Sunday, October 17, 2010

Blessed are the Comedy Central Peacemakers (Brian E. Konkol)

Over the past weeks I have been fascinated with the Comedy Central “Rally to Restore Sanity” and corresponding “Keep Fear Alive” campaigns, which plan to conclude with gatherings on October 30th at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Initial projections indicate thousands of citizens plan to attend. I wish that I could be one of them.

Throughout past generations, comedians, satirists, and pranksters such as those on Comedy Central have discovered crafty methods to address public issues in ways “mainstream” journalists, public commentators, clergy, academics, and politicians do not (and cannot). While the humor of Comedy Central can sometimes prove inappropriate (which in turn threatens credibility), its Daily Show offers various moments of thoughtful probe into the North American mindset and societal concerns that seem to define our times. Specifically, regardless of whether or not someone enjoys Comedy Central or its Daily Show and host Jon Stewart, I believe the corresponding rally campaigns have brought a number of significant questions to the forefront. Among other things, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” and “Keep Fear Alive” campaigns address an increasingly disturbing cycle of fear that is stripping our world of peace.

The United States of America is widely regarded as one of the safest and most secure places on Earth, yet its citizens are often perceived around the world as quite anxious and terrified. How can such contradictory and perplexing realties exist? The front page of major newspapers report crime and economic worries, and the same can be said for television, Internet, and magazines. As “bad news sells”, a growing public perception is that one cannot leave home without a clear and present danger lurking around any given corner. In addition, politicians with partisan motives too often push fear for the benefit of a particular agenda. President Richard Nixon once (allegedly) remarked, “People react to fear, not love”, and this strategy of promoting fear has become a disturbing (and sadly, quite successful) norm in election campaigning. As a result, various advertisements ranging from oversized automobiles (…fear of accidents), clothes (…fear of not being attractive or popular), self-help books (…fear of failure), security (…fear of crime), baby products (…fear of not being “good” parents), pharmaceuticals (…fear of death), etc., too often serve as so-called “vendors of fear” that skillfully tap into moral insecurities of citizens and supply the public with symbolic (and costly) substitutes. While there are various exceptions, it is alarming to consider how much of our daily beliefs and actions revolve around fear, and it is even more concerning to realize how such negative outlooks on life spread across the globe.

In striking contrast to a contagious message of fear, The Gospel of Matthew recalls Jesus as saying “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” in his Sermon on the Mount. In line with Jesus’ identity as “Prince of Peace”, various Gospel narratives illustrate his ability to calm fears within the hearts and minds of those around him through word and deed. In light of the Hebrew notion of “shalom”, Jesus sought to bring wholeness and wellbeing in its fullness, which includes right relationships with God and reconciliation with fellow members of humankind and all of creation. As a result, when Jesus spoke with the original disciples immediately before his suffering and crucifixion, instead of promoting fear surrounding the massive struggles ahead, he offered: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). With the above being said, it can be argued that – even in the midst of immensely troubling times – peacemaking was central to Jesus and his early followers, as we are reminded in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (4:6-7): “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

In light of the New Testament witness, I have long believed that peace is an opposite of fear, as peace sets one free from the mental, physical, and spiritual slavery that fear so desperately seeks to sustain. And so, just as Jesus’ first followers over 2,000 years ago resisted fear in the face of public persecution and internal division, I believe the current day and age calls for similar actions of peacemaking through faith and God’s grace. In no way does peace entail avoidance of difficult issues or choosing not to care about struggle, but to the contrary, peacemaking calls for citizens to engage issues directly as a result of faith, with trust that God walks alongside humankind each step of the way. In other words, peace inspires trust and leads to composure when facing adversity, whereas fear motivates suspicion and leads to ignorance and misguided judgment. With this in mind, as God promises the “peace which surpasses all understanding”, one is able to respond to receiving peace with God through resisting fear and striving for peace alongside others.

One can argue that peace is not the absence of struggle, but liberation from it (even when in the midst of hardship) as a result of being accompanied by a gracious God of love who diligently seeks justice and dignity. I doubt that Comedy Central had any of this in mind when it first planned its rallies, but God has, does, and will continue to work through various people and organizations in mysterious (and even comedic) ways. While Comedy Central and the Daily Show may seem unlikely instruments of building faith and guiding society through times of challenge, humor has a way of sparking laughter and revealing truth when we need both (laughter and truth) the most, comedians can be jokesters and prophets, and I do believe something can be learned from Jon Stewart about a “return to sanity”, or more theologically speaking, “a return to peace”. Through Comedy Central we are given a moment to rest from our struggles in the present, but also a variety of insights to overcome them in the future. And so, I say “Blessed are the Comedy Central Peacemakers”, for they are “children of God”.