For many years, a wonderful seminary colleague of mine taught a class called “Humor as Healing and Grace.” Humor is a theological subject because it can be a way of healing divisions and cultivating the grace of self-awareness. This theology is now best represented in America by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. These Emmy award-winning comedians on the Comedy Central channel have each announced rallies on the National Mall on October 30. Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” is a parody of Glenn Beck’s August “Restoring Honor” rally. Stephen Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” is a send up of conservative fear-mongering. These rallies will do more to heal the divisions between among Americans these days than perhaps any more obviously “religious” events could possibly do.
The United States of America isn’t united any more; it’s being torn apart by media-driven extremism; the two extremes in American politics and religion today paint each other not only as wrong, but as evil and in the grip of demonic forces. The future of our democratic experiment is literally at risk in this increasing extremism. Democracy is the art of compromise; it requires that Americans who hold different views be able to develop enough empathy for each other so that bi-partisanship can actually occur, and the country move forward. If we cannot cut each other any slack at all, democracy cannot function. The Stewart rally advertising says, “We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.” In other words, ‘tone it down’ so we can hear ourselves think.
Comedy is a way to see the contradictions and foibles of the human condition and make it bearable. Comedy isn’t trivial. Comedy comes from the contradictions, even the pain of human existence. Comedy is, in fact born in pain and tragedy. It is never recorded that Jesus laughed, though the Gospels do say that he cried. Chris Rock, the brilliant comedian, commented in an interview in the Chicago Tribune in October of 2009 about how he gets his comedy, like so many comedians do, from observing life and feeling its pain. “I hit my rough patches,” he says. “Friend of mine, Rich Jeni, shot himself in the head…If somebody asks me, ‘Was he depressed?” He was a comedian!” He goes on, “A comedian is like half a psychic. Very aware. It is very, very aware to be a comedian. You kind of gotta notice everything…Stuff doesn’t get by you…You just notice too much.” The result of all this knowledge is comedy, and it’s also pain. “It’s so much easier to not know in life…You just end up knowing too much about people.”
Knowing each other, and laughing together about how ridiculous it really is to live in these times, are practical ways we can get out of extremism and into empathy. Being able to laugh together is rooted in the human capacity for self-transcendence. We human beings are not only defined by our capacities for destruction and creativity. We also laugh. We are capable at making fun of ourselves, and of our own puffed up, self-importance, even the kind that is leading to tragic consequences. Making fun of our own human temptation to overreach is a way to promote self-consciousness and self-transcendence. It’s a way to remind ourselves we are not gods, we’re really just human beings and human beings getting tripped up by our own pretensions to grandeur.
This is the underlying theme of Stephen Colbert’s show, and his “March to Keep Fear Alive.” The show, called “The Colbert Report,” was designed to ridicule personality-driven political pundit news, especially those on Fox News such as The O’Reilly Factor. The key comedic theme of the show is that the anchorman (Colbert) is a poorly informed, right wing apologist who is very fond of his own views. Colbert is perhaps best known for his popularizing (and redefining) the term “truthiness,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary featured as its 2006 Word of the Year. As used by Colbert, the term is meant to lampoon claims of truth without regard to evidence, logic, critical thinking or even facts. By using this re-defined term, Colbert effectively lampooned the appeal to the “gut feeling” of contemporary poltical and social discourse. He particularly applied it to the decision of President Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
The ad for the “March to Keep Fear Alive” punctures the religious pretensions of a Beck-type rally, inviting you to march with “The Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A….to Restore Truthiness.” The Colbert march lampoons uncritical nationalism and its use to foster fear and keep people from actually thinking about solving America’s problems. “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.”
So do consider joining these innovative Americans on October 30th on the National Mall and laugh. Couldn’t hurt.