Monday, January 12, 2015

Can't they take a joke?

Published in the Staffordshire Sentinel on 14 January 2015. You can find it on their website here:

The shocking events in Paris last week, particularly the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have caused great outrage. We are sadly familiar with terrorist attacks, but this assault on a publication which makes jokes, pokes fun at public, political and religious figures alike, is especially abhorrent.

And while the terrorists in no way represent any religious tradition, they have claimed to be doing so in the name of their god. But why attack a satirical magazine? Do religious people in general lack a sense of humour? Do they look down on fun and frivolity, and feel threatened by comedy, especially satire which pokes fun at their beliefs and their practices? 

To be sure, humour can be cruel and offensive, though even the most outrageous ridicule could never justify such heinous violence.

Yet it is true that religious people often seem solemn and sombre. Some Muslim scholars see jokes as fine for children, but not for more serious adults. And there are many examples of Christian disapproval of fun and levity: the Puritan ban on Christmas, in the 17th Century, for example; the Victorian crusade against leisure activities on Sundays; the Temperance movement, against alcohol, of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the condemnation of particular films, television and popular music since the 1950s: all these left their mark. All too often religious people just seem opposed to anything that looks like fun.  

Yet this is far from the truth. 

In Christianity in particular there is a long tradition of unsettling the powerful and poking fun at those who think they are important. 
"God scatters the proud-hearted and casts the mighty from their thrones," says the Mother of Jesus, in words which are sung every evening in Cathedrals, and convents throughout the world. 

And God scatters the proud in word and jest far more often than by gun or sword. 

Jesus gave His disciples nicknames to pull them down a peg or two: Peter was 'the Rock' - big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads, were ‘Sons of Thunder’. 

And many of Jesus' stories look remarkably like satire. He spoke about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly, businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread, and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day "whitewashed walls". He even ridiculed the idea of the Messiah itself, entering the Holy City, riding not on a charger, in armour with his standards and his battalions, but on the back of a donkey, cheered along by a crowd waving only branches from the trees. This is satire. This is Charlie Hebdo. 

And when he was arrested, and his followers wanted to take up swords protect him, he told them to lay them down. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says "The word of God is alive and active; it cuts more finely than any double-edged sword." 
This is precisely the point. The Word is mightier than the sword. And a good deal more powerful, for while swords may break bodies only words can form minds. 

So humour is essential - to the religious and non-religious alike. To be able to joke is to be  free. 
The Islamic scholar Al ibn Ahmad Al Faraheedi expressed it perfectly when he said: “People would feel imprisoned if they did not joke.”