The Role of Satire, Snark and Sarcasm in Building Community

Photo by ganesha.isis on Flickr

Short answer: there is none.

I recently stumbled upon a Les Miserables inspired video parody  in support of a Barack Obama’s second term. I have obvously shared my support of President Obama in the past, but a lesser-known thing about me is that I loves me some Broadway Musicals: In the Heights, Rent, The Book of Morman and Les Miserables being some of my favorites. President Obama AND Jean Valjean together, yes sir, may I have some more. So not only did I click on over and watch it, but soon found out that I am one-degree of separation from one of the performers.

Anyhoo, here is a sample from One Term More, a video parody of One Day More from Les Miserables

One Term More!

With laws that let ’em stand their ground,
Republicans are locked & loaded.

Contraception’s now a sin,
Screwing G.M. in the clutch.
Incivility’s a virtue,
Homophobic. Out of touch.
Filibusters. Budget scrums.
Ultrasounds & speculums.
To the Dark Side they’ve succumbed.

After I watched One Term More, even though I thought the lyrics were witty, the satire right on and I generally supported the politics behind the creation of it, I was left with more than a little discomfort. It was the same kind of discomfort that I get when friends of mine in the religious community post pictures, quotes and updates that – to those with whom we find agreement – may be powerful, prophetic and or giggle-inducing, do little to build up community across the chasms of theology, ideology or politics.

Yeah, I know the smart-ass photo captions are funny and I’m a Debbie Downer.

Now before anyone accuses me of dismissing the power of satire on culture, I do not disagree. Thoughtful satire, witty snark and timely sarcasm can be powerful forces, but it seems that in today’s uber-connected and politically charged climate these tactics serve mostly to galvanizing communities already in agreement in order to be a force against the enemy and they do very little to help build bridges of reconciliation, relationships and commonality. I am willing to be pushed on this, but I simply do not believe bridges are built with snark, satire and sarcasm and I would bet that most satirist are not really interested in reconciliation with those whom they are satirizing.

But it feels so good and makes me happy . . . cue Sheryl Crow.

In no way am I above this, as I too have leaned on what I think is funny in order to take a swipe at someone with whom I disagree. It can be cathartic and, truthfully, when you hit a snark-homer, it feels awesome . . . and when friends retweet, share, comment, etc affirming said awesomeness, all the better. But here is where I experience the tention: as a person of faith, a pastor, one who is committed to the building up of community, I am held to a different standard than the rest of the world. I can be all up in the political battles, but I can choose to engage with a different posture and see the landscape through a different lens. Sure, I want to “win the day” but more importantly, I want human relationships, all human relationships, not just my ideological kindred, to be built up and not further torn apart.

I am not calling on a widespread boycott of all the ironic images with witty political quips ripping the politics of the other party, but I would say that if you choose to post them while also calling for people to reach over and beyond aisles of disagreement, that second part will be harder to believe. Some of you out there have no interest in building bridges and will have a legitimate case for calling me out on the privilege that I have to urge bridge-building, but I stand firm in by belief that those of us in the church can and must model a different way of  living in conflict and disagreement with one another.

This is not a call to weakness, but to graciousness. We can speak truth to power without tearing one another down, we can challenge the beliefs of another without resorting to violent rhetoric and we can stand for human dignity without stripping human dignity from those who may not stand along side of us. Jesus did it all the time, others have done it since then and I refuse to believe that we cannot do it still.

So . . . while I do get a chuckle out of some of what you all post and the serious creativity that politics can inspire, when it comes to choosing how to engage during this political season, I’m going to try my darnedest to muzzle my smart-ass awesomeness in exchange for words of hope-filled idealism.

If you’re up for it, you’re welcome to join me.

And for your viewing and listening pleasure, here is the real One Day More, the 10th Anniversary performance.

Or if you are a Nick Jonas fan, here’s his version and the movie trailer is here.

My Sunday Sermon, “Would Jesus Have Said Vagina?”

Photo by joethedork - San Francisco Bay to Breakers, 2005

[Photo By joethedork]

Okay, I am not preaching anywhere this Sunday, but feel free to “liberate” the idea, should you need a sermon starter. That said, I do hope that more than a few preachers out there are going to somehow use the recent Michigan State Legislature vagina kerfuffle as fodder for some good conversations on power, community and discernment.

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about but have noticed an increased use of the word “vagina,” you are not imagining things. The increased volume of verbal vagina usage can be attributed to Thursday’s rebuke of Michigan State Representative, Lisa Brown, after her use of the word “vagina” during a debate on abortion the day before. According to the Detroit News, at the close of her argument about an abortion bill she said these words,

“Finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no,'”

The result was that she was barred from speaking the next day.

“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

This was apparently not out of character for this particular legislative body as Rep. Barb Byrum was also barred from speaking because of what she said during her failed amendment to the abortion bill banning men from getting a vasectomy unless the procedure was necessary to save a man’s life.

“If we truly want to make sure children are born, we would regulate vasectomies,” Byrum told reporters Thursday.

Wow. Just wow.

While there are many directions one could go with this, I think this situation raises some good questions for bodies of people who strive to engage in debate, discernment and decision-making. There have always been people who seem to cross the lines of appropriateness, decorum and social norms, but in this case we are again reminded that part of the discussion always has to be about who gets to determine those rules and to what end.

I am all for appropriateness in large groups and helping people to avoid unnecessarily over-sharing about their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I still remember during one meeting that I was leading when, during a debate on sexuality, a father shared with the body – and webcasted community – about his daughter’s sexual activity. He was trying to make a point, but I am not sure that it was very effective NOR did it get to the heart of his position. Instead, attention was drawn away from the point he was trying to make and the energy of the whole body was deflected away from debate.

Now some might say that Brown’s and Byurms’s comments did the same thing, but I would disagree. I do not think that their use of “shocking” language drew attention away from the debate, instead, their comments got the heart of the actual debate on abortion AND challenged the enforcement of random rules like “decorum” and “civility” that are meant to stifle voices and preserve power. There are few things about which I agree with the Tea Party, but one thing that I have appreciated is that they have used their place of authority to speak into systems that have lost touch and/or have used sets of unspoken rules to control and maintain power. I rarely agree with the content or tone, but they get it. Sometimes, you just have to call horse manure when you perceive it being unnecessarily spread. There may be repercussions for those actions, but speaking truth to power, by it’s very nature, will illicit reaction and rebuke.

So the burning question for me and I hope for preachers the world world over this Sunday is, “Would Jesus have said, ‘Vagina’?”

Jesus healed in the Sabbath and said to those in power… Mark 3:1-6

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Jesus was a tad bit bold, shocking even, and said to those in power… John 6:25-59

48 I am the bread of life.

Jesus sometimes had enough, got pissed and said to those in power… Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

All of this goes to say that there are times when shocking words that defy decorum and civility are needed in order to hold accountable the very people who have the power to define the rules of decorum and civility. These acts help bodies to reflect on whether the rules and expectations of behavior help move a body forward with a sense of integrity or if they are a means to maintain power, silence the minority and lessen the positive influence of the body.

Jesus was not always about speaking shocking words to power, just as I am sure that not all of the representatives involved in this case are always the inappropriate or uptight caricatures that they are made out to be. But at the same time, just as Jesus called us to prayer, compassion, service and love . . . in order to make a point about an issue and to speak truth to power when needed, he did so with a prophetic and often shocking word.

So yes, Jesus would have said, “Vagina.”