Prophets & comedians

Can a comedian or a poet save the world?

Back in April 2016, U2’s Bono suggested that the best way to combat terrorism isn’t with bombs, but with laughter. He said, “Don’t laugh. I think comedy should be deployed. It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them, when they’re goose-stepping down the street, and it takes away their power. So, I’m suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer, and Chris Rock, and Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you.”

It may seem ludicrous, but Bono has a point. Violence met with violence is predictable. The violent know how to dish it out and how to hide from it. It’s their game, their expertise. But when an altogether different weapon is deployed, one they have no skills with in their much too overly serious focus on their mission, they become awkward and stumble-footed.

The prophetic voice in the Scriptures is akin to the stand-up comic today and especially the late night satirist. The biblical prophet didn’t so much predict the future as to speak for God in a world that has gone askew by forgetting about God in the following of its own ways and desires. And so, the prophets spoke both about God and for God, reminding their listeners that they’ve forgotten something (Someone!) essential to what they’re doing.

The prophet lays down an alternate reality to the one we live in which critiques the way we live our diminished, self-sized, God-less lives.

So, when David takes Bathsheba, gets her pregnant, and arranges for her husband to die in battle, the prophet Nathan tells a story (see 2 Samuel 11). It’s a comic story, though not very funny in its satire. And David falls headfirst into it, not realizing the story is about him until Nathan drops the punchline: “You are the man!”

Instead of laughter, there’s silence, as the gravity of what he’s done falls in on David.

Now, in many settings, this prophetic voice would get slapped down and possibly beheaded. That was the case in the ancient Near East, where even a sad face in the king’s presence was a capital offense. But beginning with the first prophet, Samuel, and reaching down the line of Old Testament kings, the prophetic voice was honored — and dishonored and killed in too many instances.

Much later on, the fool or court jester was to serve a similar purpose to that of the Hebrew prophet — to speak truth when no one else would. Wise kings, knowing their courts would be filled with simpering sycophants would employ ugly and/or deformed men who had nothing to gain or lose by telling the truth so that they could cut through all of the padded language and be honest with their kings.

A prophet speaks with impunity and immunity.

When Paul lays out five unique roles within the church community that exist for the building up of the body of believers and for equipping the body to do God’s good work in the world, the second on the list is prophet.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Where apostles move us outward in love for the world and pastors move us inward in love for the church community, so evangelists speak the message of Jesus to the world and teachers speak the message of Jesus to the church community. It’s a perfect balance of outward and inward, in action and in word. But then along comes the prophet and stirs everything up, reminding us that the outward and inward aren’t enough and will get us off track without the upward.

That prophetic role is such a tough one, because it’s so unappreciated by those who need its voice. It’s annoying and unsettling. It points out hypocrisy and the intentional self-deception we engage in. Who wants that?

Enter the comedian: the person who can speak prophetically and still make us laugh. But like the ancient court jester, the comedian must be a misfit.

There’s a reason why most comedians in the United States are Jewish. They’re outsiders and have accepted their identity as outsiders. The same is true of women and African-Americans and Catholics who are comics.

The prophet it a part of the community but stands apart from the community in order to speak the essential word to the community.

This is lonely work. This is intrusive work. This is misunderstood work. This is holy work.

At least, it is holy as long as the prophet continues to speak for God. The biblical books of Kings and Chronicles tell enough stories of prophets who have decided to cash out, no longer speaking as prophets, but for profits. And then there are those who give in under pressure and stop speaking God’s truth to the powerful because they’re tired of the rejection, the scorn, the alienation, the friendlessness. Both of these cop-outs impoverish the people of God by stifling the divine voice.

But then there is a third form of abusing the prophet’s gift, which is speaking the truth as a blade to cut down, not as a scalpel to heal. And so we see the first prophet, Samuel, intentionally undermining King Saul’s rule in numerous unnecessary ways until Saul pushes him away and replaces him with a kinder but less truthful voice.

The Church desperately needs her prophets, the voices that correct us and call us back not only to Jesus the Way, but to the way that Jesus is the Way. We’ve fallen for so many gimmicks and have been lured away from our vocation far too often.

Prophets and comedians help us to see things differently and give us the opportunity to repent. We need to hear the prophetic call to holiness, to justice, to worship, to mission, to truth, to love — to God and the ways of God.

[For a humorous prophetic voice, I point you to The Babylon Bee, which skewers our idolatries with laughter, undermining us just like Bono suggested.]