Politics could use Luther’s advice: Sometimes we need to say, “eat s**t!”

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(RNS) This week, Martin Bashir resigned from MSNBC because of his rant against Sarah Palin for her comments equating of U.S. debt to China with slavery. Bashir said that someone should defecate in Palin’s mouth, just as some slave owners did to punish their slaves. Bashir apologized. Palin accepted his apology.  Now, Palin says, it is time to move on.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther. By Lucas Cranach [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bashir incident is just another case of our public discourse going down the toilet. But is this always a bad thing?

Back in the 16th Century, religious and political leaders including Martin Luther, Erasmus, and Thomas Moore insulted their opponents mercilessly. According to Indiana University’s Constance Furey, Luther viewed insults as part of the messiness of life on this side of Heaven. Slander may be a tool of the Devil, but people live in a world under the Devil’s control. So, leaders might as well use slander and insult to humble an enemy, revealing him as he really is.

Luther used earthy and crude language because he saw this language as accurate pictures of diabolical enemies. Heiko Oberman’s book on Luther includes a portion from one of Luther’s sermons in which he says the best way to address a slanderer is to fight s**t with even more s**t:

A slanderer does nothing but ruminate the filth of others with his own teeth and wallow like a pig with his nose in the dirt. That is also why his droppings stink most, surpassed only by the Devil’s. . . . And though man drops his excrements in private, the slanderer does not respect this privacy. He gluts on the pleasure of wallowing in it, and he does not deserve better according to God’s righteous judgment. When the slanderer whispers: Look how he has s**t on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it.

One of the best examples of Luther fighting someone scat for scat is his response to Simon Lemnius’ collection of satirical poems. Lemnius was a student at Wittenberg, where he was preparing for a career as a humanist scholar. In 1538, he published some poems in the form of Roman epigrams–short satirical verses that often used colorful insults. Lemnius aimed his epigrams at Luther and other leaders in Wittenberg. Luther, who was fluent in Latin, was not amused (it didn’t help that Lemnius supported an archbishop that Luther called the “s**t-bishop”). Lemnius was arrested, but the next day he escaped and fled the city.

Later that year, Lemnius published a larger set of invective epigrams, including one that insulted Luther as being so full of dung that it was pouring out of him from both ends. The poem features lines such as,

While you call others s**tters, you become the real s**tter
and you yourself become rich with your s**t. 

To be clear: the Latin in the original poem refers to “s**t,” not “excrement,” “dung,” or some other euphemism. In this genre, obscenity is intentionally used for dramatic effect.

Luther responded with his own verse (also in Latin) that included even more obscenities . Carl P. E. Springer calls Luther’s response “something of a scatological tour de force”:

How well your verses and their content suit you, little Leminus!
Your content is s**t; your verses are s**t
Little shitty Leminus was worthy of a poem of s**t,
for nothing but s**t is fitting for a poet of s**t,
O, unhappy the prince, whom you praise with a poem of s**t,
whom you yourself befoul with your s**t.
You try to press s**t from your bowels, and would gladly have a huge s**t,
but you produce nothing, O poet of s**t.
But if a penalty worthy of your deserts follows you,
you will be a miserable corpse, s**t for the crows. 

Martin Bashir is no Martin Luther. Bashir did go to far.  Still, maybe Bashir, Palin, and the rest of us could learn a thing from Luther. Life is messy. Politics is even messier. Treating everyone with the right protocols may be polite, but it may also be dishonest. Some politicians and pundits are peddling poop. Maybe it’s time we let people speak out when when someone is full of it–especially if they could do it in Latin verse.

Note: Poems by Luther and Leminus were translated by Carl P. E. Springer. Springer discusses these works in his article, “Luther’s Latin Poetry and Scatology,” in a 2009 issue of Lutheran Quarterly. I also thank Yasuko Taoka, who picked up Springer’s paper at a conference because she thought I would like it. I don’t know what that says about me, but she was right.

The poems in the post are not easily accessible online.  Here are the texts from Springer.

1) The original Luther poem, Dysenteria Martini Lutheri (Martin Luther’s Dysentery) in the original Latin:

Quam bene conveniunt tibi res et carmina, Lemchen!
Merda tibi res est, carmina merda tibi.
Dignus erat Lemchen merdosus carmine merdae,
Nam vatem merdae nil nisi merda decet.
Infelix princeps, quem laudas carmine merdae!
Merdosum merda quem facis ipse tua.
Ventre urges merdam vellesque cacare libenter
Ingentem, facis at, merdipoeta, nihil.
At meritis si digna tuis te poena sequatur,
Tu miserum corvis merda cadaver eris.

2) Leminus’ poem, Against M. Luther, first in Latin and then in Springer’s translation:

Ipse dysenteriam pateris clamasque cacando,
Quamque aliis optas, evenit illa tibi.
Dumque cacatores clamas, tu nempe cacator
Factus es, et merda dives es ipse tua.
Ante tibi rabies distorta resolverat ora,
Et solvit culus iam tibi ventris onus.
Noluit haec tantum rabies e faucibus ire;
Nunc etiam natibus profluit illa tuis.
Non poterat fundi pestis tibi tanta labellis;
Unde tamen rumpat, repperit illa viam.
Sed puto, rumpetur citius tibi venter et exta,
Exeat e culo quam tibi tanta lues

You yourself suffer from diarrhea and cry out when shitting
and what you wish for others happens to you.
While you call others shitters, you become
the real shitter and become rich with your own shit.
Before, fury had loosed your distorted mouth,
and now your ass releases the load of your stomach.
This fury did not want to come out of your throat only,
now it also spurts forth from your behind.
Such an affliction could not be handled by the lips alone;
nonetheless it found a way where it could burst forth.
But I think that your stomach and intestines will burst
sooner than such a great flood of bilgewater could come out your ass.

  • Great post, Tobin. But in an apologia for excremental invective, do we have to use the shitty orthographic euphemism s**t?

  • I was trying to follow AP style. I agree. Especially in this case, it can be distracting.

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  • Roy

    This is not a Martin Luther we want anyone in modern American politics to emulate. This is an intolerant man who imprisoned anyone who dissented. His love of feces laden invective was not confined to the Catholic Lemnius, or Albert of Mainz, but extended to other protestant theologians, unruly peasants, and Jews.

    I think we can all honestly hope that our media and politicians do not share the rhetoric of the Wars of the Reformation.

  • Gerig

    I find it quite curious when supposed well-established facts about historical figures appear decades, and even centuries after their deaths, with only a very minute and select number of people knowing about the presented information. To be sure, there are well-documented points of Luther being base and crude, but how is it these almost incoherent babblings – which read more like an overly excited child that has just learned to curse getting caught up in a heated “cuss-fight” – how have they been hidden away until Oberman’s only recent revelation? In what academic circle would citing of a work be accepted, only to be told that access by others to the work is essentially impossible? Let us see proper documentation, rather than supposing we bite hook, line and sinker, simply because someone has said so in their book.

    But whether Luther actually spoke such drivel is secondary. Let us assume he did; but, still, the more important issues is what is proper and civil for a person of today; and fortunately, in spite of what seems to be a downward spiral, there is still a level of civility and decorum that is followed by some. I question how it is that there is a lesson here for Governor Palin, who was attacked for a metaphor that is commonly used by both liberals and conservatives. While Palin noted the double standard of Bashir and MSNBC, I don’t recall her ever demanding disciplinary action against him.

    And to confuse the act of one being polite or civil with one being dishonest is totally absurd. Psychiatric wards are filled with people who speak every thought that comes into their head – at times even fully aware that what they are doing is wrong. Is that the standard by which we should now live? Should we then tell a mother just how ugly her baby is, simply so we can walk away knowing we have been honest?

    One of the opening sentences of the article may speak more on this entire discussion than perhaps Mr. Grant intended. He states that Bashir’s excursion into fecalphilia was based on the fact that his suggestion mirrored, “just as SOME slave owners did to punish their slaves.” Bashir’s comment was about ONE slave owner – a singularly purported incident – not a common and every day occurrence. Mr. Grant is joining those who over-amplify the situation, making it seem to be that a single reference, or a single event, somehow establishes the norm.

    I won’t be so crude as either Luther or Bashir, but suffice it to say, if my printer could handle the soft and pampering paper I am accustomed to for personal cleaning, I would print Tobin Grant’s article and put it to a good and proper use.

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