One of my favorite books of all time is “The Healing Power of Humor,” by Allen Klein (Putnam, NYC, 1989). In it, Mr. Klein discusses and has assembled a gajillion memorable and truly funny examples of humor used by ordinary folks/non-comedians to make their lives and/or the world a better place.
One of my very favorite examples from the book involves negotiating teams from the US and the Soviet Union trying to hammer out an agreement during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the most incredibly tense of times, and the need to find some kind of consensus could not have been more significant.
According to Mr. Klein, here’s what happened:
At one point…Soviet and American negotiators became deadlocked. There they sat in silence, until someone suggested that each person tell a humorous story. One of the Russians told a riddle: “What is the difference between capitalism and communism?” The answer? “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” The tactic worked; with the mood relaxed, the talks continued.” (p. 9)
I’m guessing we’ve all had experiences where humor has been the key to creating warmed relationship. I noticed when I was in Europe in September, the best way to get the help I needed when I didn’t speak the language was to apologize in gesture that I was a bit of a “dumb American,” and, hence, was having difficulty in communication. Because I made a bit of a funny face, my “Other” was usually at least a bit amused and more joyful and relaxed in assisting.
Of course that didn’t work every time…sometimes the “Other” had nothing but a sour expression and clearly expected me to speak the language, which, after the initial sting of rejection, I later found funny and added to my journal as “typical-tourist”-type anecdotes of my trip….
Also of course, I’m sure my situation could have ended much more badly had my “Other” had REALLY taken offense to my lack of understanding, or taken advantage of my ignorance and goofy gesture. Or if I had been in a culture where women are extremely oppressed. While not always appropriate or successful, I still so believe a little humor can work wonders in breaking down the barriers that divide us.
And, it would seem, the best kind of humor to do the trick is of the self-effacing type. Making gentle fun of ourselves is a great way to absorb tension while still keeping ourselves strong in who we are (because cleverness engages our smarts in the most empowering of ways!).
In fact, in the example of the American/Soviet negotiators, the joke told gently made fun of everyone in the room! It reminded that while on the one hand, the communists' and capitalists' differences made them miles apart, ironically they were actually exactly alike. Not only the wisdom of that punch line, but the enjoyable, self-effacing way the teller shared it (after all, the communist initiated the admittance he was no better than a capitalist), created safe space for everyone to get closer.
There is a very interesting interchange in the gospel of John that I think operates in this very way. It’s the one found in John 1:43-51, the lectionary gospel lectionary text read yesterday. Perhaps if you were in church you heard it.
In the story, Philip tells his friend Nathaniel about meeting Jesus, the long awaited Messiah who comes from Nazareth. Nathaniel’s response is more than sour: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
As you may know, Nazareth was the most “nothing” of villages in Jesus’ time, without status whatsoever. In their book “Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John” (Fortress, Minneapolis, 1998), Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh note that Nazareth “was concealed by a saucer-like depression as if to emphasize its insignificance. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament or any other literature before Christ.” (p. 56) Because social standing was EVERYTHING in the ancient world, it would have been considered most improper, even offensive, for a God of any worth to do something notable in such a place.
Jesus overhears Nathanial’s comment, and how does he respond? Does he retaliate, calling him stupid? Or try and one-up him by saying, “Can anything good come out of Cana?” (That’s where Nathanial was from -- a town just a little larger than Nazareth. Really it’s the pot calling the kettle black here.) Does Jesus get hurt and mad and then and there decide to cross Nathanial off his potential discipleship list?
No! He responds with a little self-effacing humor: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” In other words, “Yup! For sure! I’m from Podunksville!” He may have even given a funny gesture to emphasize his lowly (but not really) status.
Actually, in his use of humor here, he was also doing something much like the Soviet jokester: he was acknowledging his and Nathaniel's common struggle. You see, Israelites had a reputation for being swindlers and untrustworthy, even then. As you may know, the name “Israel” was given to the guy originally named “Jacob”. In the Book of Genesis he is depicted as a trickster par excellence, constantly pulling all sorts of underhanded tricks to get what he needed. In fact, in Hebrew, “Jacob” means “leg-puller”.
While on the one hand, Jacob’s conniving ways in Genesis make for enjoyable tales (as previously shared in The Comic Lens). But you can imagine how difficult it was then, as it has been throughout Jewish history, to be constantly assumed and labeled a cheat. So much horror has been unleashed upon Jewish people because of racial prejudice.
So here, in responding, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is also giving Nathaniel a wink of understanding and fraternity. After all, Jesus is a prejudiced-against-Israelite, too, even if a Podunksville Israelite!
It’s such a brilliant, witty line. And, having so ably absorbed the tension Nathanial’s bitter line may have caused, Jesus creates a safe space for Nathaniel to change his tune and decide he indeed wants to “Come and See” what Jesus and his project are all about. In fact, Nathaniel immediately says he now wants to dedicate his life to him! Sounds like Jesus may have been the “hearts desire” he’d been looking for, and masking, for a long time: the creator of beloved “chosen” community born from the experience of lowly Israelite peasantry.
In America 2018, there is so much conversation right now, and rightly so, about how we are to be with one and talk to one another, lifting one another up and breaking down the barriers that divide us. I invite you to include in your tool kit the US/SOVIET, JESUS/NATHANIEL approach. From personal experience, it worked in Europe; it can and needs to work here.
P.S. You may be wondering what Harvey Fierstein has to do with this blog! Well, to be honest, not much. Mostly because of space. Of course, his name makes for a clever title, so I decided to take the leap and use it. Also, he’s always been openly and proudly accepting of himself as a gay man; often responding to prejudicial criticism and creating beloved welcoming community with lots of grace, compassion and gentle humor. (Okay, here's a little wonderful Mr. Fierstein to take us out!)