In my newspaper this morning I read the sad story of the Scot working in Kyrgyzstan who made an online joke comparing the national delicacy chuchuk ( a kind of sausage) to a horse’s penis. This so annoyed his fellow workers that there was a strike leading to his arrest on grounds of racial hatred. It is unclear what will happen to him. I can imagine what the man is feeling. He put his joke online in good will towards all, in the sure conviction that all humanity finds horse penises as funny as Scots do. Yes, I am claiming that the scatological humour of Scots thinks a horse willy is usually good for a laugh and that there’s nothing offensive about it.
Unfortunately, in Kyrgyzstan………
Good grief what’s wrong with these people? Have they no sense of humour?
This incident is another indication of the danger of jokes, particularly in multi-racial or multi-religious contexts. Something that simply sounds funny to one group of people may sound like hate-speech to another. This is notoriously true of religious jokes. It would appear that many people are quickly outraged by jokes about what they consider to be holy. You would need to be very stupid as well as insensitive to make a joke about the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca at Hajj time. The argument put forward by the writers at Charlie Hebdo is that religious believers like all other people have to endure jokes at the expense of their profoundest beliefs.
I can see problems with this argument. What about the brutal humour of the Nazi press towards the Jews in the 1930’s? Or the sarcasm of the Red Guards’ media towards “bourgeois intellectuals” in Mao’s cultural revolution? There is clearly a tricky job for legislators in distinguishing humour from hate-speech. But as far as my own religious tradition is concerned, I hope that Christian believers can remain cheerful or at any rate patient, when faced with jokes about our what we think is holy. Sometimes we may be able to learn something useful even from an offensive joke.
“Jesus is dying on the cross. Indeed some of his followers even think he’s dead. But then he opens his eyes and gasps a word which is unrecognisable. When he receives no response, he tries again, but again no one can make out what he is saying. Finally with a supreme effort he cries out, “Peter!” Immediately Peter runs to the cross and looking up with reverence and pity, says, “Yes, Lord?” And Jesus replies, “Peter…. I … can……see your house….from up here.”
The first time I heard this I found it offensive. Yes, I recognised the contrast between the horror of the situation and Jesus’ banal observation, but I didn’t find it funny. I was offended because the joke seemed to make light not just of Jesus’ pain but of all human pain; that is, I though it a brutal and stupid joke. Later I realised that there might be a spark of genuine humour in the perception that being elevated on a cross let you see some familiar landmarks. Years later, I was reminded of this joke when I watched “The Life of Brian” by the Pythons, in which a vast gathering of people on crosses sings “Always look on the bright side of life”, causing offence to many Christian believers. I thought it shed an interesting light on some kinds of Christian piety which have turned a Roman atrocity into a routine image of salvation.
Coming back to the joke now, because, curiously, I found it the other day in an online collection of “Clean Religious Jokes”, I can see more clearly that it asks questions about the Gospel stories, all of which feature some utterance of Jesus from the cross. Believers who are familiar with the narratives have come to accept their truthfulness in spite of their inherent improbability. I doubt if most crucified people said much. In Jesus’ case, the narrative has already told us that the disciples, including Peter had deserted him. Perhaps some female disciples were present but maybe not that close. So who could hear what Jesus said, if he said anything? Perhaps the gospel writers’ piety – I exclude Mark who only records Jesus shouting in despair- the way they set up the cross as a kind of pulpit for Jesus’ last teachings, is itself offensive, especially to those whose lives have ended under similar torture and mockery. In the Gospels, the pain and degradation, the dust, the flies, the blood and piss of the crucifixion have been elided in favour of its theological significance. On the other hand, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” convinced me that a fascination with brutality and pain produced a narrative that was finally stultifying.
My own conclusion is that there is a real issue about how Christian believers tell the story of the crucifixion. We should probably avoid the hyper – realism of Mel Gibson, but we should not forget that we are dealing with an imperial execution, a “cruel and unusual punishment,” an injury to the body, mind and spirit of a man, and not simply an incident in the history of salvation.
I owe this process of thinking to an offensive joke.