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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Swearing

Jesus couldn’t tolerate the unjust practices of Herod, nor could he remain a silent spectator to all the injustices Herod had been doing. Instead, at that very moment he swears against Herod with an f-word.

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ “

Luke 13:31–35 (NRSV)

In Luke 13:31-35, we notice Jesus using two contrasting animal metaphors: one, upon hearing that Herod was plotting to kill him, Jesus boldly calls Herod a fox; and two, Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen who has desired to gather the children of Jerusalem, a city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. In the context of war and killings in Ukraine, Jesus’ words remind us of his political gospel, where perpetrators of violence are “foxes,” and Jesus is the protective “mother hen.”

While Amy Allen and Mark Davis – in their reflections on Luke 13 in the Politics of Scripture –  have emphasised the politics of place and the dangerous city, my reflection is on the politics of the image of the fox. From the image of the fox in this text, I want to explore the politics of swearing and seek its relevance for our times today.

Jesus ends a long series of parables in Luke 13 in verse 30 with the phrase “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus to advise him to flee, as Herod was plotting to kill him. Notably, the Pharisees could have easily interpreted Jesus’ statement to mean that they were “the first” who would lose their position, switching places with the least and the lost of the community. The Pharisees couldn’t take such a dig at their own positions, which may have prompted the warning they brought to Jesus “at that very hour.”

Jesus, when he heard such a death threat and warning from the Pharisees, did not run away to save his life, but rather spoke back to Pharisees, saying:

“Go and tell that fox for me, Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” (verses 32-33)

In that reply, I recognise the spiritual gift of swearing in Jesus, for Jesus was bold in speaking truth to the power and was courageous in calling a spade a spade without mincing words. Swearing – as I understand it – means the kind of words someone uses when they are in anger. Jesus elsewhere swears at the Pharisees by calling them “whitewashed tombs,” when he was exposing the hypocrisy of the teachers of law (Matt 23:27).

The news about the beheading of John the Baptiser by Herod Antipas had already spread in Jesus’ public sphere. As a tetrarch of the Judean region, Herod colluded and connived with both the Roman empire and the religious leaders of the temple, creating a sense of fear among the population. Herod did this to assert his power and authority over the region. Any who spoke against him or against his policies were bound to death, as John the Baptiser was. Despite the fear that Herod cast on his people, Jesus couldn’t tolerate the unjust practices of Herod, nor could he remain a silent spectator to all the injustices Herod had been doing. Instead, at that very moment he swears against Herod with an f-word: “that fox.” When Jesus uttered this f-word, the first-century audience of Luke’s gospel who lived under the oppressive empire and unjust kings were able to relate to the tone and tenor of Jesus’ message against Herod. I will come back to the spirituality of swearing in a moment, but let me first discuss why Jesus chose “fox” as his swear word against Herod.

In the rabbinic literature the fox represents inferiority and lowliness, compared to symbols of power such as the lion. When Jesus was swearing against Herod as “that fox,” Jesus was exposing the weakness of this so-called “powerful” king.

Secondly, to the ears of the religious leaders, the Pharisees, Jesus’ use of the swear word “that fox” reminded them of the notion of uncleanliness, as the image of a fox hunting in the wilderness with its mouth wet with blood would have offended their religious sensibilities. So, by using the phrase “that fox,” Jesus not only expresses great displeasure against Herod, but also expresses his anger at Herod, especially at the blood on his hands for killing people like John the Baptiser.

Thirdly, the fox represents craftiness, and when Jesus used “that fox” as his swear word against Herod, he was expressing his disappointment at the devious and cunning ways Herod used to achieve his selfish political goals.

Finally, it was Herod the Great (the father of Herod Antipas) who was responsible for the slaughter of the innocents under the age of two when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Jesus may have taken this occasion to express his righteous anger at both Herod Antipas and his father and the ways that they acted as foxes, preying on innocent chickens. Perhaps that could be the reason Jesus offers to be a “mother hen” gathering and protecting the chicks under her wings, when he speaks about the people in Jerusalem in verse 34.

In short, to express anger against the unjust Herod, to demean the power Herod thinks he holds, to expose the weakness and craftiness of Herod, to express his disappointment on Herod’s collusion with empire and temple, to hold Herod accountable for the blood on his hands, and to speak truth to Herod – for all of these reasons: Jesus swears at Herod by calling him “that fox.” By the way, I don’t think Jesus was demonising foxes as he used this f-word to swear, for if that was the case, he would not have mentioned elsewhere that “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay down his head” (Matt 8:20).

Jesus tells the Pharisees to go and tell “that fox,” Herod, that no powers can stop Jesus from continuing his mission to cast out demons. Jesus re-emphasises that he has come to exorcise the structural and unjust demons of his times and offers his mission as contestation against the systemic injustices in his context.

I see a spirituality in Jesus’ swearing against King Herod, for his intolerance of Herod’s injustices led him to vocalise and verbalise his anger against Herod by calling him “that fox.” David Hayward, also known as the Naked Pastor, has drawn cartoons expressing swearing as a spiritual gift, and has written 10 spiritual benefits of swearing. Among those benefits, Hayward mentions that “swearing gives you a sense of empowerment,” and “it can help you get in touch with raw emotions that have been suppressed under religiously scrupulous observation. It just feels good.” For Jesus, expressing his anger against Herod by calling him “that fox” empowered him: as a prophet who speaks God’s justice in the world, Jesus was bold in discounting the power of Herod, something he could only do by the empowerment of the divine spirit in him. The spirit of God gives us courage to contest the unjust practices of power-holding people.

Jesus did not try to pretend to sanitise his words for the sake of the religious world around him. This is what I call spirituality, where you can be your natural self, letting out your anger against injustice, expressing your intolerance against unjust practices without any pretense and verbalising your righteous anger against the person who exploits the innocent and kills those who speak against the powers. A spirituality of swearing lies in finding meaning and value in the so-called “irreverent.” Nadia Bolz Weber explains boldly that she seriously loves Jesus and she does swear a little, by which she navigates a deeper spirituality of her faith in Jesus Christ for herself and for folks out there who are comforted by ambiguity and who need a word of Grace which “is not covered in a strawberry syrup.”

It is also interesting to note that in my Dalit context, swearing comes as a natural response against unjust caste oppression. Swearing serves as an act of defiance for Dalits against the systemic violence and discrimination perpetuated by the caste system. For Dalits, swearing is usually done in the vernacular, and its usage carries a strong connotation of Dalit socio-economic grouping and culture. So, when I hear Jesus swearing against Herod, I hear it in the vernacular, and could relate to the f-word “fox” Jesus used with the socio-cultural worldview of the occupied people under the empire.

So, what is missional about the politics of swearing? Are not spirituality and swearing opposite to one another? Unfortunately, we live in a world where faith is expected to be sanitised, with nothing offensive about its language or theology. Jesus, on the other hand, was always defiant to the religiosity of his time by being truthful to himself and vocalising his righteous anger against injustice. The calling for those who would identify themselves as Jesus’ followers today is to nurture this righteous anger against the injustices of our times, be they racism, misogyny, patriarchy, casteism, violence, capitalism, war, poverty, or any other system of injustice and oppression. Righteous anger should be part of a Christian spirituality. Contestation of injustice should be the mission of churches today.

Tuhina Verma Rasche and Jason Chesnut couldn’t stop the killings of Black people in the US.They were infuriated by the unjust violence meted on Black people, and they were infuriated against the ongoing white supremacy in their context. Out of their communal lament and anger they designed an Advent devotional course in 2016 titled, #FuckThisShit. They write,

We are not using #FuckThisShit to be edgy or radical. We are not using this to be ‘cool’. We are using these words because they are troubling. They are unsettling. They are being used to move us from places of complacency. If anything, we are using these words to reflect a deep sense of heartbreak and yearning to be in restored relationship with one another, and to be in restored relationship with God. We are using these words to call out for Christ to come again in a world where we… see continual modern-day lynching of Black bodies, experience the vitriol of hate of white supremacy… and deal with the yearnings and brokenness within our own bodies and souls.

Perhaps the politics of swearing is relevant today because, on the one hand, we are called to seek a spirituality in the so-called “irreverent,” and on the other hand, they express our deep yearning to restore our relationship with God and with one another.

In this season of Lent, we are called to unmask ourselves from all kinds of niceness, religiosity, and pretentiousness, and to inculcate righteous anger against the injustices in our localities. Perhaps the often-quoted words of Bonhoeffer reverberate again in our contexts today: “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” So, let’s get angry at the war waged against innocent people. Let’s speak out in righteous anger to end the war, and let’s strive for a peaceful and just world today. 

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