“My definition of sense of humor is creating or being able to create a space where there is none. If you’re able to create a space where there is seemingly no space it is called a sense of humor.”
— Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Wisdom for Living and Dying
A priest and a rabbi are sitting next to each other on an airplane …
Already you are probably smiling a little bit. You know the beginning of a joke when you hear (or read) one. You’re getting ready to laugh. Your body is opening up. You’re taking in a breath, getting ready to expel it with either a hearty laugh, or hopefully at least a little chuckle. With any luck, you’ll cut and paste the joke and spam your friends with it.
So, a priest and a rabbi are sitting next to each other on an airplane. After a while, the priest turns to the rabbi and asks, “Is it still a requirement of your faith that you not eat pork?”
The rabbi responds, “Yes, that is still one of our beliefs.”
The priest then asks, “Have you ever eaten pork?”
To which the rabbi replies, “Yes, on one occasion I did succumb to temptation and tasted pork.”
The priest nodded in understanding and went on with his reading.
A while later, the rabbi spoke up and asked the priest, “Father, is it still a requirement of your church that you remain celibate?”
The priest replied, “Yes, that is still very much a part of our faith.”
The rabbi then asked him, “Father, have you ever fallen to the temptations of the flesh?”
The priest replied, “Yes, rabbi, on one occasion I was weak and broke with my faith.”
The rabbi nodded understandingly for a moment and then said, “A lot better than pork, isn’t it?”
Hopefully, you’re laughing right about now, and cutting and pasting the joke to send on to friends. If you’re laughing, did you notice what happened to your body and your mind? Did you feel the space open up around and within you? You might have been having a bad day up until this moment. If so, don’t you feel lighter, more open now than before?
That’s what humor does — it opens us up, creates space, not just in our body, but also in our heart and mind. Laughter is indeed the best medicine. Research studies have shown that “laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being.” [From Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter] But, Sogyal Rinpoche defines the best benefit of humor as “creating or being able to create a space where there is none.”
Not all humor creates space, however. Some humor sucks all the air out of the atmosphere. Mean-spirited, cynical humor — jokes made at the expense of another person or group of persons is decidedly unholy humor. This form of humor is meant to harm, not to point out the irony of life, or encourage us to see our sacred cows as T-bone steaks instead of untouchable beliefs.
I recently came across some unholy humor at my dermatologist’s office. To my dermatologist, a 9 a.m. appointment is merely a suggestion. I don’t feel bad being late for the appointment, because I know that 9 a.m. really means 10 a.m. in his world. So, while killing time waiting for him to deign to see me I came across a cartoon posted in the reception area that I had not noticed on earlier occasions.
It depicted a man in a shirt that bore a triangle and the word’s “gay special interest” speaking with another person about how gays and lesbians deserved to serve in the armed forces. The next panel showed a group of aged, disabled and obviously mentally impaired people agreeing that they too should be allowed to serve no matter what their status.
I was horrified, offended, and I was definitely not laughing. I couldn’t imagine the type of person who would laugh at that. But it had apparently been funny to my doctor and his office staff — funny enough to be posted for all of his patients to see and presumably enjoy. I voiced my displeasure at the cartoon to the doctor and was summarily dismissed with a “thank you” for my outrage.
Any joke that demeans another person or group of people is not holy humor. It does not create space, but constricts it, shutting people out. Humorist James Thurber observed that, “humor does not include sarcasm, invalid irony, sardonicism, innuendo, or any other form of cruelty.” Instead, as author Agnes Repplier said, “humor brings insight and tolerance.”
There seems to be no space for humor in religion these days. Most mainstream Christians have become humorless moralists, unable to laugh at anything, save the unholy humor that belittles their “enemies.” I agree with Alfred North Whitehead that, “I have always noticed that deeply and truly religious persons are fond of a joke, and I am suspicious of those who aren’t.”
Unfortunately it makes me suspicious of people like my own dear mother who seems to be humor impaired when it comes to jokes about religion. While visiting our home recently my mother pointed to a painted tile on the wall and asked, “What’s the theology behind that?”
Taken aback by her question I read aloud the offending piece of artwork, “How bad can I be and still get to heaven?”
I laughed at the ironic hypothetical question and my mom said, “You know that’s not what it’s about.” By “it” she meant the Christian religion, of course.
“Sure, I know that mom, but it’s still a funny question, don’t you think? It says something about our human nature and how much we think we can get away with,” I said, knowing that by trying to explain the joke I was robbing it of all its humor.
“Hmm,” she rolled her eyes and moved on to other subjects.
I let the matter drop, knowing that this is the same woman who takes offense at such quaintly funny bumper stickers as “Jesus is coming, look busy.”
Which is such a jarring opposite from my father, the Southern Baptist preacher who missed his calling as a comedian. He would begin each sermon with jokes, much like I began this article. But they all would tie back into the message in some way, shape or form. My dad was a man who knew how to use humor in a holy way — even among congregations that often were like my mom, unable to take a joke about their faith, forgetting the profound words of G.K. Chesterton:
“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
Jesus as stand up comic
Those who can’t take a joke, especially a joke about religion, or their particular brand of religion, are like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They didn’t understand, or did not appreciate the humor of Jesus’ jokes. Jesus did tell jokes, you know. We call them parables today, but to the hearers of his day, I imagine many of them were downright hysterical.
One of Jesus’ funniest monologues is found in Luke 10:29-37. It starts out something like this, “a priest and Samaritan were traveling to Jericho … ” Unlike the priest and rabbi in our earlier parable, um, I mean, joke, these two were not traveling together, but they both came upon the same scene — a man lying broken and bleeding by the side of the road after a vicious attack by robbers.
We all remember the story. The Levite, who was the priest of his day, passed to the other side of the road to avoid the man. He didn’t know if the man was dead or alive and if he was dead, and the priest touched him, the priest would be unclean for a period of time and unable to perform his duties. He was not willing to sacrifice that to help another human being.
Jesus’ hearers were probably nodding along with this. This was a priest they had met before — too concerned with his duties to actually perform services for their flock. We still have priests like that today, in every denomination.
The funny part comes next. The next guy to come along is a Samaritan. Here, Jesus, as with any good comedian, knows his audience. It was a lawyer, after all, who prompted the story — a man familiar with the law and culture of the day. Inserting a Samaritan into the story would surely jolt the inquisitor — and as he hears the part about the Samaritan he’s probably nodding his head now, ready to hear that the Samaritan too passed by this poor man on the road. After all, Samaritans were the lowest of the low in their society. It’s like telling an anti-gay joke to a conservative Christian. They’re getting ready to smile because the joke is about to go against the gay person. They’re ready to laugh at the gay person’s expense. This lawyer was ready to laugh at the hapless Samaritan since he couldn’t be any better than the priest Jesus had just slighted.
But, Jesus, the master comedian, turns the tables on his audience. The Samaritan, the one they all hate, is the hero of this joke. He’s the one who does the unexpected. He’s the one who takes the time to go to the man, bind his wounds and see that he is taken care of for as long as necessary.
I imagine the lawyer was not amused. I imagine Jesus’ followers were suppressing a giggle or two so as not to anger the poor lawyer who just got his chain yanked by Jesus. As with any good joke, the unexpected happens — the ironic happens and our view of the world gets a little tilted. The man we all expected to help the poor beaten man, the religious guy, passed by quickly, while the social reject, the Samaritan — the queer of his day — stopped to help without a moment’s hesitation. That’s hysterical! What a great joke!
Jesus told other great jokes along these same lines as well with the outcome of the joke upsetting what we believe to be the fair order of the world. Other examples include the joke about that guy who went off and spent all of his inheritance living it up in the big city and dad threw him a big party when he got home, much to the chagrin of the faithful older brother who had never left his father’s side (Luke 15:11-32). Or how about the one about the woman who cheated on her husband and was about to get her just deserts when Jesus ruins the party by reminding all her accusers about their own shortcomings (John 8:3-11).
But is it holy humor?
Just as Jesus’ gifts were never fully appreciated while he was alive, his humor seems to have befallen the same fate. Instead, it seems Jesus’ jokes only tick off those in power, those who don’t come out on top in any of his jokes. So, is Jesus’ humor really holy humor, then — or is it cynical humor made at the expense of those in power?
I believe Jesus’ humor is holy despite the seemingly bad portraits it paints of the powerful. Those who found Jesus’ humor funny were not laughing at the expense of the priest, the older brother or those ready to stone the woman taken in adultery. Instead, Jesus humor opens up space where there wasn’t any before. Jesus’ humor is inclusive because it calls on the righteous to recognize that God’s embrace is for everyone.
Jesus’ jokes are not jokes that belittle those who seem to come off badly. Instead, in invites these people to examine their place in the world and laugh at themselves. It points out their foibles and invites them to come into the fold and recognize God’s love, compassion and mercy is for everyone. No one is excluded in holy humor.
Those who come out on top in Jesus’ jokes realize this. They’ve known it for a long time and here comes this funny man, telling jokes and finally pointing out to those in charge that God’s love is inclusive, God’s grace is wild and unpredictable and that no one can ever capture the mystery that is the God we love, worship and adore. Jesus’ humor brings insight and tolerance. That is the mark of holy humor.
It is through Jesus’ jokes that we learn to not take ourselves so seriously. We learn to laugh at our own propensity to want to come out on top of all of life’s situations. We learn to recognize those moments when we’re the butt of the joke and how to change our ways. Laughing at ourselves is often the best lesson we can learn, as Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury observed:
“Learning to laugh at ourselves, we did not lack other things to laugh about. How should we, if the Christian life is indeed the knowledge of him who is the author of laughter as well as tears?”
God is the author of our lives, both our laughter and our tears. But, we must use humor in a holy way — to open space where there is none, to include those who have been excluded, to give people a taste of the mystery that is our life in Christ. There is no need to exorcise our humor in order to be Christians. Instead we are called to use humor to open space where there isn’t any and invite people into the mystery that is God. As soon as we get a taste of that mystery, that wholeness, that unity with God, we along with the rabbi can say with conviction, “A lot better than pork, isn’t it?”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.