Mark Shea: On humour, Part 2

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There are jokes scattered throughout Scripture. PHOTO: Cookie Studio/Pixabay

Humour can be used for good, or ill

Because humour is about incongruity, it has long been a tool for addressing the hypocrisy of the powerful.  In Scripture, humour, on the rare occasions it shows up, is typically the laughter of the underdog at the oppressor.

For instance, Judges contains a fine scene of black comedy often overlooked because most people think we must adopt a certain tone when reading, you know, Sacred Scripture.  We must be reverent!

Sure.  But reverence means offering respect to what the sacred writer is trying to tell us.  And the story of Ehud (Judges 3:12-30) is about a cunning defender of his oppressed people outwitting a powerful bad guy. It stands in a tradition stretching all the way to Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd, Colonel Hogan vs. Colonel Klink, and the Marx Brothers vs. every popinjay they ever met.

In the tale, Israel has again fallen under the jackboot of a conqueror and Ehud is chosen by God to save them. He asks an audience with Eglon, the extremely fat king of their Moabite oppressors.  A lefty, Ehud wears his sword on his right hip, leaving the left one bare.  The king’s guard take his bare left hip as a token that he comes unarmed.  Ehud gets his private audience and announces, “I have a message from God for you”, whereupon he runs Eglon through till the fat closes over the hilt of his sword, then flees out the window.  Meanwhile, the courtiers wait around outside, hesitant to enter because they think Eglon is using the toilet, giving Ehud time to escape.

Not a drawing room comedy to be sure, but I have no doubt that ancient Israelites found that tale at least as funny as we find Kind Hearts and Coronets or any other comedy where some deserving villain bites it in a hilarious way.

Humour as a weapon against oppression is as healthy and normal as it gets.  But weaponised humour is not just the province of the underdog.  It can also become an instrument of oppression.

This happens when humour sours into flippancy, what CS Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape calls “the finest armour-plating” Hell has devised against the life and joy of God. He continues: “Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it… [Flippancy] is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”

The point is this: Humour in defense of the underdog against the oppressor is one thing.  But humour in defense of the oppressor against his victims is not humour at all. It is simply cruelty and the laughter of hyenas at their prey.

What does such “humour” look like?  It looks like a gang of bullies tripping a blind man or a group of thugs laughing at a child’s speech impediment.  It is Hitler, addressing the Reichstag to gales of laughter and mocking a plea from Roosevelt requesting assurances that he will not attack his neighbours.

The humour of Hell imitates certain qualities of real humour, of course, because the devil is the ape of God.  Bullies often gang up on their victims in imitation of the genuine solidarity that unites good people in a good cause.  The mockery of the weak by bullies is often masked by the bully’s claim of courage in a cheap imitation of the true courage of martyrs.  So the cruel laughter of bullies can sound (to themselves) like the genuine laughter of saints.

But the humour of Hell always has one quality true humour lacks: it punches down instead of up. It aims to humiliate those weaker than the bully, never to build them up, nor to take the arrogant and powerful down a peg.  St Lawrence could joke “Turn me over.  I’m done on this side” to the monsters roasting him to death and shame them with such courage as they mocked him.  But when the Donald Trump mocked a reporter’s disability, he defeated and shamed nobody but himself and the vile mob who cheered him.

True humour casts down the mighty in their arrogance and lifts up the meek and the lowly.  The humour of Hell humiliates the vulnerable and strengthens only those who prey on them.

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