THE SACRED AND THE SERBIAN! (Part of an ongoing series "Scripture, Peacemaking and Humor")

     The Bible tells us one of the ways God deals with injustice and oppression is to laugh at them.  Psalm 37, a hymn of praise to the One who is on the way to bring down the rule of wealthy tyrants who seem cemented in power, proclaims at v. 13:

        “The LORD laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.”

     This remarkable psalm also calls for the people to follow God’s ways and remain nonviolent in their actions even as they have great desire to revolt.  At v. 8:

         “Refrain from anger, and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil.”

      Instead, the people are to “trust” (v.3), “delight” (v.4) and “commit” (v.5) in and to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.

      And the result of this strategy?

          “A little while, and the wicked will be no more…. 

(v. 10-11)

(v. 10-11)

    As children of God, created in God’s image and imbued with God-esque powers, it only goes to figure that one of the ways the LORD seeks us to trust, delight and commit ourselves in the struggle against the dark forces is to do as He does….laugh at them!  

     Takeaway:  use humor, and boldly - like God would! - to bring down the mighty, lift up the lowly, and bring our world great peace.

     Doesn’t that sound like a great plan?  Fun, too! 

     I have been really enjoying my recent research of groups throughout the world and throughout history that have used humor (and successfully) to bring down dictators and neutralize fascism.  Ironically, I’m not yet finding a lot on nonviolent peacemaking church and synagogue groups that focus on the funny for their purposes, but there are some great examples to be found elsewhere.  

     For example, Serbia.  When strongman Slobodan Milošević rose to despotic power in the last decades of the last century and made life miserable for millions throughout the former Yugoslavia, a community of students and regular folk rose up to bring him down.  Nonviolently.  And with a lot of intentional humor.  The group's name was “Otpor!”   

Meaning, "Resistance!"

Meaning, "Resistance!"

     And this group is the subject of a super-interesting (and entertaining) book I’ve been reading:  “Humor & Nonviolent Struggle in SERBIA” by Janjira Sombatpoonsiri.  Highly recommended.

The cover of this delightful, inspiring book depicts another effective humorous Outpor! action titled "Looking for the Rector."  When the pro-regime rector of Belgrade University acted objectionably, students demanded his resignation. Suddenly, he was AWOL.  Students journeyed throughout the city absurdly trying to find him with oversized homemade telescopes. (Photographer unknown.  Courtesy of Vreme magazine, Belgrade.)

The cover of this delightful, inspiring book depicts another effective humorous Outpor! action titled "Looking for the Rector."  When the pro-regime rector of Belgrade University acted objectionably, students demanded his resignation. Suddenly, he was AWOL.  Students journeyed throughout the city absurdly trying to find him with oversized homemade telescopes. (Photographer unknown.  Courtesy of Vreme magazine, Belgrade.)

     While, as Sombatpoonsiri suggests, the humor of Otpor! was seeded in the work of professional Serbian artists — actors and writers in tv, film and theater; visual artists and rock n’ roll musicians — it then blossomed as Outpor! leadership worked with "regular folk" to come up with clever stunts all could join in on to great, nonviolent effect.

     One of my favorite examples of early protest was a street skit entitled, “All the President’s Babies.”  The economic recession Serbs were suffering under Miloševic’s regime was resulting in a rise in costs of children’s products.  So parents were invited to bring their babies to the president's home in an affluent suburb of Belgrade and offer them to up to him and his wife for their care taking.  According to Sombatpoonsiri, “A few days after the action, the government reduced the tax on children’s products.”  (p. 38)

     Score!  How easy was this protest action to take, and how safe (since of course police are not going to go after parents with babies!).  And it must have made for a very funny visual for those in and around the crowd as well as those who saw it later in the news (where invariably a it was shared, because, our author notes, humorous actions are more likely than plain old serious ones to get media attention, quelle surprise).

Serbian children play with flour during a protest action entitled “Let’s spice up the food,” meant to bring awareness of the importance of Yugoslav national elections in September 2000 in Belgrade. Photo by Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press.

Serbian children play with flour during a protest action entitled “Let’s spice up the food,” meant to bring awareness of the importance of Yugoslav national elections in September 2000 in Belgrade. Photo by Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press.

     Another effective effort was the “Accoustic Rebellion.”  During the daily propaganda-sated tv news broadcasts, Otpor! student and community leaders would go through the streets banging pots and pans, inviting neighbors to join. “Ha ha!  Not listening!  Not listening!” they in to many bangs proclaimed. 

     Again, this was a super-easy and playful thing all could do, plus, as Sombatpoonsiri notes, it allowed for bonds of community to be forged between often otherwise isolated opposition members and participants. (p. 53)  No one was fighting Goliath alone!  

     One of Otpor!’s most pointed, and most famous, comic social protests was called, “Dinar for a Change” (Dinar za smenu).  This was a parody of the government’s official effort “Dinar for Sowing” (Dinar za setvu), a policy that extorted already impoverished Serbians to donate some dinars (Serbian currency) for agricultural improvement.  (p. 100)

     Activists glued a picture of Milošević onto an old petrol barrel and placed it in front of the Belgrade National Theater.  Next to the barrel was a stick and some instructions:  “If you put dinars inside the barrel, you can use the provided stick to beat Milošević’s picture.  If you don’t have any coins because of Milošević, hit the barrel harder!”  

Like a piñata for grown-ups.  And whacked for great peace!

Like a piñata for grown-ups.  And whacked for great peace!

      Crowds of people lined up to take their whack, giving many a chance to express (and express) their anger toward the regime.  As an added plus, it was an action that did not require any Otpor! leadership to be present, so no arrests could be made.  And, it made for great press coverage. 

     Throughout the nation, even and especially in places where humorous protest would not work, the people became aware there were those who were standing up and speaking out.  And in these places where the humor wasn't going to fly (either because the culture was overly sober or ruling party presence was too strong) Otpor! helped residents figure out how to engage in less audacious, but sometimes equally creative action.

     Like standing on the street corner handing out a popular brand of chocolate bar called “Julka.”  The name easily brought to mind “JUL,” the acronym for the “Yugoslav United Left Party”, the official government party under the tight-fisted rule of Milošević’s wife, Mirjana Marković.  Markovic often wore a flower in her hair, something (not unlike our current president) that offered a source of ridicule, especially because she was so disliked; extra ironically, Julka candy bars had, as their logo, a cow with a flower between her horns.  ‘Nuff said.

What a pair!  She's the strong-fisted head of the for-all-intents-and-purposes sole political party in Serbia (JUL), and he's charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

What a pair!  She's the strong-fisted head of the for-all-intents-and-purposes sole political party in Serbia (JUL), and he's charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

       The above examples are, according to Sombatpoonsiri, but a handful of the ways comedy, nonviolence and politics intersected to bring about peace.  Many believe it was Otpor! that made all the difference in Milošević's demise, because the several opposition parties in government were in too much disagreement with one another to effectively lead a resistance.  

      For those of us finding the strong impulse to participate in resistance to the current political regime in power in Washington and lamenting a lack of effective official resistance leadership (for example, in Democratic party leadership), it's perhaps comforting to know we're not the only ones who have had that problem!  And, like neighbors around the globe (and God) remind us, no matter what, we can actually turn things around and upside down with cleverness, laughter and chutzpah!  The Bible tells us so!!

Outpor! members in a jail maid of newspapers to protest the government's censorship of independent newspapers.  

Outpor! members in a jail maid of newspapers to protest the government's censorship of independent newspapers.  

SNL's Kyle Mooney as a ghettoized CNN reporter at a Sean Spicer briefing (ha ha!).  Media sources separated at birth.

SNL's Kyle Mooney as a ghettoized CNN reporter at a Sean Spicer briefing (ha ha!).  Media sources separated at birth.