The worst excuse in the world is also one of the most subtly sinister: “I was only joking.” Seems pretty harmless, right? But I suspect that more cruelty has been excused under the guise of “just joking” than under any other pretext.
This isn’t to say that joking around is the cause of evil and cruelty. But there’s something about humor that lets us off the hook emotionally for doing terrible things to other people. In reports of horrific events, from death camps to video-recorded assaults, more often than not you’ll hear chilling accounts of the laughter that accompanied them. It’s an odd tic with humans – if we can laugh about something, we feel like it can’t be that bad. If we can laugh at someone, surely there’s something they’ve done to deserve it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that we find laughter and cruel humor in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. First, after the trial with the Sanhedrin:
Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?” (Matthew 27:67-68)
And later with the Roman soldiers, after He had been condemned to death:
Then the soldiers led Him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison. And they clothed Him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on His head, and began to salute Him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they struck Him on the head with a reed and spat on Him; and bowing the knee, they worshiped Him. And when they had mocked Him, they took the purple off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him out to crucify Him. (Mark 15:16-18)
It’s easy to read this story from the perspective of Jesus and His followers and feel grief at these actions. It’s more uncomfortable to put yourself in the place of the soldiers. But their actions are understandable. Here’s man who claims to be king, even though his parents are nobodies. Even his own people have condemned this self-righteous “prophet” to death, and his own followers have abandoned him – not much of a king! What harm is there in putting him in his place and having a little fun?
What could at worst be a matter of indifference becomes a matter of intense contempt when mockery and laughter is brought into it. There’s a thrill in the sharpness that these things bring, and an ability to transform an unknown human into an dehumanized joke.
So what’s my point? It’s this: if you find yourself ever, for any reason, saying, “I was just joking!” when someone has been hurt by something you’ve said – know that you’re using the worst excuse in the world.
I say this as someone who appreciates humor. It’s true that sometimes a joke is just a joke. I confess that there was a time in my younger and more self-righteous years when I decided to stop and analyze my motivations every time I was tempted to laugh. Needless to say, I didn’t end up laughing much at all, and I made myself and everyone around me pretty miserable. So there are limits.
But if our words or actions have hurt someone, there is a very good chance that there’s more going on than just good humor. Even if your motivations are pure, you owe it that person and yourself to go beyond “I was just joking!” to a deeper conversation. It’s worth the extra effort to avoid the possibility that you’re covering up something uglier than you realize.
(Image copyright: dacasdo / 123RF Stock Photo. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)