Pronouns, A Racist Joke, and Divine Humor
A man I admire from my childhood is on the board of a conservative Christian school that his grandkids attend. Recently, he told me a story about a scandal at the school.
A teacher asked one student what their pronouns were on one, single occasion, and it exploded into a culture war. They had to have a big meeting with the teachers, parents, and board members. My friend says, “it was impossible to tell if they were a boy or girl. I don’t blame the teacher for asking.” It’s not the most woke perspective, but he firmly supports anyone’s right to ask and use any pronouns they wish, for any reason. “They’re just words, for god’s sake, and short ones at that.”
At the meeting, things snowballed the way they do in these situation, and instead of addressing this one, isolated incident, the parents began railing about prom. “Is my son going to be expelled if another boy asks him to dance and he says no?!” And on and on and on.
My friend thought this was all outrageous because of a single thing that happened with one teacher, one time. When it was his turn to speak as a board member and the grandparent of a student, he wanted to make a joke to show everyone how silly they were being. He stood up slowly, gathered himself, and spoke: “Honestly, I don’t care if my granddaughter dances with a boy or a girl as long as they are white.”
Immediately his wife jumped saying, “That’s a joke. He’s joking. It’s just a bad joke- a bad, bad joke.” But no one laughed. The group didn’t get the satire. My friend said if his term hadn’t ended at the end of the year, he’s sure they would have voted him off the board thinking he was a militant racist.
I think that’s a hilarious story, albeit the humor is dark. I’ve since learned that he was quoting a bit by the comedian Bert Kreischer. Maybe you have to know the school, my friend, and his heart to see the humor in it.
It reminds me how tricky language can be. How sometimes we say one thing, but mean the exact opposite: a racist joke used to expose bigotry is a good example.
Jesus uses hyperbole and humor to teach on a variety of occasions, though it’s not always interpreted as such.
In the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus tells us to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin. Most have understood this as hyperbole, but not everyone. Origen of Alexandria actually castrated himself. Having also grown up with an abusive father, Origen popularized a theory of atonement that said Christ died to pay off a debt accrued by sin. His work would later be used to create the penal substitution atonement theory which many modern Christians believe to be the gospel itself.
In another place, Jesus teaches that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. I’ve read interpreters working inexhaustibly to explain this passage away when it seems clear to me that Jesus is making a joke. The hyperbole should be funny, but even if it’s not, reading people try to explain this in literal terms certainly is.
Perhaps the most 1:1 comparison is the Triumphal Entry. Like my friend who unsuccessfully used a racist joke to expose bigotry and hatefulness, Jesus uses a military procession to thwart violent expectations. Instead of a warhorse and an army, Jesus marches into Jerusalem on an unbroken donkey with a ragtag group of smelly fisherman. It’s in meeting the militant messianic expectations that he actually subverts them. It’s political theater, and watching the disciples attempt to push and pull a donkey into town while it works to buck Jesus off of it would be a hilarious parody of what a triumphal entry should be in the minds of the populace.
If there’s one point I’m building toward, it’s that language and communication are multifaceted and often unclear. We could all use a little grace when talking with one another. Especially right now. And we could all use the benefit of the doubt, could we not?
If there’s a second point I’m building toward, it’s that laughter was an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s appropriate that it be a part of ours as well. We’ve been through so much together in a short time, and we’re not finished yet.
I believe that laughter can be divine. The ability to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously is a spiritual gift. It can protect us from becoming stuffy, up-tight people who can’t see the beauty in the world around us. Humor can excise anxiety and help us cope with the challenges we face as a community and individuals. So remember, when you laugh at my jokes, you’re doing the Lord’s work.