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Theologian wants more constructive swearing

Isn't there enough anger and aggression in our world yet? You would think so, yet Rikko Voorberg (36)[hints]Theologian Rikko Voorberg (1980) is founder of the PopUpKerk, organises art installations and is a publicist; he is a guest correspondent on Anger at De Correspondent and has a regular column in the Nederlands Dagblad. He started PopUpKerk at the invitation of the Reformed Churches (vrijg.), an initiative to reinvent the concept of 'church'. Every week, people come together in a non-church setting who want to think about meaning: believers who feel no connection with the mainstream church and people who do not believe in God but do believe in the possibility of creating a better world. 'There are many things about our world that are not right, and those are not going to be solved by politicians or others for us, that is up to ourselves,' said Rikko Voorberg. 'So you can make good intentions once a year on New Year's morning, or you can decide to do it on a weekly basis.' For instance, he and a few other PopUpKerk participants went to Greece to take up the boat refugee issue with their own eyes, and many more people ended up travelling to offer help on the spot. At the Arts Night Nuit Blanche, they converted sex theatre Casa Rosso into a modern confessional,[/hints] that we can't have enough of it - at least, of gooey anger. In his book Pastor teaches swearing the theologian breaks a lance for anger, swearing and aggression, the 'holy trinity' to bring about social change. 'There is much more in our power than we think, if only we get moving.'

Injustice and powerlessness

Rikko Voorberg grew up as a Reformed pastor's son, but could not cope with the ideas he was taught. Anger was not allowed in the reformed environment of his youth. And swearing was - and is - completely not done. But what to do with, say, anger at injustice, sadness or feelings of powerlessness? He struggled, went to study theology anyway, and consciously chose not to join a church as a pastor, but to remain an independent thinker.

Voorberg is young, intelligent and well-tongued. And he is a man with a message, who developed into an original social voice. When a fuss arose in Leiden because paedophile Benno L. was assigned a house there, Voorberg - himself the father of a toddler - opened the Facebook page 'Benno L. welcome in our street'. His action hit all the media and brought a new sound to the social discussion on the subject. In short, Rikko Voorberg is someone who is not afraid to voice a dissenting opinion and challenge ideas or conventions. He does exactly that in his book Pastor learns to curse. On anger, impotence and decisiveness.

Rikko Voorberg: 'If there is something wrong with this world, you can change it yourself.' ©Maarten Boersema
Rikko Voorberg: 'If there is something wrong with this world, you can change it yourself.' ©Maarten Boersema

You make a case for anger, swearing and aggression. Don't we already have enough of that in our society?

''Of course, I also see a lot of anger around me. But I think we shouldn't necessarily want less anger, but better anger. Because anger is a very energetic emotion, which sets people in motion. Politicians often talk about the "participation society", an ugly word and a euphemism for austerity. But there is something in it. People must become creators themselves again, we must realise that it is not others - politics, big business - who are going to shape the world into how we would like it to be. What matters to me is the belief that if, in your opinion, there is something missing or lacking in this world, you can change it yourself. There is much more in our power than we think, if only we get moving.''

Can we still get angry in a good way?

''Often we bottle up our anger and put it away, because being angry is considered indecent. Human beings need to be reasonable, and anger is an uninvited guest we need to control. When that fails, or when people let their anger run wild, they are often very destructive in their expressions. This in turn then constitutes confirmation of the idea that anger must be kept under control.


I think we need to learn to see that anger can have very different manifestations. We need to practice the rational side of anger so that we can target it. Otherwise, the energy of that emotion also disappears, the fact that you judge a situation as not okay and think something should be done about it.''

With refugees, for example, the anger focuses on the refugees themselves, while people are actually angry about something else - for example, the fact that politicians have not polled what the population thinks about the arrival of an asylum seekers' centre.

''I also found the example of Benno L. striking. People stood there protesting at Benno's flat - "Our children are in danger! We must protect them from this dangerous man!" While the risk of recidivism becomes especially high when someone is socially excluded. So if I want to protect my children and exclude this man for that reason, I make it more likely that he will abuse someone again. If I am really angry about what he has done and want things to change, I have to shake his hand, however contradictory that may feel.


When the truth is so damn uncomfortable, we often don't want to know it. We are more like Benno L. than we think. By singling this out and hating him, we can pretend we have banished this evil from society. But most abuse takes place in families, very close to home. It is arrogant to think that if you had had the same upbringing, experienced the same situation, had the same character, you wouldn't do the same thing.''

Interestingly, you advocate sinfulness, realising that we all make mistakes and wrong choices. How does that differ from the guilt and penance concept that the Church used to pour out on people?

''For me, the difference lies in the fact that I no longer want to do well in order to eventually be found a good person - I feel relieved of striving to become one, and then everything we do well just becomes extra cool. For me, the Christian story begins the moment Benno L. is apprehended and knows that his double life is ending, feeling a kind of relief in the process. He recognises the evil in himself. We are all connected to evil.

Take climate change - we all contribute to that. If you frantically try to make your loved one love you, you have a hard time. But when someone loves you with everything that goes with it, including your worse traits, only then do you feel truly loved. Tim Keller said it beautifully, "We are bigger assholes than we dare to acknowledge and more loved than we dare to hope." To me, that is an ultimate summary of the gospel.''

Rikko Voorberg: 'Anger can have very different manifestations.' ©Ruben Timman/No Words Photography
Rikko Voorberg: 'Anger can have very different manifestations.' ©Ruben Timman/No Words Photography

How can we learn to be better at being angry?

''Step one is to examine why exactly you are angry. So that you can avoid what often happens, which is that you start doing exactly what you were so angry about and thereby create new victims. For example, by excluding people, not granting them life because they "deserved it".

A great example of being angry in a good way is the story of India's Dashrath Manjhi, who lives near a mountain. On the other side is a town with amenities. To get medicine, the villagers have to walk around the mountain or over it, risking their lives. When his wife breaks her hip and eventually dies for lack of medical supplies, he sells his goats and starts chiselling into the rocks with a hammer and chisel, day after day, for 20 years, until he has carved out a road.

I think that's an incredible image, that someone could keep that up for 20 years and out of that a path developed ten metres deep and three metres wide. At first he was laughed at, but once a hole was created, help came. Even though most people shouted that they had to work and didn't have time.''


Is that an excuse?

''No, it's a choice. This man also had a job. Only he was frustrated enough to say: now it's done, now I'm going to do something about it myself, even though I don't even know if it can be done. Frustration is a very good motivator. For me, the main key is that you start bringing what you yourself lack, and that your own conviction becomes flesh and blood, and not just protest. You have to connect with something.''

Rikko Voorberg: 'Every individual can mean something.' ©Ruben Timman/No Words Photography
Rikko Voorberg: 'Every individual can mean something.' ©Ruben Timman/No Words Photography

Basically, you are calling on people to take more control. While many people may feel they have no power to change a particular situation.

''Yes, absolutely. That's why this book. It is a series of experiences, moments of 'let's try this', and then finding that all sorts of things start moving. It is an attempt to give confidence that each individual can mean something.''

You are young and media-savvy and therefore may have more opportunities than others.

''Maybe. But on the other hand, I am less wise and have less of a say because of my age. What matters is: do you decide you want to be part of a movement? Take such a Boyan Slat. He gets to go fish that plastic soup out of the ocean! No one could have imagined that, could they? It started with him being frustrated with the plastic mess for a long time, and over time he managed to raise a million.''


Why do we need 'goddamn' for that?

''MH17 had crashed and I wrote for essays based on faith. On a subject that involved so much pain, sorrow, anguish and frustration, the tone was definitely not to be anointing, resolving or petting. Nor did I want that; I was looking for a word that would suit me to express those feelings.

"Goddamn" is a raw word, a very indecent word, and a word that expresses that it refers to something that, in my opinion, should not belong to our world. To many, it is a blasphemous word, and to them it is hurtful that I use it. I understand that, but it is used in a context where a huge amount of pain needs to be named. That you no longer wish to accept it means you start thinking about what you can do about it to change the situation. Every individual can mean something.''

Pastor teaches swearing was published by De Arbeiderspers


Extract from Pastor teaches swearing:


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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