May 29, 2014 / David Fitch

Learning how to be funny for the Kingdom: What a Christian pacifist can learn from Muhammad Ali About Witness

SZizek, the cultural political theorist, teaches us there is no point in confronting an ideological field head on. The person who is firmly subjectified by the discourse, where his or her identity is so interwoven within its coordinates, can not hear the objection. They will simply say “well, you don’t understand.” Or they will compensate with a gesture that maintains the same problem but makes it look like they care. And nothing will change.
Likewise, when we confront injustice. If justice remains defined within the frame of the prevailing ideology, every time someone claims “injustice!”, he or she is merely reinforcing the prevailing ideology’s sense of self-righteousness, because one will always  hear “injustice!” in the terms of the ideology in which he or she resides. The person must become dislodged from the ideology for anything to change.

Often these dynamics lead to violence. The “revolutionary” sees no other way out. We turn angry, we turn violent. Our words seek to destroy. Yet this is not the way of Christ. And, in reality, violence only reifies the two sides and creates more violence. No lasting change can happen built on violence.

Another approach is humor. Zizek often alludes to the power of a certain kind of humor. Instead of direct attack, we winsomly narrate an absurdity, and talk about how funny it is. We do not get cynical, instead out of a sense of integrity, we talk about an accepted truth within the ideological field, carry it to its absurdity and laugh at it. “Hah! Can you believe that?” The humor disarms the person long enough for them to see another side.  It leaves that person dislodged from within the field/way of living able now to question its accepted truth. The person caught in the ideological field is now asking serious questions. This kind of humor comes from someone’s life experience. It comes in handy when you find yourself a minority living within a hegemonic ideology.

As an example of this tactic I offer below the interview with Muhammed Ali in 1970. Here Ali reveals the reality of white hegemony in America, its injustice, and the way it has harmed the black people of America. He helps us white people see the complete failure within the church to see its own complicity with racism. It’s worth watching for that. But for me, as I said on FB earlier this week, the most compelling part of this interview is the way Ali delivers the message. In this case (I know not others), he delivers the message with humor, not anger, provocation not confrontation, description vs. demand, it undercuts every defense every white person wants to put up. It’s genius.

Can Christians learn from this? Can we be in the world in such a peaceful manner, owning our own lives and experience so calmly, that we can use humor to reveal the lacuna’s we see in our culture’s narratives/ideologies, our own Christendom church ideologies?