Commentary: Laughter, religion match made in heaven
About 50 people gathered for Interfaith Laughter Night, Friday April 1 at the New Moon Café. Representatives of nine different religious traditions participated; joke tellers ranged in age from five to 80.
The idea for Interfaith Laughter Night emerged last fall, during planning the Interfaith Festival of Gratitude, which was held at the Grand Opera House the night before Thanksgiving. While I was getting acquainted with the leader of a faith community over a cup of coffee, my new friend observed, “We tell jokes about ourselves.” And suddenly, this religion that I knew nothing about became real to me. I was surprised by that conclusion. Could there be a connection between laughter and faith, I wondered.
Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “Humor is a prelude to faith; laughter is the beginning of prayer.” Laughing at oneself is an expression of humility and perspective. When I laugh at my own religious tradition, I acknowledge that while being Presbyterian works for me, there are other traditions that are life-giving to other people.
When “organized religion” makes the headlines these days it is usually extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals or the Dove World Outreach Center burning the Koran. The pastors of these churches do not represent Christianity. In fact, as a Christian, I find their fanaticism, certainty and hubris embarrassing and dangerous. “We’re not all like that!” I find myself saying to anyone who will listen. What fanatics of all kinds need to do is lighten up, get some perspective, and laugh a little. Conrad Hyers wrote “Faith without humor becomes fanaticism; humor without faith becomes cynicism.” Last month Frank Schaeffer observed, “No one ever blew up a mosque—or an abortion clinic—after yelling: ‘I could be wrong.’”
It was refreshing to see people of so many religious persuasions together on April 1. We all laugh in the same language.
In our deeply divided state, where passions are running high across the political spectrum, many of us are feeling a need to find a way to speak to each other calmly. Our community has begun an effort to raise the awareness of civility. I am very pleased to play a part in this effort. Being able to laugh at oneself is a mark of civility. E.M. Forester wrote of the “aristocracy of the sensitive,” that, “They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.”
Among the groups who showed they can take a joke on April 1, was the Baha’i community. When we ran out of jokes to tell, the evening concluded with a rousing chorus of “The Baha’i song,” sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.”
Ba ba ba, ba ba baha’i,
Ba ba ba, b aba baha’i,
Ba ba ba, b aba baha’i,We got Allah and Jehovah,
Jesus and the Buddha, oh Baha’i!
You can imagine the sound of people of all faiths laughing together. It was the sound of civility, the sound of community, the sound of joy!
Northwestern Community Columnist the Rev. Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh. He has lived in Oshkosh since 1999.