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?

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Posted in Cultivating Mission, Ideology and Witness, Missional Leadership, Neo-Anabaptist, Zizek
4 comments on “Learning how to be funny for the Kingdom: What a Christian pacifist can learn from Muhammad Ali About Witness
  1. Marcos M says:

    Thanks for this post. I agree with your application of Zizek in this instance. I have a question however in light of the Ali video you showed…

    I know that a lot of “revolutionaries”, i.e. but not limited to liberation theologians, both classical and modern many times use aggressive “violent” language at times.

    Would you agree that this approach is also sometimes necessary not only to have your voice be heard or to immediately challenge an ideology? Is it possible that negative reactions to such approaches can come from a “fight or flight” response when our paradigms are challenged?

    Just wondering?

    • David Fitch says:

      Marcos,
      I do not agree that violence in language ever truly works to the advantage of the Kingdom … I have a lot of reasons for this conviction, too many to put into this comment. Just to say, violence and anger (against someone) always works against the Kingdom. There are kinds of anger that express one’s processing of emotions, and sometime directed at “injustice”… that is parsed in different ways, but too often this is used IMO to get out of the difficult posture of peace by which Jesus rules the world and will bring in His Kingdom.

  2. Marcos M says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    Yea, I tend to agree with you. I think that many times it is used to avoid a posture of peace. There is a also a difference between anger and violence.

    I also pray I don’t dismiss what someone has to say because of how they say it (which is sometimes the case). I want my blind spots challenged, I’m sad that it’s taken strong language to see them sometimes.

    In any case, violent language should never be directed at a person for many reasons and as listeners, we have a responsibility to actually listen and be humble.

    Thanks for your response. Keep up the posting :)

  3. Luke says:

    Interesting take here. I know that in working with people that are not in the faith it is important to meet them at their level and try to speak in a way that help them accept the truth, but using humor is a great way to cut through a lot of the dancing you have to do to get the conversation going. It can disarm some one quickly, but also it is a skill that is tough to learn for this context. Thanks for the food for thought.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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