Sunday, April 28, 2013

Humor is a Funny Thing. Or Not.

President Barack Obama, once a year dubbed the Comedian-in-Chief, knows how to use humor to uplift rather than to tear down. Oh, he’s funny enough. That’s not my point. What impressed me Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ dinner was not just that he was again very cool, but that he really is comfortable with himself.  He doesn’t need to tear others down to make himself look good. 

Humor can be painful.  President Obama has been the brunt of more than his share of jokes, taken more than his share of ridicule, and been the target of out-right hate. Saturday night,  beginning with the traditional self-deprecating jokes, Obama acknowledged that he was expected to make fun of himself and to take himself down a few pegs, but added, “After 4 ½ years, how many pegs are left?”

Humor is a funny thing.  Or not. We live in a world so starved for genuine joy that our sit-coms have become nothing more than a series of put-down jokes.  No wonder our conversation mimics the comics, filled with bullying snide-remarks rather than the wit of wisdom. That is, if we have face-to-face conversation at all. It’s so much more convenient to make fun of people who “Friend” us electronically or to titter at our “Twitter.” We are sick from our own cynicism.

“Can’t you take a joke?”  I can, and I can tell a pretty good joke about you, too.  But maybe I choose not to.  Not when it’s all about power, either my having enough to humiliate you, or your having enough to take me down.  So often we use humor as bullets.  We shoot them randomly. And there is collateral damage.  A roast is unsuccessful if it does not demolish the enemy. Oh, did I say, “Enemy?” I was only joking.
I find humor best when it arises from community.  A group working together, enjoying each other, trusting each other. We do or say something in context that’s just plain funny, a you-have-to-have-been-there funny.  And we laugh, not at each other, but with each other.

Actually, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner came close to that Saturday night. Oh, there were some stingers, but not so many out-of-bounds remarks that we were all talking about them Sunday morning.  The hit was Barack trying to copy Michelle by adding bangs to his image.  Fun!  And the president issued some humorous remarks about the full range of news sources. Well taken! He added, “My job is to be president.  Their job is to keep my humble. Frankly I think I’m doing my job better.” Applause.  

The president reserved some humor for the Republicans. (Conan O’Brien had more.) Obama said that after the election all of the Republicans agreed they could do a better job of reaching out to minorities. He went on, “I can think of one minority they could start with.  ‘Hello!’”  suggesting they start with him and see how it goes.
Was Obama’s humor tough enough? He may have come closest when referring to people asking, “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”  “Really?” Obama said, “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”  Big laugh.  After which the president uttered, “ Sometimes I get frustrated.”   But he returned to his inclusive humor when kidding about  Marco Rubio considering running for president. “He  hasn’t finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he’s ready to be president?  Kids, these days.”   

The president ended on a more serious note.  “These have been some very hard days for too many of our citizens: Boston, West Texas, families in the Midwest coping with terrible floods.”  He went on to raise up rather than tear down, saying that even in these days we have seen humanity at its best.  Everyday Americans  have been opening their  homes and their hearts to perfect strangers.  He said he had seen journalists at their best, chasing down leads to verify facts to inform and educate.  He commended first responders, law enforcement officers, volunteers and citizens who served not to be honored or celebrated but because of love of families, neighborhoods and country. He added that they should inspire all of us to do our jobs with the same fidelity and integrity rather than focusing on profits or ratings or polls that contribute to the cynicism so many people feel right now.  “We can do better, all of us,” he said.  Those of us with power, influence, all of us can strive to value those things that led us to do what we do in the first place.  We believe in service, and that we can have a lasting positive influence on those around us.   
Now that’s a reason to enjoy one another.

Friday, April 5, 2013

He said, "I ought to kill you."

The morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed forty-five years ago I walked around the block as usual to the home of my friend, Linda.  Our neighborhood Bible study group gathered each Friday morning.  We cherished our time together.  We knew this morning was different, dreadfully different, but we dared to gather together anyway.

You see, just the summer before our neighborhood in Detroit had been engulfed in flames in what the news reports then and history today calls, “The Riots.”  They were really the rebellions after decades of racial and economic discrimination.  Throughout the 1960’s we had been working together, marching, organizing, and making progress. But now our leader was dead.  He was gone and the temptation was to scatter into our isolated enclaves, or hide behind locked doors. Actually it might have been wiser for me, a white woman living in an inner city, “changing” neighborhood to not go out that morning. 
A friend of Linda’s was at the house, a man I knew. He was angry. We all were. He said to me, “Norma I ought to kill you.” I replied, “Yes, you should.” We both knew he wouldn’t.  But to say it, to acknowledge it, was essential in that moment. I stayed among my African-American friends and all of us talked.

Later that day, it did become too dangerous to go outside. The streets became eerily silent. But Linda sent her 12-year-old daughter, Angela, across the back way to our house with words of comfort written with crayon on a sheet of construction paper which we placed on our refrigerator. (They remained there for a long time.) And then the fires came again, all over the country; 110 cities experienced “civil unrest” and 60, including ours, had huge riots.  The fires next time were now.
Today, forty-five years later, where are we? For one thing, we have vastly more guns, in every neighborhood.  (As devastating and destructive as the riots were, deaths in cities were listed as 6 or a dozen.)  Today fear of the neighbors has intensified. Locked doors are everywhere and the only money some are willing to allocate for schools in need of teachers and resources is for more guns.  What we really need to is to dare to walk around the neighborhood together, unafraid, and unwilling to kill.

On the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Connecticut’s governor signed into law sweeping new restrictions on weapons and ammunition magazines.  The state passed the gun laws in a non-partisan, comprehensive way.  Maryland’s General Assembly on Thursday passed measures on gun control which will become among the strictest in the nation. The bill was sent to the governor to sign.

On the anniversary of King’s death minimum wage earners in fast food restaurants dared to go outside in New York City with picket signs like those of Memphis sanitation workers when Martin Lutheran King Jr. was killed:  “I am a Man,” “I am a Woman.”  If you compare the minimum wage in 1968 to today, workers are making far less. They risk their jobs because they are non-union.  They ask for the right to organize without retaliation or intimidation.  The gap between rich and poor grows and the rights of people to strike have plummeted. We need to be able to go outside and walk together for fairness and justice.
The mindset of many Americans is to be afraid of the black man, but actually White Supremacy groups in the United States have multiplied in recent years.  They are in the news due to murders of officials in Colorado and Texas. On Tuesday, the day before the forty-fifth anniversary of King’s death, the assistant U.S. attorney in Houston who was to head the prosecution of a 2012 case involving 34 members of the Aryan brotherhood of Texas stepped aside citing security concerns. The Southern Poverty Law Center states that there are 1007 active hate groups in the U.S. The respected Center provides not only research but also resources such as “Teaching Tolerance.”  

We dared to walk outside that Friday morning forty five years ago in the quiet before the fires that we feared would come and did.   Today feels eerily similar. So what do we do?  It is not yet too late to call a Senator, call a Representative. In this killing culture we must pass tighter federal gun laws. It is not too late to reverse the trend of holding back fair wages for working people. 

The issues are not easy. Add in North Korea, Syria. . .  All reasons to hide behind locked doors and arm ourselves—to death, or to dare to face each other and say, “We won’t kill each other.” We cannot.

This Sunday our Gospel lesson, John 20: 19-31, tells of the disciples behind locked doors.  But they were together.  Christ appears in their midst. We no longer need to kill each other.  Go and tell, go and act. Do not be afraid.