines it ‘as an expression of a severely negative opinion of a person or group in order to subvert their positive self-regard and esteem’. The power of insults was clearly demonstrated in the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, he notes.
Insults have rhetorical power. No wonder that the world’s most diverse rhetorical textbook – the Bible – abounds in abuse. A well-crafted insult can subvert the powerful, pompous, and pretentious in a manner where exclusively intellectual argument will not succeed. ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly,’ advises a biblical proverb. It also inverts the advice: ‘Answer a fool according to his folly.’
Those in the corridors of power – politicians, popes and prelates – are fair game. So is the cesspool of Hollywood and the ‘fake news’ media from the Babylonian Brainwashing Corporation to the New York Slimes or the Washington Compost. Left-wing academics and archbishops with their Ponzi-schemed pontificating and their sanctimonious blather of equal distribution of wealth and Marxian visions of utopia are terrific targets for columnists and cartoonists.
The virtue here is for the one speaking truth to power always to punch up and never punch down. Don’t insult or abuse or mock ordinary people who are going about their everyday lives. ‘A gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally,’ quipped Oscar Wilde.
Undoubtedly, insults traded among equals are the staple of humour. ‘I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a friend . . . if you have one,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. ‘Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second . . . if there is one,’ the sharp-tongued Churchill replied.
But free speech is threatened and the art of the insult is dying. Conley finds that the vocabulary of insult in our culture is quickly drying up. In an informal survey, he asks 28 students in his class to list ten insulting terms. Conley assumes the students will have a fertile vocabulary of at least 280 terms of insult. Lamentably, they come up with more or less the same dozen abusive words. Some of them cannot even come up with ten!
Compare that with the gushing abuse flowing from our greatest playwright. ‘A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue . . . nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.’ This is how Kent sums up another character in the second act of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Martin Luther would have gleefully plagiarised the whole compendium of Shakespearean insults and heaped them on the pope. I wonder what he would say in response to the torrent of verbal and theological cock-ups from Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby. My guess is that Luther would mine the Holy Scriptures for a ripe and fruity holy insult. ‘If God spoke through Balaam’s ass in the Old Testament, surely he can speak through Pope Francis or Archbishop Justin today!’ Herr Doktor Luther would say.