Reflection on a joke
Humour, it barely needs pointing out, is entirely subjective. A joke that causes one person to laugh may leave the next one cold, or even cause offence. So it was with the “Church Chuckle” published on the back page of our Easter issue (March 27). In it, Mary Magdalene reports to Peter that she had encountered the risen Christ, and that he was still “miffed” about the events a few days before.
Some readers took the trouble to inform us that they believed the joke to be offensive, even “bordering on blasphemy”. We published two such letters, but also received responses to the complaints, suggesting in effect that those who took offence ought to “lighten up”.
We take the view that those who object to the joke should not be asked to “lighten up”. In their understanding, the joke was in poor taste and perhaps even diminished their Easter joy. This view must be respected.
In as far as a joke or any comment printed in this newspaper causes genuine and reasonable offence, we take sincere note of the objection and extend our apology. It is not the purpose of The Southern Cross to create controversy, least so in the most trivial feature of the newspaper.
We do, however, reject the notion that we might carelessly introduce borderline blasphemy into the content of The Southern Cross, even in the joke section. Blasphemy requires intent in malice—specifically with the purpose of insulting or otherwise showing contempt for God—or a crudely formulated rejection of God. Clearly, these conditions were absent in the printed joke.
Those who object to the joke may agree that it was not in itself blasphemous, but that it was nonetheless irreverent. This would return us to the forum of the subjective.
The punchline might also, conversely, invite us to reflect on the nature of God, of sin and of forgiveness (it probably is no accident that the joke has appeared in some form or other on several Christian websites).
Specifically, we might reflect on the third post-Resurrection appearance of Christ at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, reported in John 24.
Having secured the disciples a good catch of fish, Christ enters into a remarkable conversation with Simon Peter over breakfast. He asks the disciple three times: “Do you love me?”—a sharp echo of Peter’s triple denial of Christ on the night before the crucifixion.
The printed word gives no indication of the tone in which these questions were asked or answered. It is not unreasonable to interpret the exchange as one in which Christ pointedly reprimands Peter for his act of disloyalty. Understood that way, one might say that Christ was, in the colloquial term of the joke, still “miffed”, or displeased.
Of course, Christ has already forgiven Peter for his cowardice, feeds him and even appoints him the leader of the new movement.
This episode encapsulates our relationship with God, who loves us but whom we encounter frequently as angry and punitive in the Old Testament. The New Testament presents God as gentler, but even the God of the Gospel suffers no fools.
We sin against God and displease him, and yet God is ready to forgive our sins, much as good parents are ready to forgive the trespasses of their children, as Jesus explained in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In the joke, Christ is “miffed”, but even in that narrative, this is secondary to the Good News of his Resurrection. Although we commit sins or disregard his laws, our disappointing conduct does not change God’s unconditional love for us and the fruit of Jesus’ sacrifice, the hope of eternal life.
There is no inconsistency in Jesus being supposedly “miffed” about the cowardly reaction of his disciples on the one hand to his arrest and the glory of the Good News of his Resurrection on the other.
It is legitimate to regard the joke we published with distaste or even feelings of hurt or anger, especially with reference to its timing. At the same time, even a joke that might offend us can lead to deeper, fruitful reflection.
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