Many years ago Rollo May examined a connection between obscenity and violence. In Power and Innocence, he argued that violence progresses through several other mediums before it erupts in physical force. One of these mediums is language. The disintegration of the meaning of words is a step on the pathway to violence.
There is a halfway stage in the disintegration of words. This is obscenity. It gets its power from the using of words to do violence to our unconscious expectations, to destroy our mooring posts, and to undercut the forms of relationship we are used to. The words threaten us with the insecurity of formlessness. Obscenity expresses what had previously been prohibited, reveals what previously was not revealed. Thus it insists on and gets our attention. 
According to May, obscenity is a form of “psychic violence”, causing words to lose their “holy character”. Behind this insight that obscenity is a stepping stone toward violence is an even more important relationship – the connection between obscenity and truth.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines obscene as “highly offensive, morally repugnant from Latin meaning ill-omened, abominable”. We usually understand obscene as sexually indecent or lewd. But sexual obscenity is only one form of a much wider application. Would we call movies which graphically display physical aggression, dismemberment and torture obscene? If we accept May’s insight, we must conclude that all physical violence is in some sense obscene. We could apply this broader definition to historical and political situations. Were Hitler’s concentration camp exterminations obscene? Are the repressions in Serbia obscene? The answer must be YES to these questions. Obscenity is a representation which offends or morally degrades some acceptable social standard no matter what realm that standard happens to occupy. Both Terminator and Auschwitz are obscene even though one is a celluloid dream and the other an oven nightmare.
We are afloat on a sea of lobotomized orifices manufacturing mechanical copulations. We are constantly lured into self-victimizing savagery. Sex and violence are easily recognized borderlines constantly crossed in order to create conscience confrontation. Reflection on these border violations shows us that the necessary affront needed to produce the lure and power of obscenity goes through a constant tolerance curve. Like addictions, each subsequent exposure requires a higher level of intensity to reproduce the required result. Sexual borders are pushed toward sexual abuse of children, necrophilia, bestiality and other behaviors. Ordinary sex is just too “ordinary” to command our attention. The obscenity of violence cannot be satisfied with killing. We are coaxed to witness cannibalism, torture, and global dehumanization. It is not that these perversions have not been part of civilization in the past. It is rather that they are now paraded before us for the express purpose of causing reaction. We were willing to ignore the hidden. We are threatened to find that it is now revealed. And, of course, that threat also provides a lure. What is obscene has become a judgment based on the intent of the perpetrator. No wonder the legal system has so much trouble with the concept. It is a question of the disintegration of meanings.
The gray line – that’s the problem with all of this. Today’s affront to the expected standard may be tomorrow’s commonplace practice. The borders we erect around our standards are yielding because we have detached them from Truth. We are pluralists, believing that each one has a “right” to his own view, finding no where to draw a line in black. Benjamin Franklin said that all cats are gray in the dark. Since we have turned off the lights, it is difficult to see how we can now distinguish one shade of gray from another.
So we’re stuck. One the one hand, we want to maintain some standard of decency, fair play, human compassion and respect for life. On the other hand, we seem to lack any firm ground on which to base such standards. Every time we draw another gray line, our fellow conspirators find ways to make it wobble. Every time we cry out in rage at the affront to our expectations, we find other human mouths shouting victory over repressions. In the quicksand of ethics, we sink together toward some lowest common denominator.
The most amazing insight about our current dilemma with malleable morals is that it has occurred precisely because we rejected the rigidity of Truth. What we needed in order to draw black lines for humanness, compassion and justice was solid ground. But when the solid ground confronted us, we refused it because its presentation affronted our current wobbly standards. Logic turned upside down. The Truth itself appeared obscene because the standards we used to judge it were already corrupt and malleable.
Why did we refuse the very thing we needed? How could such a rejection occur? In its simplest terms, the answer is sin. Why can’t we seem to stop the constant onslaught of obscenities? Because ultimately we ourselves are obscene. We, the ones who are affronted, are the offenders. The irony of obscenity is that it is both repulsive and attractive. As much as it offends, it also draws us toward the darkness. It whispers the power of the forbidden. This attraction is the core of our problem. The external obscenities we decry are mirror reflections of the internal desires we hide. The truth is that we love violence, we love sexual advantage, we love power. Who among us has not taken advantage of an opportunity for gain at another’s expense? Who among us has not lusted for another’s body? Who among us has not wished to harm or destroy another? Who among us is a stranger to revenge? Our efforts to control obscenity fail because obscenity reflects something about our inner selves. It demands our attention because we identify with its border breaking power. We want to be the sex star, idolized in every glance. We want to be the Terminator, forcing others to our will. We want to be the sports hero, the billionaire, the President. We want to be a god.
Jesus confronted every one of us as the pluralists we are when he challenged the Pharisees to examine their inner character. If we will admit it, we know a great deal about whitened sepulchers. We know what it means to carry a banner of morality on our arm but a motive of deceit in our hearts. It doesn’t take much introspection to reveal the malice in our actions, the self serving purpose in our manipulated manners. Jesus increased his affront when he suggested that murder was a state of rage in my heart, that adultery was a sexual act in my mind, that revenge was a commitment of my will to usurp God’s authority. One reason for Jesus’ crucifixion was that he revealed the obscenities of the moral majority. That is the problem with the Truth. It shows the counterfeit for what it is.
Jesus’ message was not obscene to the destitute, the disenfranchised, the morally corrupt and the socially ostracized. He said that he came to bring liberty and hope to social outcasts, prostitutes, the diseased and disabled. His expression of God’s love for these human beings was received with gladness because they were living examples of the socially obscene. The lepers knew what it meant to be obscene because of their bodies. The tax collectors knew what it meant to be obscene because of their loyalties, the whores because of their profession. That Jesus even associated with these border people made the moral majority suspicious. That he pronounced God’s blessing upon them made him scandalous. That he proclaimed God’s forgiveness for those who were considered obscene made him worthy of execution. The moral majority would not abide such affronts to their status quo ethics. The truth was repulsive in a way that no lie could have even been.
In the New Testament, the Greek words for this phenomenon are proskomma and skandalon. They convey the picture of a trap, a lure which causes one to fall into sin. This seems backwards. We can understand how Jesus’ actions would be an offense, but how can the New Testament proclaim that Jesus is a lure or trap which causes men to fall into sin? The New Testament writers saw that Jesus represented an obscenity to every standard of man without God. Jesus claimed to be God. Yet everything about him upset every expectation of who God should be. Jesus came to the world as a dependent infant born to poor, ignominious parents in a backward, occupied country. Scandal surrounded his conception and birth. When he began his ministry, he refused the populist political emphasis. He portrayed God as a suffering servant, not a powerful ruler. He demonstrated humility, not authority. He lived with the socially disgraced and ostracized, not the accepted and the powerful. He preached love for enemies, not revenge. He taught man’s utter dependence, not self actualization. He accepted degradation, not plaudits and praise.
Most offensive of all, he claimed that God is to be found on the cross. The cross, a sign to the Jews of God’s curse, a symbol of complete weakness to the Gentiles, became the greatest obscenity of all. The cross invalidated all human wisdom, removed all human cooperation, negated all human effort. The cross affronted the very nature of man because it revealed how far from godliness we had come. When human hands nailed Jesus to the cross, they confirmed the obscenity of God. In the process of killing Jesus, human beings stumbled over this symbol of love. Each one of us was there that day, denying the God could be anything except what we would allow Him to be. Each one of us fell over this affront to our expectations. The truth that God is not like us was a slap in the face we could not abide. We refused to believe our delusions of divinity were wrong. The truth of God on the cross exposed all of our sinful rebellion. It trapped us, revealing who we really are.
Jesus came to those whose lives could not be covered up. He came to those who were already unmasked in their obscenity because the message of forgiveness can be heard only by those whose ears are already attuned to shame. The Gospel is really for the obscene.
The power of Truth is to unmask the counterfeit. Truth affronts what is false and convicts those who practice falsehood. But from the perspective of the counterfeit, Truth must be obscene. When Jesus proclaimed God’s love for those who were on the wrong side of the border, he said something obscene to the “beautiful people”. He said that the purpose of having is to give, that the purpose of power is to serve, that the purpose of living is to die. He said that God’s way is not our way. He said that God wants humility; we want heroes. God wants weakness; we want strength. God wants submission; we want glorification. God wants contrition; we want pride. God wants repentance; we want rewards. God wants servants; we want status. God wants listeners: we want orators. God wants promises; we want patronizing. God wants meekness; we want admiration. God wants gentleness; we want power. God wants mercy; we want advantage. God wants purity; we want platitudes. God wants righteousness; we want to be proven right. God wants quiet accomplishments; we want publicity. God wants emptiness, we want to fill ourselves up.
The irony of the Gospel is that the revelation of God’s Truth is obscene to all unrighteousness. God’s way of doing things affronts all of our standards. God does not chose the powerful, the successful, the religious to accomplish His purposes. He deliberately invites the maimed, the outcast and the ignominious to His celebration feast. Why should God do such an unthinkable thing? Because He knows that those who are experiencing the obscenities of life now are ready to accept the Gospel message for what it is – a gift of new beginnings. The moral majority, the powerful, the successful are not prepared to begin again. They have a vested interest in the present. They want things to remain just as they are. They want the hidden obscenities upon which they build their identities to continue.
God has come to us with a confrontational message – that the direction of our standards is completely wrong headed. Our way of thinking points us away from respect for life, human fulfillment and love. It points us away not because humanitarian efforts are inappropriate nor because concern for others is ill conceived, but because our standards are built on the sand of self. No matter how altruistic we may think we are, God’s message is that without His backing and His direction, all of our righteousness is really obscene. God is holy. We are the ones who have affronted Him. Our very existence is a moral insult to His holiness for we are constantly compromising unselfish love with self fulfilling desires.
When Jesus suggested that those who know they are on the outside are closer to the Truth than those who think they are inside, he affronted every human effort to be good. Goodness cannot be earned, he said, because the motive of earning favor is anathema to God. We want to bring something to the table in order to bargain our reward. We want advantage. We want it our way. That is the essence of sin, no matter what moral trapping we put around it. The truth is that God could not be pacified, that God could not be compromised, that God could not be ignored. God will judge. But God will also forgive – not those who attempt to stand on their own merit, not those who believe that their standards will be good enough. God will forgive those who recognize that they are truly obscene, morally undone, and that nothing that they can do will ever erase their obscenity. Finally, Jesus revealed that hardest Truth of all, that He and He alone is the only one who can bring us into a peaceful relationship with the Father.
Rollo May was right. Obscenity is a disintegration of meaning. Jesus on the cross has shown us that the direction of the disintegration is exactly opposite of what we think. God has revealed Himself in Jesus. He has revealed Himself as someone very different than we would wish. That revelation establishes the true meaning of the words holy, love, forgiveness, and repentance. We have done violence to the holy character of these words by tearing them away from the revelation of God. We have profaned them to further our own meanings.
The Truth is obscene. The Truth is that the God of all creation, the God of all power, the God who is totally sovereign, is the God who hangs on the cross. He is the God of offense. Offense to all who cannot come to repentance. Offense to all who would claim merit on their own efforts. Offense to all who believe that they are the chosen, the few, the favored. The obscene God hangs on the cross and denies our pretenses to power, will and desire. He agonizes and dies because of our pluralist morality. He looks down from the place of torture and death to see children of shame where He intended children of light. But this obscenity casts light on the Darkness. At last we see what has been hidden and we can echo the words of the Revealer, “Father, forgive me, for I did not know what I was doing”.
Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1972, p. 72.