The healthy balm of humor

By Fr. Bud Grant

One day, eons ago, while teaching high school and roaming my perfectly disciplined classroom, I passed a very fine student, Jeremy. My eyes were drawn to a phrase he had written in his notebook. It read “God had better have a sense of humor, or we’re all gonna burn.” My first thought was that he needed counseling. Then I realized he was quoting me.

We’d been talking about social justice. At that time, the CIA, like covert cowboys in white hats, had been illicitly providing about $1 million a month to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua against the “Contras.” The civil war, as a result, had slogged along for a decade. Human rights violations were rampant on both sides. Thousands died. Scant months after the U.S. pulled the aid, the war ended. There are countless examples of such well-intended fiascos, God smile upon our foolishness.

This month, for example, the U.S. officially began to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, citing its allegedly negative impact on the American economy. This comes just when virtually all other world governments, many state and local governments, international businesses, countless NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and, most inspiringly, the world’s teenagers, have been stirred to respond to the global threat of Climate Change. One nation most instrumental in crafting the accord bails out just as others sign up. Oh, the unintended irony.

Irony is a kind of humor. Along with wordplay and absurd hyperbole — also endemic to humor — irony is all over the Gospels. I don’t know whether this humor is Jewish, ancient Palestinian, the Evangelist’s or Jesus’ own. It isn’t often obvious to us (indeed, suggesting that the Gospel is funny feels vaguely irreverent). However, I suspect that God does indeed have an indulgent sense of humor. We should be grateful. God “gets” the irony of our childish myopia, foolish intransigence, contrary impulses and irrational, self-inflicted harm, all in pursuit of what we sincerely think is the right thing. We are loved anyway.

Maybe we should learn to imitate God’s sense of humor.
Humor is healthy, a balm to tragedy. According to one study, 80% of U.S. comedians are Jewish, a group that knows a bit about tragedy. Tragedy and humor both rely on a rational trajectory that shockingly veers into the absurd (humor) or sad (tragedy). William Novak says that Jewish humor is usually substantive, anti-authoritarian, critical and mocking of authority.

In reading Jesus’ parables through the lens of humor, we recognize a wry, ironic, hyperbolic, satirical, witty and self-deprecating tone. We can imagine the occasional chuckle, as in “ha! Corrupt Judge! As if there were any other kind!” or chortle at the idea of an old widow beating up that corrupt judge (Lk. 18:1-8). Mocking the Romans, challenging Pharisaical hypocrisy, insisting that Samaritans are good … all done with humor! Makes one wonder why Christians are not funnier.

Humor is a virtue. Practicing it makes us better: more patient, tolerant, understanding and forgiving. The best humor is self-effacing, as when Jesus cheekily praises Nathanael as “a true Israelite” just after his would-be disciple had teasingly mocked the idea that he could be the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1 46-47). Its effect is twofold: we take ourselves less seriously and others more seriously. We might get along a lot better with others if we could laugh a little more at ourselves. Imagine a self-deprecating rapprochement across the “red” and “‘blue” barricades tapping that universal humor in search of solidarity with one another. After all, we are in this together.

We sorely need the salubrious effect of humor to get over self-righteous ideology. The globe is in crisis and we are seriously making bad decisions that are contrary to reason, science and common sense. We are being foolish, silly. Whether this ultimately plays out as a tragedy or a comedy is up to us.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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