The Role of Satire, Snark and Sarcasm in Building Community

Satire Snark
Photo by ganesha.isis on Flickr

Short answer: there is none.

I recently stumbled upon a Les Miserables inspired video parody  in support of a Barack Obama’s second term. I have obvously shared my support of President Obama in the past, but a lesser-known thing about me is that I loves me some Broadway Musicals: In the Heights, Rent, The Book of Morman and Les Miserables being some of my favorites. President Obama AND Jean Valjean together, yes sir, may I have some more. So not only did I click on over and watch it, but soon found out that I am one-degree of separation from one of the performers.

Anyhoo, here is a sample from One Term More, a video parody of One Day More from Les Miserables

One Term More!

With laws that let ‘em stand their ground,
Republicans are locked & loaded.

Contraception’s now a sin,
Screwing G.M. in the clutch.
Incivility’s a virtue,
Homophobic. Out of touch.
Filibusters. Budget scrums.
Ultrasounds & speculums.
To the Dark Side they’ve succumbed.

After I watched One Term More, even though I thought the lyrics were witty, the satire right on and I generally supported the politics behind the creation of it, I was left with more than a little discomfort. It was the same kind of discomfort that I get when friends of mine in the religious community post pictures, quotes and updates that - to those with whom we find agreement – may be powerful, prophetic and or giggle-inducing, do little to build up community across the chasms of theology, ideology or politics.

Yeah, I know the smart-ass photo captions are funny and I’m a Debbie Downer.

Now before anyone accuses me of dismissing the power of satire on culture, I do not disagree. Thoughtful satire, witty snark and timely sarcasm can be powerful forces, but it seems that in today’s uber-connected and politically charged climate these tactics serve mostly to galvanizing communities already in agreement in order to be a force against the enemy and they do very little to help build bridges of reconciliation, relationships and commonality. I am willing to be pushed on this, but I simply do not believe bridges are built with snark, satire and sarcasm and I would bet that most satirist are not really interested in reconciliation with those whom they are satirizing.

But it feels so good and makes me happy . . . cue Sheryl Crow.

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In no way am I above this, as I too have leaned on what I think is funny in order to take a swipe at someone with whom I disagree. It can be cathartic and, truthfully, when you hit a snark-homer, it feels awesome . . . and when friends retweet, share, comment, etc affirming said awesomeness, all the better. But here is where I experience the tension: as a person of faith, a pastor, one who is committed to the building up of community, I am held to a different standard than the rest of the world. I can be all up in the political battles, but I can choose to engage with a different posture and see the landscape through a different lens. Sure, I want to “win the day” but more importantly, I want human relationships, all human relationships, not just my ideological kindred, to be built up and not further torn apart.

I am not calling on a widespread boycott of all the ironic images with witty political quips ripping the politics of the other party, but I would say that if you choose to post them while also calling for people to reach over and beyond aisles of disagreement, that second part will be harder to believe. Some of you out there have no interest in building bridges and will have a legitimate case for calling me out on the privilege that I have to urge bridge-building, but I stand firm in by belief that those of us in the church can and must model a different way of  living in conflict and disagreement with one another.

This is not a call to weakness, but to graciousness. We can speak truth to power without tearing one another down, we can challenge the beliefs of another without resorting to violent rhetoric and we can stand for human dignity without stripping human dignity from those who may not stand along side of us. Jesus did it all the time, others have done it since then and I refuse to believe that we cannot do it still.

So . . . while I do get a chuckle out of some of what you all post and the serious creativity that politics can inspire, when it comes to choosing how to engage during this political season, I’m going to try my darnedest to muzzle my smart-ass awesomeness in exchange for words of hope-filled idealism.

If you’re up for it, you’re welcome to join me.

And for your viewing and listening pleasure, here is the real One Day More, the 10th Anniversary performance.

—-
Bruce is a native Northern Californian and third generation Chinese/Filipino who has been living in San Francisco since 1998.  Until May, 2011 he was the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, a church of 20/30-somethings in San Francisco, CA and from 2008-2010 was Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently one of those “consultant” types who makes his way, writing, speaking, teaching and drinking coffee. His social networks of choice are  TwitterFacebook and his Blog

This article originally appeared on Bruce’s blog at Patheos.com

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About the Author

Bruce Reyes-Chow

Bruce Reyes-ChowBruce Reyes-Chow is a native Northern Californian and third generation Chinese/Filipino who has been living in San Francisco since 1998. Until May, 2011 he was the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, a church of 20/30-somethings in San Francisco, CA and from 2008-2010 was Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently one of those “consultant” types who makes his way, writing, speaking, teaching and drinking coffee. His social networks of choice are Twitter, Facebook and his BlogView all posts by Bruce Reyes-Chow →

  • tarl_hutch

    Right on the money with this one. Hits home, as i am trying to build bridges and true community, but feel the urge to like snarky posts on facebook all the time. I have really had to step back and consider how they would look to the same people I am trying to build community with. As you sy it is mostly preaching to the choir, so why bother supporting something that only causes more division? I am seeing more and more of this on both sides, especially in this political season, and it is mostly sickening and discouraging. How are we ever going to come together if we are so focused on highlighting what sets us apart? Is it worth a chuckle to mock the beliefs and feelings of another? I think not and applaud your post and the attitude it represents.

  • tarl_hutch

    Right on the money with this one. Hits home, as i am trying to build bridges and true community, but feel the urge to like snarky posts on facebook all the time. I have really had to step back and consider how they would look to the same people I am trying to build community with. As you sy it is mostly preaching to the choir, so why bother supporting something that only causes more division? I am seeing more and more of this on both sides, especially in this political season, and it is mostly sickening and discouraging. How are we ever going to come together if we are so focused on highlighting what sets us apart? Is it worth a chuckle to mock the beliefs and feelings of another? I think not and applaud your post and the attitude it represents.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikearmistead37 Michael Armistead

    I must disagree with this one. If we are to be a church that unmasks the idolatries of every generation, then we must use all tools at our disposal to do so. Sometimes the best way to penetrate our inflated egos and mental fortresses is with humor, even biting humor. It exposes our absurdities and inconsistencies very quickly. Truth hurts, though it must be administered with compassion and love. I can think offhand of two biblical stories that illustrate the point. In Numbers 11 the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness compain about their God-provided diet “that there is nothing at all but this mana to look at.” Moses goes into a rant complaining to God about his congregation (been there, done that as a pastor!). Then God answers their prayer: “You shall not eat meat one day, or two days…but for a whole month–until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you….”! Great satire! Biting humor from God Almighty! And what about Eliah and the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18? Elijah mocks the Israelites, “How long will you go limping with two opinions?” Then he challenges the priests of Baal to a duel and mocks them when their god doesn’t answer. “Surely he is a goid; either he is meditating or he has wandered away…” The Living Bible translates it as “he is sitting on a toilet.” And what about all the hyperbole in the Semon on the Mount? Logs sticking out of your eye while you worry about the speck in your neighbor’s! Heavenly satire! In our self-inflated and self-righteous politically correct age, we need more of it.

    • Anonymous

      I think the author is talking about using satire, snark and sarcasm against ‘the other side’ not publicly, but privately among like-minded thinkers. What purpose does that serve other than to further solidify how “evil” and “awful” the other side is among yourselves? It’s like a bunch of people sitting around who all think alike making exaggerated claims about the other and then patting themselves on the back for how righteous they are.

      And even in public, you have to always question how effective public satire, snark or sarcasm actually is. Do really think sending that “One More Term” video to ten conservative friends will change their minds or cause any introspection?

      I don’t see Jesus employing satire, snark or sarcasm in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s simply using metaphors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikearmistead37 Michael Armistead

    I must disagree with this one. If we are to be a church that unmasks the idolatries of every generation, then we must use all tools at our disposal to do so. Sometimes the best way to penetrate our inflated egos and mental fortresses is with humor, even biting humor. It exposes our absurdities and inconsistencies very quickly. Truth hurts, though it must be administered with compassion and love. I can think offhand of two biblical stories that illustrate the point. In Numbers 11 the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness compain about their God-provided diet “that there is nothing at all but this mana to look at.” Moses goes into a rant complaining to God about his congregation (been there, done that as a pastor!). Then God answers their prayer: “You shall not eat meat one day, or two days…but for a whole month–until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you….”! Great satire! Biting humor from God Almighty! And what about Eliah and the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18? Elijah mocks the Israelites, “How long will you go limping with two opinions?” Then he challenges the priests of Baal to a duel and mocks them when their god doesn’t answer. “Surely he is a goid; either he is meditating or he has wandered away…” The Living Bible translates it as “he is sitting on a toilet.” And what about all the hyperbole in the Semon on the Mount? Logs sticking out of your eye while you worry about the speck in your neighbor’s! Heavenly satire! In our self-inflated and self-righteous politically correct age, we need more of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RWZaengleJr Richard W Zaengle Jr

    Bruce,
    I also support President Obama as I supported President Clinton, but
    I agree with with Michael.

    You
    speak of community, but remember, the word has two meanings. In one
    sense, in the local communities, satire, snark, and sarcasm is shared
    with the people we serve. It affords us the brief opportunity to
    laugh, the comic relief that breaks up our long, dark narrative, the
    joke told in the room after the power is lost. It binds us together.
    In the other, the word can no longer apply to the Church
    collectively. There is no group of people practicing a common
    ownership because they abandoned that ownership to wage a war on two
    fronts, a Cultural war and a war on the Poor and the Middle Class. We
    pointed out to them the dangers of ignoring the 1st
    Amendment. They told us they were Originalists. We warned them the
    messages they were hearing through broadcast media were specifically
    crafted for them. They accused us of bowing to a liberal media. When
    we brought up racism they accused us of playing a race card. We asked
    them, “Hey, people are struggling, can you give a little more?”
    They cried, “Socialism”. I have “no interest in building
    bridges” because you cannot have community with a period in time
    that is past.

    Michael
    is absolutely correct in pointing out the sarcasm in Numbers 11 and 1
    Kings 18. I would add Jesus’ snarky response to the moneychangers in
    John 2:16, its extensive usage in the books of Job and Amos, and the
    sarcasm Paul employed in Galatians 5:12 and
    2
    Corinthians 12:11-13.
    I would encourage
    anyone seeking a more in-depth analysis of this topic to read George
    Halitzka’s article, “A
    Serrated Edge: Looking for Satire in the Bible”
    (http://www.writingbygeorge.com/nonfiction/journalistic-features/satire-in-the-bible/
    ).

    Governor
    Deval Patrick, speaking at the recent Democratic National Convention
    in Charlotte said, “Democrats need to get a backbone”. So does
    the Church. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One who
    condones evils is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.” We
    have to decide if we will continue to fight to be the feet that
    brings good news or will we allow the Church to put on the boots that
    trample the oppressed in the pursuit of community. When I came into
    the Church in 1989 the scales fell from my eyes and I saw then that
    we couldn’t imagine a better world or visualize world peace. I met
    the supernatural power greater than ourselves that could get that
    done. I watched good, honest, and patriotic people give their 10%,
    volunteer in the churches, homeless shelters and soup kitchens,
    donate food and clothing, and every two years throw a switch that
    undid all their good works, never realizing that they were a part of
    the reason the shelters were so full and and the people were so
    hungry. I also grow tired of liking the same photos and sharing the
    same articles tit for tat, but accept that these times call for
    stronger and more deliberate voices. We certainly must weigh Romans 14:10 and
    John 12:40 carefully. We need to continue to be that “force against
    the enemy” while we still have the light, remembering that the
    enemy may be the only thing remaining we share.

  • Allie

    I often feel the same conflict. But I do agree with the author of this article. This kind of humor is designed to belittle others, to tear others down in the minds of all who hear the words. That attitude lies in direct contrast to Ephesians 4:29: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
    How do you build a relationship with people who you have just knocked down, and laughed at them while you did it? You better hope they are very forgiving people.

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