This holiday season many shoppers seeking or carrying gaily wrapped gift packages as they journey in and out of seasonally-decorated shops have been confronted, serenaded, assailed, and enlightened by groups of ethnically diverse protesters belting out “social justice carols" which speak to the deaths of unarmed African-Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of unindicted local police.
Instead of “Silver Bells,” the carolers chime,
Life is Hell, Life is Hell, It's racist time in the city. Ring-a-ling, hear them sing, "Slim hope for justice today."
Instead of “White Christmas,” shoppers hear,
They're dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones the bigots know. Where justice is missing and fairness isn't, because fairness and justice they don't know....
Wearing comic lenses, I find these carols to be an interesting use of the humorously satiric form known as parody. While these songs don’t aim to be “funny”, they do utilize the comic weapon of cleverness to make their points more sharply, deeply, and memorably than if communicated by more didactic means. Because our minds are working doubly to figure out both what is being said as well as what is being lampooned, we either are extra appreciative or extra offended once we’ve figured things out.
And, speaking from experience, I would say conveying indignation via satiric parody is also helpful to the conveyor because it fuels our fervor as well as contains it. It keeps our anger from going off the deep end. Plus, cleverness makes us feel good and smart, a huge help when feeling frustrated and baldly disempowered.
It all sort of reminds me of the Book of Job.
I know, Job is probably the one place in the Bible where we can’t imagine the least iota of comedy. It’s a long, painful lament from a guy who is unfairly tortured by God, the Satan, or both. There’s nothing at all funny here. (Unless, of course, you consider the stage bit I do as “Job’s Mother.” After being introduced, the lights come up and I say, in my most sharply critical “mom voice,” "DON'T PICK!")
Actually, there has been a lot written about the comedy of Job (although not a word about his mother….). What I want to focus on here is his how the Book of Job serves as a satiric parody of the fable of Job, much like "social justice carols" parody the fable of Christmas that its songs substantiates.
As many scholars now attest, there is a nice ancient Israeli folktale about a wealthy, righteous man named Job who is severely tested by God and/or Satan. Job hangs in there and remains faithful, so God rewards him by restoring all he lost and then some. The moral of this fable: when inexplicable tough stuff happens we are to have “patience of Job.” (It also helps, of course, to not pick.)
The Book of Job, on the other hand, comes from a much later time, after Israel had gone through many difficult hardships and not always because she deserved it. Israel had been patient, she had been tested, she had remained faithful and waited and suffered and suffered and waited, and still nothing. Maybe, she'd come to surmise…that "patience of Job" notion was just a bunch of crap.
So, a brilliant author (or community) took that fable and said, “'Patience of Job?' I’ll show you the real patience of Job!” And they took this simplistic story and purportedly cracked it open to show a most dark and difficult portrait of man who isn’t so patient, isn’t patient at all. Job never curses God, which is what will cause God to lose his bet with Satan, but Job comes awfully close…
Pretty much at the top of the book, just after Job has lost everything, he sits upon the ash heap of shame with all sorts of sores (that he hopefully isn’t picking) and friends who come to improperly and inadequately “console” him. However, before they can blather, Job beats them to the punch, offering up the first response to the calamity that's befallen him. He curses the day of his birth and goes into a long parody of a psalm calling God to pretty much condemn everything He's created and turn it all into chaos.
It’s honest, it's raw, and hardly what we’d call “patient.”
After a long series of speeches by Job’s friends incorrectly pinpointing the reasons for Job's suffering and Job endlessly wondering why what’s happened to him has happened to him (all of which can only remain a mystery because who would ever think God succumbs to bet placed by Satan? Where do they think they are, Vegas??), Job’s only wish is that God would appear and explain Himself or, better yet, let Job take God to court and let some disinterested third party decide who was more righteous. (See Job 13 and elsewhere.) This of course is not going to happen because (a) where is a disinterested third party to arbitrate this case going to be found and (b) even if there were such a party, God would never come clean (and look dumb) by explaining it’s all the result of a bet.
In the Book of Job, he is simply and painfully screwed, patience or no.
And then when God finally shows up in Chapter 38, “in a whirlwind”, he pretty much just yells at Job because who is he to challenge the authority of the Creator of the Universe or command His next course of action? "Silence! Peon!!” God essentially says, leaving no room for further response. When viewed straight-forwardly, It’s one of the most puzzling, cruel appearances of God in all of scripture.
However, through he Comic Lens, we see it's meant to be a satire of the traditional notion that God is always in control and when awful things happen there’s always a good reason. It's pretty funny seeing a much "lower" acting like a guilty five-year old who’s having a melt down blaming his parents because it’s their fault he stole from the cookie jar. Read: Crap happens and it's not a test and patience schmatience.
The Book of Job severely, and with clever causticity, challenges everything the fable of Job had come to promote and justify, namely the legitimacy of the religiously conservative leaders who retained power by telling everyone despite their suffering they needed to remain be unendingly “patient.”
Likewise, today’s “social justice carols” pierce the Hallmark Card Christmas myths of the predominantly Anglo-American Upper Middle Class that controls Christmas ideology in our culture and tells us our wishes will all come true if we’re nice, wish hard enough, have faith (and, I suppose, don’t pick). And look and act enough like Upper Middle Class White People.
We may resent those social justice carolers ruining our perfectly lovely holiday spirit by bellyaching about matters that have nothing to do with us, or we may find their message touching but painful because even though they may be right, don’t mess with my beloved "spirit of Christmas!" In either case, they give us all a lot to think about, just like Job. And Job.