Wednesday, June 09, 2010

ReMix: Weapons of Our Warfare: Sarcasm

It's certainly not the only weapon, nor the best to fend off the maddening screams of chaos and control. Kind words are often more effective and certainly help to defuse a tense situation.

Sarcasm and its twins only shorten the fuse.

But there are times when one needs to cut the wick low, when the shock bomb needs to go off just so that the listeners can be broken free from the sadistic chains of manipulation. It is only then that they are able to see the bigger picture and envision a brighter hope. Sarcasm is a weapon, and there are times when it is the most appropriate one to use. It's the hammer that hits heavy, the hand grenade lofted into the enemy's space, the incisive knife of the surgeon. It works in a way where kind words or actions do not.

And, importantly for Christians like myself, it's deeply biblical.

The lone Hebrew prophet Elijah taunting his multitudinous contemporaries, wondering aloud if their gods were taking a tinkle. The otherwise unknown prophet Nathan flipping the story of the thieving, murderous landowner on King David. Jesus illustrating the corruption of the debtor system with his rude imagining of a stark naked quasi-slave.

In each of the biblical stories listed above, it was the little man, the outsider, the powerless countering the onslaught and injustice of the mighty. In some cases it worked immediately on the target (luckily for Nathan). Although the priests never seemed to convert to Elijah's God, we can imagine that the audience was stumped and even broken by the prophet's mockings. Jesus' illustration made his impoverished and often deeply-in-debt hearers laugh and feel a bit empowered. But since the two-line story from Matthew 5 may be lost on the modern ear, allow me the chance to update it a bit.

If we were to make a trip a few miles west of my house, next to the innumerable empty lots you may also notice the absence of traditional banking venues (large, community, or the increasingly popular credit unions). "That's only sensible," you suggest. "Banks aren't out of reach, they're just not in this area, and for good cause. There are few businesses in this blighted area, and the neighborhood most likely doesn't have enough cash flow to maintain such a costly venue, let alone allow it to turn a profit."

I won't argue that, but I will point you to the institutions that have filled the monetary void, specifically the title and paycheck loan businesses, not to mention their ancient cousin, the pawn shops. Used car salesmen will say that they offer credit for any borrower, but the APR - as it is with the other lender businesses mentioned - is exorbitantly high; 500% APR is typical, if not many times more so (They've also been taking advantage - if that's the word we want to use - of the microfinancing boom). As long as there have been poor people there have always been businesses who abuse them for profit at every turn, going back even before Jesus' day.

Fortunately, there were a few laws and customs in ancient Judea to at least moderately protect the debtors from total annihilation (besides, what kind of foolish economic system would completely obliterate their profit-base?). In Jesus' time and place, the lender sues the borrower that has not paid up on his debt. The court will often decree that the indebted give up his outer garment for the duration of the day. This was a type of protection for both parties, a kind of guarantee that the debt will be repaid and a way to keep the humiliation minimal for the payee.
Which is to say that the payee is supposed to be humiliated. Triply so, actually. First, that he needs to borrow money in the first place just in order to make ends meet for a couple more days, probably until he finds work. Then he's embarrassed that he isn't able to pay his debts off as immediately as he planned. But now he walks around town with half his clothes off, a sign of his triple-shame.

The type of permanent serfdom that such situations lead to (where the borrower is always *just out of means* of fully repaying and therefore always indebted somewhat to the loaner) is basically a hidden slave system, a way of using the law to the advantage of the usurer and to the disadvantage of the majority poor and penniless.

But Jesus, in his ingenious way, reverts the shame back to the creditors. "If a man asks for your tunic, give him your robe as well." In a two-robe society, the person who follows this advice is stark naked. And in a society in which the person who looks upon the other person's nakedness is ashamed, the shame belongs to the loan officers and their court allies. It's a small victory, to be sure, but it looms large as the poor and oppressed villagers parade around town, happy that the usurers have been upended, even if just for a moment.

There are many, many other examples and the Bible is rife with satire of one form or another. According to Douglas Wilson's A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire, the entire book of Amos is satire, as is Jesus' woes to the hypocritical religious leaders of his time. Check out this translation of Matthew 23 and tell me the text isn't dripping and oozing of unhinged Juvenal sarcasm:
Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It's on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse. (The Message)
The Bible is rife with such analogies: an indiscreet woman is like a gold ring on a pig's snout (Proverbs); hypocrites accusingly point to the splinters on others' eyes while overlooking the barks in their own (Jesus); then there's the sacred cow slaughter in Amos 4:

Listen to this, you cows of Bashan
grazing on the slopes of Samaria.
You women! Mean to the poor,
cruel to the down-and-out!
Indolent and pampered, you demand of your husbands,
'Bring us a tall, cool drink!'

This is serious—I, God, have sworn by my holiness!
Be well warned: Judgment Day is coming!
They're going to rope you up and haul you off,
keep the stragglers in line with cattle prods.
They'll drag you through the ruined city walls,
forcing you out single file,
And kick you to kingdom come.
- God's Decree.

Come along to Bethel and sin!
And then to Gilgal and sin some more!
Bring your sacrifices for morning worship.
Every third day bring your tithe.
Burn pure sacrifices—thank offerings.
Speak up—announce freewill offerings!
That's the sort of religious show
you Israelites just love. (The Message)

Sarcasm has the ability to illuminate, to make truth blindingly bright. It does so by dragging its hearers through truth's dark undertow, and leaving them panting for breath at the shores.
Of course, the majority of times that isn't a proper way of treating even an enemy. Leaving someone traipsing in the dark after punching them in the guts is not a way to have a non-sadist return.

The Elder James (one of Jesus' brothers) warns against using the tongue in a negative or easy manner (James 3). That's for good reason: sarcasm is a double-edged sword that needs to be wielded rarely and carefully.

Sarcasm is the odd man out. It cuts deep and leaves shards all over the friggin' place, but then there are times when nothing else will work, when you need to cut it open or blow it up (depending on which of my many mixed metaphors you want to bandy about). The rest of the time, it's probably not so cool to run around with a live little bomb in your hands.

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