The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 4, Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting

Dr. Cynthia Eriksson from the Fuller School of Psychology was the fourth and final respondent to the integration lectures I delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary.

One of Dr. Eriksson's areas of expertise is trauma, and she brought that perspective to her response, reading the lecture from the social location of oppression and trauma, of woman in particular. And that perspective helped problematize some of the ways I'd been framing kenosis in the lecture.

Specifically, in following the trajectory of Philippians 2, kenosis is the downward path from privilege to serventhood.
Philippians 2.4-7a
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
by taking the form of a servant...
The trajectory here is from high to low, from "equality with God" to "the form of a servant." This was the trajectory I spent most of my time talking about, about how we are to move from places of privilege to the location of servanthood.

But the trouble with this, as I pointed out in the lecture an in The Slavery of Death, is that our neurotic anxieties make this movement difficult. Thirsting for attention, applause and accolades it's hard to step out of the limelight and into the wings to serve unnoticed and unrecognized.

To illustrate this, I asked the question posed by Henri Nouwen: "Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?" According to the hero system of our culture the answer is obvious: You're a nobody.  And because that answer stings we don't want to "take on the form of the servant." We don't want to be a nobody. We want to be a somebody. So we resist the downward, self-emptying path of kenosis.

This is all well and good and is a message most of us need to take to heart. But the problem with this framing, Dr. Eriksson pointed out, is how someone already at the bottom of society--the oppressed, humiliated and abused person--is to follow this "downward path." What does kenosis look like if you're already at the absolute bottom?

What if your answer to Nouwen's question isn't a hypothetical but your lived reality? No one pays attention to you. For real. No one says thank you. For real. No one recognizes your work. For real.

And if that's your life how can you be expected to go any lower?

These are questions I've wrestled with. For example, when I argued that humility is the privilege of the privileged. As with humility it seems kenosis--the ability to go downward--is also a privilege of the privileged. You have to be on top to give you room to go down.

In short, what does kenosis look like at the bottom of society? What does it look like in locations of abuse and oppression?

We all know what it shouldn't look like. We don't use kenosis, servanthood or the cross to justify telling the abused person to stay in the abusive situation. Such advice heaps theological abuse on top of physical and psychological abuse.

And yet, we are still left with the questions. If that's not what kenosis looks like in abusive situations--submitting to the abuse the way Christ submitted to his abusers--then what does kenosis look like for the abused?

Because we can see how abused persons have been tempted (by self and others), in the face of Jesus's example, toward those tragic conclusions. This is why Christianity chaffs non-Christians who advocate for the abused and oppressed. In its valorization of Christ's suffering, it is argued, Christianity preaches "divine child abuse" and espouses a sadomasochistic ethic that threatens to justify abuse or, at the very least, puts pressure upon those being abused to suffer the abuse quietly and passively in order to "be like Jesus."

The point here is that the cross is great when preached at the abusers. If you're an abuser you need to go to the cross to stand with your victims. That is the prophetic power of the cross in a violent world full of oppression.

But what is the message of the cross for the one being abused? Carry your cross of abuse? Passively and quietly endure your abuse to be like Jesus?

We're back to our questions. What does humility, kenosis or the cross look like for those at the bottom of society, especially those in abusive situations?

These are the sorts of questions that feminist theologians wrestle with, but they should be questions we are all engaging with, as difficult as they might be. These are theological questions of the utmost practical importance. The issues involve life and death.

During her response to my lecture Dr. Eriksson said something that I think is a part of the answer, at least in regards to kenosis.

Specifically, Dr. Eriksson described a client of hers who had been filled with such toxic experiences that kenosis for her--the process of emptying--was vomiting out all the blackness within her.

There is an emptying here, but of a very different sort. In the Q&A afterwards I described this as "positive kenosis." In negative kenosis the self is emptied to descend. In positive kenosis the self is emptied to rise. In negative kenosis the self is emptied to offset the positive, the pre-existing privilege. In positive kenosis the self is emptied to offset the negative, the toxic self-images and darkness.

Pondering all this now, I don't know if "positive" vs. "negative" kenosis is the best way of describing all this. Because I do think the emptying in both instances is fundamentally the same.

Specifically, what is being emptied is the hero system--the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The "emptying" of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system. I describe this in some detail in The Slavery of Death.

The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this.  That is experienced as a "descent" of sorts.

But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you "deserve" to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.

It's a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it's still the hero system. It's just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.

So an emptying has to occur. The hero system--that internalized filth and shit--has to be poured out. Vomited out.

Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons--destructive psychological/spiritual darkness--are being cast out, emptied out.

In sum, if we think of kenosis as being an emptying that involves rejecting the hero system of the culture then we find a common thread.

Kenosis is emptying out the hero system, becoming indifferent to how our self-concepts have been shaped and defined by the culture. For good or ill.

And for many this emptying and pouring out may look more like vomiting. But it is an emptying nonetheless.

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31 thoughts on “The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 4, Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting”

  1. This is excellent, and I can see how some of us may have to do emptying in both respects. My upbringing taught me my worth was tied to my piety, purity, modesty, and the evaluation of men who are in "spiritual authority." Yet, as an educated, middle-class white woman, I have a great deal of privilege and benefit from the cultural hero system. Considering kenosis as emptying either or both aspects of the hero system is extremely helpful, at least to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the responses to your lectures. I've found them a helpful supplement to your latest book.

  2. Thanks Trischa. The thing about my books is that the minute I send one off I start thinking, "Oooo. I wish I could have added this!" And invariably I find the perfect quote for a book the day after I send it off. And the thoughts keep snowballing and accumulating.

    So it's nice to have the blog to extend thoughts, nuance things some you wrote, and explore new connections.

  3. I've come across this problem in discussions of kenosis and your hint of a a solution is very helpful.

  4. I'm actually working through Mark 8-10 now and bringing Phil 2 and "loss" into the discussion. I'm also thinking about the social location of the disciples as Jesus invites them into kenosis through the cross, and then the social location of Mark's church as they read the gospel. I can't help but think that they're failure to understand and their own fears relate much to the fears you discuss- it's present in the text in the actual episodes that illustrate the disciples' misunderstanding and hardness of heart. But they come from those at the bottom of society, victims of oppression themselves, who are yet also tempted to want the same power systems but with a reversal of the players' positions. So yes, I am listening and learning how the "oppressed" can be more oppressed with misuse of these texts, yet at the same time the influence of the "powers" that pull against the cross work in all strata of society.
    I think it was Sarah Coakley (Powers and Submissions) who also illustrated how kenosis could be used in "oppressive" ways by those at the bottom against the top- writing about kenosis to feminist theologians. No real insight here but inspired by the different angles being brought into the discussion.

  5. There's a couple of things from the writers out of the Jesus Seminar that pertain to your thinking of kenosis Richard.

    First is that about 90% the population in the land Jesus lived in, by our standards, was lowest middle class at its top- perhaps one had their own piece of land to farm along with an animal of production. Lose that one animal though, say by it falling into a ditch on a Sabbath when the only ones around to help are a group of pharisees, and you're one missed mortgage payment away from foreclosure and a drop back into the throes of the bottom. (As a carpenter, Jesus was lower economically speaking, than this farmer example.)

    In other words, from the research of the Jesus Seminar, we learn that about 10% of the population lived off the backs of the 90%. Jesus' audience then, was the comprised of the people that Dr. Eriksson identifies. You could say then, that Jesus' message is one that reshapes his audience's aspirations-- which modeled by the pharisee was to become more pious at keeping the Sabbath for instance, or by the Roman and cosmopolitan, by getting more backs beneath you.

    Second is about Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek. The very real situation Jesus is addressing here is that one of the "ten-percenters" of his day, is striking a person "beneath" them: they mean to insult; the hit is a back hand to the face. By turning his cheek, the "ninety-percenter" is both being real-- hitting back would at best land him in jail-- and declaring a righteous F. U.-- turning his cheek forces the assailant to hit him as he would have to hit an equal: soldiers in battle don't strike opponents with back hands, but with closed fists.

    All in all, Jesus is reshaping the aspiration of a culture who are already providing the backs the greed culture needed. What thrills me, is that there were people who were willing to reshape there expectation of a Messiah- from one of being an even bigger Caesar, to the one we see in Jesus. So what IS Jesus' aspiration?

  6. Excellent post, excellent discussion.

    What does kenosis look like for the wretched of the earth? It looks like Jesus in his ministry! Which certainly eliminates doormat theology. Indeed it clearly means being in the face of oppressive, exploitative, and violent power, in expression not only of the humanity of the the oppressed, exploited, and violated but also of the humanity of the oppressor, exploiter, and violent, both of which can be secured only through the praxis of nonviolent love. Mike mentions the turn-the-other-cheek text, but the same approach is also illustrated (as for-examples in Jesus' own culture) in the extra-mile and sue-you-for-your-shirt texts - all instances of the powerless seizing the initiative against overwhelming power, nonviolently asserting their dignity, and nonplussing the bad guys in ways that open up the
    possibility of their repentance and renewal. (For a [near] contemporary paradigmatic example, see the teaching and tactics of Martin Luther King.)

    Two further points:

    (1) There is a lesson here not only about the meaning of kenosis, but also about how the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is preached to those who, socio-politically, are more sinned against than sinning. The Latin
    American liberation theologian made this point decades ago in the context of despotic and military oppression, but the point stands in situations, for example, of domestic abuse.

    (2) The doctrine of penal substitution - to the doctrinal trashcan with it! It's a theological arsenal for oppression and exploitation.

    Btw, I'm glad to see that Left Behind (the "behind" of which I've always taken as a noun, the "left" of which I've always taken to refer to the noun's particular side) has been left behind. When I checked into this great blog a few days ago, I thought I'd fallen down a rabbit hole ...

  7. What about that "good news for the poor" stuff? Does it mean that the oppression will end, the wealth will be shared, the mighty will get off of their high horses and wake up to their own insecurity and fear and cruelty? Maybe, but I don't see much of that happening throughout history. Except for a few small bands of eccentrics (Mother Theresa and her nuns, Francis of Assisi and his brothers), soup kitchens and half-way houses here and there, there's really not been much "good news" for the poor or people at the bottom. They're still there, just as abused and wounded and forgotten as ever.

    There must be something about the very act of serving another, giving help where you can, that in some way "saves" a person from their own inner demon, whether they be at the top or the bottom, rich or poor. Perhaps it is only in this individual kenosis that the culture itself can heal. Seems to me that the toxic self loathing of a hero system is universal. Those who think that they are the heroes are lost in delusion and fall down their own dark holes of self destruction.

    Maybe it comes down to somehow miraculously (grace?) knowing the sacredness of our own lives (I think you said it in a previous post - knowing our identity as coming from God and not from whatever affirmation or attention that we can cull from others) that allows us to see and honor (and serve) the sacredness in others. One can only treat everything and everyone with reverence when one knows it in oneself.

  8. I understand what non-violent love might look like in a context of a political movement like the Civil Rights movement (although the white segregationists that opposed it didn't think it was either non-violent or loving - and they didn't so much repent as lose the political battle. )

    But what would non-violent love look like in the context of say, the survivor of child abuse or domestic violence and an unrepentant abuser (after they have left the abusive situation)? What would the "praxis of non-violent love" look like? (And that's not a rhetorical question - I genuinely have no idea what it might look like, and it's where a lot of these discussions get hung up for me.

  9. Some good thoughts here. I would recommend you check out "Proverbs of Ashes" by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker. They deal with some of these same questions of what Christianity has to say to those who already suffer abuse and are at the "lowest rung" so to speak. I really found it challenging and helpful when I first read it.

  10. Just a though, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Jesus 'despising the shame'... maybe of the Hero-system itself?

  11. I'm part of a church where we've adopted Philippians 2:5-11, and especially the idea of kenosis, as our central ethic. We've run into the problems you describe when teaching it in our community, which contains a mix of people from very diverse walks of life.

    It didn't occur to me (as a white, educated, middle class male) how this idea could be problematic for those who come from less privileged backgrounds, especially those who experienced abuse.

    I remember, after teaching a class about how the core of the Christian life is kenosis, that one woman who had been abused for much of her life said, "But I feel like that's how I've been treated my whole life, do you mean I have to do that again? What do I do when I feel like I have nothing to pour out?"

    This helped us begin to nuance how we taught about kenosis - not just as self sacrifice, but as pouring out whatever props up our identity (positive or negative), trusting that when we do so, God will raise us up. The hero system seems to describe that idea we've been reaching for quite well.

    Thanks a lot for these reflections - they'll certainly make a difference for our community.

  12. I'm glad it might help.

    Here's something I keep coming back to. We definitely need to take privilege into account as we teach about kenosis. But the thing that strikes me, and baffles and even worries me, is how Jesus's preaching things like "turn to the other cheek" and "love your enemies" was to an oppressed and abused people. And we can assume that most of the early Christians who heard Philippians 2 were themselves slaves. In short, the Christian ethic of enemy-love, servanthood and kenosis was articulated within an oppressed context, among the least of these.

    So we shouldn't swing so far the other way to think that things like kenosis don't speak into oppressed and abusive contexts as these were the contexts where these notions were first articulated.

  13. That's a helpful corrective.

    I should probably also mention that, for other members of our community who live in deeply difficult situations, this idea of unconditional, poured out love has been very liberating- one that releases them from paralyzing anger about their situation and gives them a framework from which to say, "Regardless whether or not my life situation (or how someone has treated me) is right, that doesn't have to change the way I live my life."

    When I started this work in my city six years ago, I was relatively naive to how, due to my social location, theology that was almost unconditionally life giving to me could be more problematic for other people. I'm still deeply feel the tension of trying to invite people into a life that so explicitly runs against the currents of our times while also being sensitive to other people's experiences, especially being aware that I am certainly among the privileged, and enjoy a lot of resources that many of the members of my community do not.

  14. The vomiting metaphor feels really satisfying, and it fits in with a larger ideas=food metaphor (where one tastes, bites off, chews, either assimilates and digests or swallows whole). We have all had to swallow the hero system whole, but it makes us all sick so to get well we first have to vomit it up. Great post!

  15. I talk about that a bit in The Slavery of Death, how what Jesus faced down in the cross wasn't just the physical pain but the neurotic shaming, and how that same shaming is what makes "taking up our cross" difficult for us today.

    The cross poses a challenge to our self-esteem and how we've built up our self-esteem.

  16. Really, really important discussion. As I was reading your thoughts, James 1: 9-10 came to mind, "Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away."

  17. I've been thinking about this issue a bit lately, as the church i attend is an intentional ministry in an oppressed, mostly poor, mostly minority community. Especially during Lent as we are encouraged to unite with Christ in his journey of suffering. This has been a helpful analysis.

  18. I was thinking about this issue this morning, as the church I attend often says earth is our hell. While that may be true, for the oppressed and the abused, I worry that it can lead them down a hopeless path - asking will there never be freedom. I imagine it's even more dangerous for those contemplating suicide. Those of us who are 'privileged' believers must be mindful that the struggles we face daily while real and valid, but some people are living in horror daily and there's gained by them being brought lower. Great and thoughtful blog post.

  19. I think a key here is the early church lived more communal lives. When someone carried the solider's cloak the extra mile, someone else in the congregation worked his share of the field that day. In other words, the cost of servanthood wasn't borne by him alone, but by the Christian community.

    Today, the abused are told, in a good church, they are worthy, sent to counselling and so on, but they have to shoulder a lot of the cost alone. In Canada, a survey (one of several being commissioned by the government) was done on sexual abuse and hidden costs. It turns out the silent costs are extremely high among the abused - lost work, family members bearing the burden and so on. In a Church, how much of a burden do we really take on for each other? Independence is a strong value. People fixing themselves, overcoming, not relying on hand-outs. But, by trying to be individual entities, bearing the weight of abuse is too much for the abused to continually shoulder themselves. Effects of abuse linger long after it has stopped.

    So, the person is always sinking back down, and others are standing around saying "hey, you're OK, get up!"

    I think we only see real freedom to turn cheeks and carry a cloak an extra mile when there is extra community. It is that coming down from those above - shared pay-checks and shared free-time - that enable the oppressed to manage freely.

  20. Have you read Dallas Willard on turning the other cheek? If I remember right I think he saw it as a kind of non-violent resistance rather than a passive acceptance of the oppression. And that there were limits to its appropriate application.

  21. A wise friend I know says that humility is knowing exactly who you are, nothing more, nothing less.

  22. "It's a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it's still the hero system. It's just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated...."

    Not necessarily. When a person is trashed, she/he will feel of little/no value compared to other humans---that's a normal conclusion. (And even more so when the damaged has been inflicted over time by intimates, and/or during childhood.)

    If the trashed person thinks the only option is to become a hero, then you are correct. But if he/she yearns for the same respect/compassion due all humans, you are incorrect. The idea here is that we love others as ourselves, across-the-board love.

    Genuine sacrifice is deliberately chosen when we love ourselves but give it up voluntarily for the wellbeing of another. Jesus knew he was Son of God-Who-Is-Love but he went to death that we might be made alive, out of love.

    The victim of a violent marriage doesn't love herself or she would leave the violence. And if, perchance, she did love herself, she would not sacrifice to perpetuate the bad health of her spouse.

    People confuse persecution and suffering. Persecution occurs when unrighteous people kick back at those who take a righteous path. In that sense, when the poor stand up for themselves and get kicked for it, they are being persecuted. The apex of persecution is when people are kicked for upholding Christ, the fundamental symbol of un-self-interested righteousness, sacrificed.

    Suffering is pain and struggle, that's all. It is the result of evil in this world and it is destructive. The only amount of suffering that is useful is a dab---just enough to wake one up but not so much that it wreaks havoc (large or small). People who receive dabs see their situation accurately when they have deep gratitude that it was only a dab. To equate a dab of suffering to all suffering is "insufferable" arrogance and ignorance; and there are a fair number of Christians who do it.

  23. I enjoy reading your posts, Richard, and I think this is an important topic so I'm deciding to write more. I hope that's ok. I am concerned that construing self-loathing to be the reverse of "hero syndrome" can put illegitimate blame onto the victim, even though you don't mean it.

    A victim has a lot of very painful work to do after damage done. It is not fair that it is so, yet so it is. And it can only be done when one has found just enough self-love to grab up the courage to face the violation. To someone who's trying to rustle up that necessary bit of love, your assumption can be defeating.

    When a person who has been trashed eventually gathers that courage, she (he, too, but I'll leave it at she) vomits the fundamental lie told her by the violator: that she deserves destruction and that it doesn't matter when it hurts. This is done by someone operating out of power-hunger, and it is pride-based.

    After that initial courage, the violated will also, over time, vomit up the unhealthy responses made out of her brokenness, responses shaped by the violator's power-mongering pride. Responses vary from person to person, and a person can adopt different responses over time. These are inevitably unhealthy because she hadn't, between the time of violation and the time of facing it, found enough compassion and courage to do that which could help her heal.

    Some victims will become narcissistic in an attempt to give themselves the love they didn't receive; it becomes all-consuming and pride grows pre-eminent.

    Others will simply acquiesce to the violence done them, believing they are indeed that wretched. These are the passive victims and a few among them will make a habit of the position because it garners them some small attentions. But more of the are in depression, dragging through their days with the immense burden of their own felt inadequacy. This group is susceptible to suicide.

    Yet others will believe as you wrote, that until they become the "hero", their pain cannot be conquered. Perverse pride of self-loathing is engaged when it is clear that they can't make it, and again, suicide beckons.

    The latter group includes super-helpers. But many in this subgroup do not believe they are the "hurt super-great", but rather unconsciously hope that by helping everyone everywhere, someone somewhere will return to her the help she so desperately needs: genuine compassion. They essentially model what they need.

    None of these interim responses can work because the truth of evil-done hasn't been faced. I caution people against flopping a sin label onto the length of the interim. People who have been more thoroughly violated, or chronically, or when children, will take longer to gather up that vital bit of self-love. And throughout, support or its lack contributes to the length/depth of the misery, so we carry some of the responsibility for it.

    I don't know if I'm speaking understandably rather than merely way too long. If not comprehensible, and if anyone is interested, I don't mind trying again, with perhaps improved results. =)

  24. Richard--You and your readers might appreciate Cynthia Crysdale's book "Embracing Travail: Receiving the Cross Today," which attempts to address issues of evil and atonement from the perspective of both the crucified and the crucifiers, both victims and perpetrators, all of which also involves the development of a spirituality/discipleship that attends to both surrender (your "negative kenosis"?) and resistance (your "positive kenosis"?). In all, she is trying to address issues of atonement and redemption from the perspective of those on the political, social, and religious "underside," without abandoning what has been emphasized within Christian theological tradition, namely, an atonement, redemption, discipleship, and spirituality that presupposes those with privilege.

  25. Thanks Tim. I've not seen this book but I just ordered it. I'm feeling the need to do a lot of reading in this area to articulate, at least for myself, a coherent and positive answer to this particular problem/issue.

  26. Hope it is helpful. I too have been working on this, first as a theologian, and now additionally as a Mennonite Martial Artists (an oxymoron, I know). My working hypothesis is that being made in God's image is to be called to exercise power in creative, caring, and cultivating ways, which we now have to do in the context of a disrupted-but-partly-redeemed-creational context. For some, this will involve reducing, restraining, and redirecting too much/misdirected power (e.g., with violent aggression), whereas for others this will involve empowerment--gaining and using power that is properly theirs as made in God's image. As a general pattern (with occasional exceptions), this plays out along gender and class lines in fairly predictable ways. In any case, for some time I've been intrigued by "power/empowerment" language in the NT, especially how that might have sounded to disempowered hearers/readers. Looking forward to your thoughts on Crysdale. (Btw, we met at AAR in Chicago-if I recall-where you did a presentation on Unclean. We talked about our similar backgrounds coming out of different lines of the restoration tradition.)

  27. Hi Patrice,
    Not sure what's wrong with Disqus, but on my end I didn't set anything different for the comments on that post. Disqus is just weird and unpredictable. My apologies.

    Regarding your comment here, I feel that you are trying to communicate something very, very important to me but I'm struggling to see the full shape of it. Can you help me? I'm not sure what you mean by seeing experiences and stories of abuse as "contemporary faery tales" and what you mean by "seeing them for what they are." I do wholeheartedly agree that we need to welcome these stories into common discourse, for lots of different reasons. To shed light, to demand truthfulness, to seek justice, and for healing.

    As for my keeping such stories "along the edge" in the chat I'm not sure what you mean. Any hesitancy on my part was a hesitancy to tell any victim what they should or should not do. I don't think it's my place to tell victims that they should do anything. In the chat spoke about forgiveness and, if not that, at least forgoing revenge and retaliation. But recommending either of those makes me very, very uncomfortable. Theoretically I like those answers, but it's not a theoretical issue and it's not for me, as a man, to float theoretical answers to deeply personal and painful issues in someone else's life. So I was treading very lightly. I don't like giving answers about what victims should or should not do.

  28. I have started to read your Slavery of Death and am loving it. You use Phil3:7-8 where Paul speaks of counting all things as "rubbish" or σκυβαλα. Was just wondering, do you know about the terms apparent profane usage?

    I mean, I am sure you're a greater judge than I am about the accuracy of such an interpretation.
    I think that your use of vomit has a great parallel to the profanity Paul apparently used.

    Also, if you have time, feel free to check out an artwork I made in relation to this 'profane' word:

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