Holy laughter

Published March 6, 2015

A Sri-Lankan, an Arab, and a Canadian went into a mosque….

Perhaps an unpromising (even perilous) twist on the usual set-up for a bad ethnically-based joke; nevertheless, this past week I experienced exactly this scenario, and was struck by how much laughter was generated by the encounter.

Following a meeting with a Muslim imam and a Christian priest, one of the members of the mosque was asked to take a picture of us. But as we bantered amongst ourselves, and teased the photographer, he started laughing so hard that most of the pictures turned out blurred. As I looked at the result, I began to reflect on the fact that these images resonated with how I have recently been thinking about the nature of laughter.

In many Christian denominations, an issue of considerable concern is the burnout of Christian clergy. I have come to think that a good sense of humour is vital for those called to offer pastoral care to those in need. The ability to laugh-both at absurd situations, but also at one’s own limitations and failures-is, I think, a necessary resource when confronting the depths of human need for any sustained period of time.

When I recently mentioned this idea to a colleague, however, his response was illuminating: “Laughter really isn’t given very favourable treatment in the Bible.” Upon reflection, I had to agree.

For when do people laugh in the scriptures? Abraham and Sarah laugh when told that Sarah will bear a son (Genesis 17:17; 18:13), and Sarah fears that others will laugh at her should it come to pass (Genesis 21:6). In such cases, laughter is associated with cynicism in the first instance, and mockery in the second. In the Psalms, laughter is often directed at the wicked, at whom God laughs (2:2; 37:13); in Proverbs, the fool “rages and laughs” (29:9); and in Ecclesiastes, “the heart of fools is the house of mirth'” (7:4).

The New Testament offers little more regard for laughter. In the Letter of James, those who laugh are those who fail to draw near to God: “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy into dejection” (4:9). There is no reference to Jesus of Nazareth ever laughing. Granted, he does hold out the promise of future mirth-“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21)-but what about the place of humour in present life? One of the few hints that he and his followers sometimes lost themselves to laughter might be read into the accusations made against them by their enemies: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard…!” (Luke 7:33-34).In such cases, however, one can only speculate.

I suppose a possible rebuttal might point to biblical texts that refer to singing songs of joy to God (for example, Psalm 47:1); yet such texts only countenance expressing happiness to God. What of the sharing of such experiences with our neighbours? But even if I grant this pushback, it does little to rebalance the scale of the Bible’s negative portrayal of laughter. When the prophet Elisha is teased about his physical appearance by some small boys-“Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”-he curses them until two bears maul 42 of them to death (2 Kings 2:23-24). I might be prepared to ignore this grumpy tale if I hadn’t so often witnessed members of the clergy completely lose their cool when someone they were working with bruised their fragile ego.

These biblical texts are certainly correct to warn us against neglecting the harm that laughter can cause. Laughter can easily become entangled in relations of power. For example, the constant mocking of a younger sibling by an older sibling can be terribly damaging to the latter’s self-esteem. In the saying, “Can’t you take a joke?” lurks a sinister cruelty.

But we neglect the social benefits of laughter to our peril. While Thomas Aquinas agreed that some forms of laughter were cruel, while others merely frivolous, he also insisted that other expressions of humour contributed to rational thinking. He wrote in praise of “a pleasant person with a happy cast of mind who gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn.” This means more than simply the idea that it is nice to have happy people around.

Two decades ago, I was engaged in solidarity activism in refugee camps in southern Mexico. I recall how a number of the Guatemalan campesinos responded with embarrassment to my feeble attempts to interact with them in my limited Spanish. But their faces brightened immediately after I clumsily translated my first name into what I thought to be its obvious Spanish equivalent: Cristóbal. To my horror, they exclaimed with delight, “Cristóbal Colón!” (Christopher Columbus), and roared with laughter.

It took me some time to get over the embarrassment of being associated with a colonial oppressor. But then I was able to recognize that this opportunity to tease a naive northern university student provided these campesinos with a way to begin to take down the many invisible walls between us. Laughter both illuminated the power inequality between us and began to counteract it (or at least prevent it from defining our relationship). They helped me recognize a part of my identity that I preferred to deny (the significance of the fact that I was a white, privileged male from the rich north) while also opening an opportunity to respond in a way that demonstrated how other elements of my identity made me quite distinct from Señor Colón.

An old story from my childhood church offers another way to illustrate the potential that laughter holds for interrupting our limited perceptions of others and ourselves. And it also highlights why I think clergy need a good sense of humour.

The first Anglican bishop of the Canadian province of New Brunswick was a man named John Medley. Medley was a privileged Englishman, educated at Oxford, and a zealous member of the High Church Oxford Movement in the Church of England. In 1845, however, he accepted the call to become the first bishop of Fredericton in a distant Canadian colony.

Soon after arriving, Medley decided he should familiarize himself with the people under his care. He had little preparation for what he would encounter. Passing a rural farmhouse, he knocked on the door. A young woman answered, and he said, “Good day. Can you tell me whether any Episcopalians live in the area?” The confused woman replied in a mix of English and French, “Ne c’est pas, mais mon pére, la, he killed something crawling under the porch last week…”

In such moments, one can despair, or laugh. Thankfully for Bishop Medley, he was prepared to opt for the latter.

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Brittain was ordained in the dioceses of Fredericton and Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. He teaches theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.


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