Monday, January 02, 2006

Was MLK Funny?

I'm thinking about the title "Humor and Outrage" for my January 15th sermon. My idea is that the most effective works for justice are often tinged with a sense of outrage that also carries with it an irrepresible love for the absurdity of human nature.

Think how Jesus occasionally used mockery to get his point across.
Think how Martin poked fun at committees and institutionalized do-gooding in his sermon "The Three Dimensions of Life" (in the section about the Good Samaritan).

I would like to share stories of the way the civil rights leaders and activists used humor and outrage and mockery in their tactics, but I don't have enough evidence that they did. PeaceBangers, can you help me (and I'm heading to the bookstore later today)...?

I begin to realize that one of the things that most deeply disgusts me about the Bush Administration is how bloody seriously they take themselves. I want to lift up the saving grace of humor within the realistic response of outrage when we deal with oppression(s).


Blogger Spring said...

I've heard that Gandhi was like that. This article has a couple of anecdotes - I haven't yet researched them to see if they are corroborated. This page has a buttload of quotes, but I haven't found funny ones among them yet.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I fear this sermon.

While I can appreciate Gandhi answering the question "What do you think of Western Civilization?" with "I think it would be a good idea," it is the man's less amusing statements that do it for me, e.g.

"I don’t know which is the greater task: to decentralize a top-heavy civilization or to prevent an ancient civilization from becoming centralized and top-heavy. In both cases the core of the problem is to discover what constitutes a good civilization, then proclaim it to the people and help them to erect it."


"We must always seek to ally ourselves with that part of the enemy that knows what is right. "

Etc, etc, and soforth.

Now Gandhi and Jesus, I assume, had the good judgement to know when to use humor and when not to and in front of what audiences. My experience of both liberal and conservative activists is that they do not. After all, nothing brings out an "Everyone who doesn't agree with me is a moron" attitude like using humor in your political statements.

Humor is such a tricky thing. We CAN use it to release the pressure of outrage and tragedy, but when we do the results are often pretty nasty, e.g. "How do we know that Christa McAullife had dandruff? Because her Head and Shoulders washed up on Miami beach," which is how third graders dealt with the Challenger Disaster. The famous example of "Two towers, some assembly required" showing up as an item on Ebay by lunchtime on September 11, 1999 is presumably an adult doing the same thing.

Anyway, this seems like a very delicate topic, and I guess what I'm getting at is that using humor in a way that brings people together rather than offending and labeling people takes real skill and understanding.


Blogger PeaceBang said...

I couldn't agree with you more, CC. What I am trying to get at is the sense of the absurd, which is a lot different than just "haw-haw" funny. One of the things the demagogues have stolen is the ability to express moral outrage in hugely dramatic ways. For many of us, this particular device is no longer something that just anyone can use because folks like Pat Robertson have cornered the market on it. So where does that leave the outraged person who is NOT a fundamentalist or a conservative (conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve the romanticized past). How does a trly progressive person like King or Ghandi undermine the self-righteousness of the great defenders of tradition and culture?

By shaming them... By behaving with such dignity that they are forced to reexamine their prejudices.. and finally, by making them realize that they're ridiculous. That's what I'm beginning to think.

I don't know where this will go, but I'm just working with the kernel of that idea. My guiding story is "Stories From the Cha Cha Cha" by Vern Huffman about a law in Rhodesia that required blacks to do all their shopping through the window of stores. A black Rhodesian named Simon Kapwepwe went to purchase a Land Rover and insisted that, like all his other purchases, this one by delivered to him throgugh the window of the dealership. "That won't be necessary," they told him. He insisted. It was the law. A crowd gathered, and in the ensuing fracas, Simon went and got his car and drove it through the window of the dealership.
This was the beginning of the non-violent uprising known as the Cha Cha Cha.
I want to look for ways to connect the spirit of the Cha Cha Cha with civil rights in America, but I'm not sure it can be done. Keeping in mind how deeply depressed King was at the end of his life about the potential for non-violent forms of social change (he began to doubt that it was possible that it would actually work), I want to revisit the whole idea and wonder how moral outrage and mockery of the oppressor's tactics work together.

Blogger jfield said...

Saul Alinsky tells a funny story (I think it is in Rules for Radicals) about organizing the custodial staff at the airport in Chicago with a plan to have the people who clean the bathrooms occupy all the bathroom stalls during a major travel weekend. It is sometimes referred to as the world's first shit in, the threat of which was all that was necessary to win concessions.

There are also some funny Fred Ross and Caesar Chavez stories (I think at least one shows up in Caesar Chavez' The Organizer).

A lot of early Abbie Hoffman was based on the same idea.

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

Fortunately there is way of being that is neither that of the comic, nor that of the self righteous zealot. As I remember him, King did not use humor, he exuded compassion, courage and joy, and his outrage was tempered with love --- but he wasn't funny.

SNCC had funny activists, Dick Gregory was funny, the folk singers got folks laughing, but King was usually rock steady, gentle, and "inspirational." Sometimes he would get a smile and an amen when he set up an image of some hypocrisy.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Clyde. I was hoping to hear from you. And thanks to Spring, too, and CC and Jfield, for getting me thinking about how to do a King's day sermon that isn't exclusively about King, but is about non-violent social reform in general.

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

maybe gentle mockery . . ."of the oppressors tactics."

it wasn't pointed or degrading even toward the bad guys in that particular struggle....he would say now some of our white brothers think this and that...

I don't think MLK was embracing violence as a method to advance change, rather he was coming to realize that the oppressor would resist with violence, and that the movement would need to broader.

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

I speak of the on stage Martin Luther King....

in the privacy of family and friends, he could engage in belly laughing critiques of the opponents...

he was very aware of "moral highground" and Black church culture.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

I am thinking more and more that this idea will need another year to gestate. The fact is that I need to write this sermon well in advance because I have so many 40th birthday party plans that weekend (including Friday, sermon-writing day). I'm afraid I may have to be less creative this year.

Anyone is welcome to pass along their own favorite MLK meditations and sermons offline to

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I don't think Alinsky would have liked the result if the Chicago airport had called his bluff.

After all, who does closing down the bathrooms hurt most? Little children, sick people, old people, pregnant women?

Does anyone really think public opinion would have been kind to the people who showed such indifference to that particular cross-section of incredibly sympathetic victims?

This doesn't seem funny to me. Cruel is more like it, and it shows well how activists impressed by their own cleverness (and I use that term loosely when I apply it to "shit-in") can completely lose sight of how they come off to people not in love with their cause.



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