Every day there is a horrifying roll call of destruction and threat in the news. We risk being backed into a defensive corner by loud shouts of ‘Danger!’, or overwhelmed and numbed by images of suffering.
It is true the world is not safe, but perhaps the biggest threat is that we let the narrative of insecurity erode our capacity to question and imagine a different reality.
Australia has a long tradition of satire. The larrikin slang of convicts and the incisive mimicry of the Aboriginal people helped sustain an alternative view of the world in colonial cities. Australian cartoonists have led a tradition of resistance to authorised versions of reality.
In these days, the line drawings of Tandberg and Cowburn, the characters of the Clarke and Dawe interviews, or series like Kath and Kim and Utopia stand in that tradition where humour keeps us sane, holds an open space for conversation and provokes response.
There’s a Christian tradition that sees humour as a spiritual discipline, and a gift that recasts the world. Mary Ward led a group of women committed to education for girls in Reformation England and risked persecution and death; but she famously advised, ‘Be Merry in these times for Mirth is next to Grace.’
Similarly, Teresa of Avila prayed to be protected from ‘silly devotions and sour faced saints’. Benedict in the sixth century and Wesley in the 18th both warned against laughter that corroded other people’s confidence, but Martin Luther’s rambunctious humour modelled a conviction that joking disempowered the forces of evil. Luther remarked that when he could not cure evil by quoting Scripture, he ‘dispelled the devil with pranks’.
More recently, theologian Anne Thurston warned ‘you will only break your heart and lose your hope’ by struggling too earnestly against stubborn evil. She argued lasting change often comes from taking alternative action: ‘What you must do is go around to the back and create a garden. Some day they will look out and see its beauty and marvel at its life.’
This is not about detachment. All of these Christian reformers had a social and political program of one kind or another, but they could struggle against the oppressors with a free spirit. Paradoxically, their light-hearted risk-taking was secured by a theology of the Cross. Whatever was playing out in the present, they had an alternative reality in which victory did not depend on power, but on love.
Jesus told Pilate: ‘You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.’ Later that day on a hill outside town, it would not have seemed likely that love would triumph; it feels unlikely that love can triumph when the catalogue of horrors rolls through our screens; but that love has triumphed in the death and resurrection of Jesus puts the lie to all the claims of other forms of power. Through the self-giving love and trust of the Cross, the resurrection opens out an utterly different story and guarantees our freedom.
Last month Michael Leunig published a cartoon of a person bowed before a crucifix. Against the images of terrorism dancing in the corner, Leunig’s figure prayed, ‘Preserve us from this cult of death’. The irony was meant to be the Christian’s blindness to death on the cross.
Leunig often insists on a different reality that people of faith can recognise, but he got it badly wrong – as well as provokingly right – in this one. The paradox of the Cross is that the death we inflicted, that Jesus freely chose so as to make the most radical point, is the Tree of Life. People of faith have an alternative story to tell, where trust and love hold open a different space.
Professor of Church History