By Derek Penwell
[In view of the recent unbelievable boneheadedness in Washington, I thought it would be helpful to dust off this piece to explain why/how I do what I sometimes do when it comes to being a sarcastic jerk for Jesus.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus lately.
“You’re a minister. You should be thinking a lot about Jesus.”
No. Yeah, I get that. What I mean is that I speak/write about following Jesus all the time … as if people automatically know what I’m talking about when I say it. Turns out, they don’t always know what I mean by it. Heck, sometimes I don’t always know what I mean by it.
Consequently, it seems important from time to time to think it through again, to seek to capture what it was Jesus was trying to do all those years ago, hitchhiking his way around the Palestinian outback. It strikes me that his friends, for the most part, haven’t done him any favors, painting him as unfailingly “loving.”
“But he was loving.”
True, but a lot turns on how you define “loving.” Jesus appears in the popular imagination as the chief proponent of Frank Burns’ famous dictum that “it’s nice to be nice to the nice.” Jesus as proto-flower child, spending his time roaming the countryside tossing off bon mots, throwing impromptu picnics, and patting toddlers on the head.
All this bucolic itinerating raises a question, however: If Jesus was so nice, why did anybody feel the need to kill him?
See what I mean?
Apparently “loving,” when Jesus does it, involves more than smiling a lot and quoting Helen Steiner Rice.
How does Jesus love, then?
Perhaps we should ask the Pharisees. In the Gospels Jesus devoted a great deal of attention to “loving” them.
Why do I use scare quotes? I’m going to venture out on a limb here and suggest that the Pharisees didn’t feel particularly “loved” by Jesus. That is to say, whatever else they may have felt about Jesus, the Pharisees most likely didn’t associate Jesus with baseball, mom, and apple pie.
Take a look, for example, at how Matthew depicts Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. The twenty-third chapter is a tour de force of rhetorical smack down.
“Hypocrites.” “Blind guides.” “Whitewashed sepulchers.” “Snakes.” “Brood of vipers.”
Warms the cockles, doesn’t it?
But I would like to suggest that Jesus-as-verbal-ninja may be Jesus at his most loving.
In a culture that equates mutual non-aggression pacts (“I won’t dig too deeply into your life, if you won’t dig too deeply into mine”) with the faithful expression of Christian interpersonal social responsibility, the kind of love Jesus practices with respect to the Pharisees cannot but appear abrasive, sarcastic, in short, mean. But when Jesus says to the Pharisees that not only are they wrong about the new reign God envisions, they’re dreadfully, awfully, headed-in-the-opposite-direction wrong, he’s demonstrating love in its truest sense. And I mean “truest” in exactly that way—love in its most honest sense—because love cannot exist in the absence of honesty.
To the extent that people are addicted, for instance, you express your love for them by saying, “Your life, as presently constructed, is headed off the rails. And I’m not going to keep up the charade that ‘you know, it’s cool’ in the name of keeping the peace.”
Sometimes, saying no to injustice, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism is the most loving thing you can do.
“Yeah, ok. I get the whole love = honesty thing. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a sarcastic smartass when you do it.”
See, this is something I think we need to explore further. Jesus didn’t shy away from sarcasm. He had a sharp tongue. Jesus was quick to call out certain groups of folks in the most unflattering terms (see, “Hypocrites,” “blind guides,” "white washed sepulchers,"etc.). He didn’t do a whole lot of hand-wringing about whether he was being “nice”—at least in ways we would recognize as “nice” in polite society. Instead, he employed a razor wit when he thought it was called for.
So, the question isn’t: “Did Jesus use sarcasm?” He did. His derision still draws winces.
The question is: “Against whom did Jesus use sarcasm?”
Now we’re getting somewhere, because I think Jesus’ language patterns reveal his understanding of power arrangements. That is to say, if you read through the Gospels, the people against whom Jesus fulminates occupy the seats of power. If you notice, Jesus doesn’t use sarcasm against ordinary individuals, but against individuals and groups of individuals who represent the hegemonic power arrangements he thinks are inimical to the unfolding reign of God . . . individuals and groups that maintain several layers of insulation against the elements that always threaten to lay normal people low.
Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Adulterers. Thieves. The weak. The outcast. The down-on-their-luck reprobates who’ve generally lost the ability to defend themselves against the indignities associated with waking up to find themselves at the bottom of an execrable heap. These people Jesus not only cuts a break, but often befriends.
His withering fire is reserved for the scions of privilege at the top of the food chain.
I think Jesus saves his arsenal of verbal pipe bombs for folks armored against the day-to-day humiliations suffered by just about everyone else, because nothing else penetrates. It’s hard to love people who live in in the impregnable fortresses of hegemony. Jesus loves them, however, by refusing to allow their carefully constructed barriers to keep him out. He wields a rhetorical street-sweeper, the ammunition for which is love jacketed in armor-piercing honesty.
In other words, Jesus launches an assault in the Gospels not because he can’t control his tongue, or because he despises the religio-political muckity-mucks, but because he’s determined not to let their battlements repel the truth of love. The easy thing to do would be to “tone it down,” be “nice,” shower his opponents with sunshine. But Jesus loves them too much to do that. So he lights them up.
Moreover, I want to suggest that sarcasm is still a useful rhetorical tool in the service of love. I know this sounds counter-intuitive at best, and dangerous at worst.
Counter-intuitive because sarcasm sounds mean. And, Lord knows, it can be mean. I’ve used it that way myself, more than I care to remember. If we’re trying to be loving, shouldn’t we use language that can’t be misinterpreted? Well, if postmodernism teaches us anything, it certainly lays out the problems associated with the slipperiness of language and our inability to say anything clearly enough to avoid being misunderstood. But more to the point, the language of “niceness” when used to avoid the truth, is no longer loving, it’s not even “nice.”
Making these rhetorical choices can be dangerous because sarcasm used indiscriminately is mean. Sarcasm used against individuals without the layers of insulation provided by power is just destructive; rather than chipping away at the painstakingly assembled defenses of power, it just blows holes through meat and bone and vital organs. It requires surgical precision, not blunt force trauma.
“But even if Jesus uses it, you’re sure not Jesus.”
True enough. That makes it more dangerous, simply because I’m a broken individual tempted by defensiveness in my best moments, and self-aggrandizement in my worst. But just because the employment of sarcasm is dangerous doesn’t mean it should be off limits. It just means that it must be used with great circumspection for the purposes of calling power to account.
So, even though it’s a potentially dangerous enterprise, being a smartass for Jesus is sometimes the most loving thing I can think to do.