Thou shalt achieve world peace through humor
Rev. Susan Sparks
October 30, 2019
Comedians have long known a secret that world and religious leaders are still struggling to understand to this day: humor is the key to world peace. Why is it so complicated? I have no idea. Perhaps, it’s because we’ve tended to dismiss the true power of humor and laughter.
Start with what we have in common
“Love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart.” -W.H. Auden, poet
One of science’s greatest achievements is the mapping of the human gene. And the results are startling: notwithstanding race, ethnicity, gender, or nationality, human beings are 99.99% the same.
I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.
The upshot of this is that all our human conflicts, violence, even warfare are over .01%. Hard to believe that we are killing each other over such a teeny, tiny difference. Yet, we just can’t forgive that tiny difference. In his book, “The Wise Heart,” author Jack Kornfield tells a story of two POW’s. One says to the other, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” The second man thinks for a moment, then says, “No, never.” The other one responded, “Well then, they still have you in prison.”
Humor is the one thing that can help us let go of that inability to forgive because it highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone, whether it is a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment.
Humor is the one thing that can help us let go of that inability to forgive because it highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone, whether it is a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment. If you both react to a joke, it means you share an experience that allows you to both understand the punch line. It is then that our differences fade, and our common connections gleam forth.
“If I can’t dance . . . then it ain’t my revolution.” – Emma Goldman, political activist and writer
When I think about the power of humor to defuse conflict, I think of Jesus’ teaching of turn the other cheek. For some that story sounds passive. But look at it from a martial arts perspective: if someone hits you, and you turn the other cheek, you not only miss the backhand blow, the more powerful of the two, but you throw your enemy off-balance. In short, you use your opponent’s energy without giving yours away.
Years back when I was practicing law, the phone rang one January morning in my Long Island City, New York office. Even before I said hello, a voice started screaming at me on the other line about how my client was going to get sued for millions of dollars. I placed the call on speaker phone as the rant from the plaintiff’s lawyer continued, and flipped through my inbox to find the papers. After a moment, I saw it: a draft complaint with the heading “In the Circuit Court of Oahu, State of Hawaii.”
I immediately picked up the receiver.
“Please sue me as soon as possible. I’ll give you my home address if that helps. I’ll even pay the Federal Express costs to serve the complaint.”
Long pause. “Are you crazy?” he asked.
“Nope. Just for your information, I’m located in Long Island City which is basically a burned-out warehouse district in Queens, New York. It is gray, sleeting, and it is 13 degrees. You are threatening to sue me in Oahu. So, I say again, sue me now!”
A pause then a muffled laugh came through the receiver. We ended up chatting about the outrageous difference in our weather that morning, and the fact that we both hated cold. I shared that I had an Aunt who had visited Hawaii, and he related that he had relatives who live in the Bronx. After a few moments of pleasantries and finding common ground, we turned to the case and within ten minutes had agreed on an equitable resolution.
The ability to laugh in that moment was like letting off steam from a pressure cooker. When we laughed, it broke the tension. And in that moment of truce, we were able to communicate without anger, and we found a solution.
By identifying shared values, you find common ground, and it is from that place of commonality that solutions more easily flow. And what is the quickest way to find a shared value? Humor.
St. Francis described it like this, “Let me not seek as much . . . to be understood as to understand.” Conflict resolution experts call this interest-based negotiation; meaning that you focus on why the issue is important to the other side, rather than the rightness or wrongness of your respective positions. By identifying shared values, you find common ground, and it is from that place of commonality that solutions more easily flow. And what is the quickest way to find a shared value? Humor.
Speaking truth to power
“It [humor] plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.” – E.B. White
Most people are familiar with the Danish folktale by Hans Christian Andersen entitled, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It is about an emperor who hires two tailors who promise to make him a set of remarkable new clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is either incompetent or stupid. In reality, the tailors don’t make any clothes and the emperor parades through naked. Everyone in the kingdom pretends to see the clothes, until a child finally yells out, “He hasn’t got any clothes on!”
Power is threatened by humor because, like Andersen’s folktale, it calls out reality, it shows things for what they are, and it equalizes the playing field. A great example was seen in 2007 where the Ku Klux Klan had planned a march in downtown Knoxville to publicly proclaim their hate-filled message of “White Power.” Locals decided to meet that hatred with humor organizing a counter-protest with a gathering of clowns (or as the troupe was called the “coup KLUTZ clowns.”)
The clowns did things like pretending not to understand the shouts of “White power!” “White flour?” they yelled, and threw white baking flour in the air all over the street and the Klan marchers. Some yelled, “Tight shower?” and sprayed the crowd from a shower head. Other clowns wore wedding dresses and yelled “Wife power!” dancing behind the Klan. Eventually, the Klan, gutted of dignity and any sense of power, dispersed, and went home.
Another example of humor threatening power was seen during 2014 in a small village in Germany. The town’s residents had grown sick and tired of the neo-Nazis marching in their square. So, for the next march, the town donated 10 euros for every meter the group marched to an organization that helped people leave right-wing extremist groups. Residents threw confetti at the end of the parade to celebrate the fact that the neo-Nazis had just raised 12,000 euros against their own cause.
Hey, are we going to achieve world peace through humor overnight? No. But it will start a ripple effect that will change how we see each other and eventually, change the world.
A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City. This article is an excerpt from her newest book, Preaching Punchlines: The Ten Commandments of Comedy published in July, 2019. It is reprinted with permission of Smyth and Helwys Publishers.