At the Foot of the Cross 2009

Mockery - Just Joking

There is a wonderfully powerful sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus where the physical violence of a terrorising gang, a parody of the Cray Brothers, is belittled in comparison with sarcasm; and in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, in the spectacularly ironic parody of the Passion, a queue of condemned men are offered Crucifixion or an alternative; and one first volunteers for crucifixion but then turns round and says: "Just joking". The idea that anybody might be killed on a cross was just a bit of a laugh; and to those inured to state inflicted violence, that is what it was, a bit of a laugh, in the same way that dysfunctional people today commit violence "for fun".

Never was there a dafter rhyme, a kind of whistling in the light, than the expression: "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me". It is a platitude that defies all the evidence. Yet we are living in an age where words are losing their grace and sharpness and are becoming ever blunter, brutal weapons of assault. The whole purpose of language is to strengthen and enhance the possibilities of human co-operation but it seems increasingly the case that words are deployed to deceive or to demean. at the height of the frenzy over the disappearance of Madeline McCann, newspapers which could not gain a new angle on the story, simply cast nasty aspersions on the grieving parents. The power of a good deal of what we, rather strangely, call "reality television" rests on the appetite of the public for seeing the inadequate exalted and then humbled. Our culture has adopted cruelty as a key media selling point. The use of cruelty is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it until it is applied to us; until that apparently casual, throw-away line which we think will not - or should not - affect somebody else, is thrown at us. Anybody and everybody seem to think themselves entitled, as a matter of common freedom, to express any view about anything, no matter how ignorant and negative. We have come to see restraint not as a virtue but as a bar to linguistic indulgence; our cheapening and coarsening of language, of discourse, of sentiment, of sensibility, of feeling, parallels our crude materialism; and although we have this erroneous "sticks and stones" platitude running in the background, we know that it is the word that counts. Brutality usually follows a self-deluding justification or the barking of an order, acts of mass exploitation are usually supported by spurious theories, personal spite is honed to sharpness; the man boasts his strength and woman her beauty; but the clever use their words, not to clear minefields but to be used as ammunition to assault the other or otherness. The dangers are summed up in the Letter of James (Chapter 3): the bit in the mouth of a horse is tiny but it turns the whole animal; the rudder of a ship is tiny but it turns the whole ship; the tongue is likewise tiny but it makes great boasts, like a spark it sets light to a forest, it alters the whole of our lives.

The Passion of Jesus is shot through with mockery: the mocking kiss and address of Judas; the sham proceedings before the High Priest; the antics of King Herod seeking a sign; the strange, almost surreal, mockery of Pilate which suddenly breaks out into "Behold, your king!"; the mockery of the thieves, softened in Luke; the dice playing of the soldiers; the taunt that Jesus can save himself if he is the Messiah. From beginning to end there is a narrative of superiority and cynicism, of the abuse of process and its victim.

Both major misuses of language - deception and cruelty - feature in our narratives. As we have seen, Judas in what is, admittedly, a very shallow piece of deception, betrays Jesus with a soft greeting and a kiss; and false witnesses, again, in a rather shallow way, are brought forward to convict Jesus; and there are numerous uses of cruel language on the part of the crowd and the authorities.

But in many ways the more besetting vices of language are cynicism and abdication: Caiaphas thinks it better that one man should die for the whole people; the Disciples run away; Peter denies Jesus; and Pilate washes his hands.

We are so used to these forms of behaviour that we hardly notice: we expect politicians and journalists to lie to such an extent that the only lies we really resent are those from the clergy and the police. Perpetrators and victims console themselves with the thought that most deceptions are shallow; we are all grown-ups; we know how necessary it is to say one thing and mean another; because we see through the deception it is not serious. But before long we are not sure. When is a false statement false and when is it a joke? How many layers of irony can we withstand before we lose our bearings? In a wonderful poem about perception, entitled Carnal Knowledge, the poet Thom Gunn ended his verses alternately:

"I know you know I know you know I know"


"You know I know you know I know you know".

But our kind of deception is not the straight, shocking, blatant lie; we are much too clever for that. As a natural reflection of our contemporary social mores, language reflects the flaking of solid accountability: just as we have moved in administration from leadership to the Gilbert & Sullivan situation where everybody is somebody and so nobody is anybody so, in our language, we have gone from the active: "I hit Jim" to the passive: "Jim was hit". in both cases Jim doubtless sustained some discomfort but in the second sentence there is a degree of coyness about causality; it is subtlety that entwines us rather than brutality that assaults us.

Paradoxically, although our deception may be becoming more subtle, our linguistic cruelty seems to be ever more blatant and virulent. The deceptively neutral ideas of "extending the envelope" and "testing the boundary" deceive no-one. What was once unsayable becomes "challenging" or "edgy"; the kind of cattiness which was a part of teenage rivalry is a commonplace of entertainment; silly and defenceless people are encouraged to stand up so that they can be pilloried; cheques are signed, consumers chuckle, knowingly; lives are wrecked.

In this we are all more or less complicit. No doubt we occasionally deceive through subtlety; and no doubt we occasionally say something and then wish we had not said it, seeing pain spread across the face of a colleague or friend, showing us that the burst of cleverness was a betrayal of vulnerability; but it is what we consume or let pass, that condemns us, not what we do. In a highly inter-dependent world, these failures are two sides of the same coin. Because we consume cynical, cruel or deceptive language, paying the authors and publishers for their infliction of damage to our social capital, they receive a return on their investment and re-invest; and, like a drug addiction, the more we consume, the bigger the hit we need to be satisfied. The cruelty increases, the violence increases, the sexual coarseness increases, the degradation increases. I have so often heard it said that there is nothing we can do; that the market is too big; that we would dearly love to protect our children and grandchildren but the peer pressure is too great; the somebody else's next door or down the street are more powerful than we are.

At quite a different level, as educated  and powerful people, even if we do not consume, even if we are sceptical about everything we hear, we too often wash our hands, live in a state of denial, run away. It is too much trouble. We will grumble at the back of church or in the pub but we won't do anything about it; things have gone too far to turn around; the good old days will never return; somebody or other has betrayed us and the values we stood for; we are victims of a huge, linguistic and aesthetic conspiracy.

But the point of the Cross is that we are not victims; we have made choices which have led us here to stand before the world's most unjustified but inevitable victim. The significance of The Cross is that it stands for all choices; it is, literally, a symbol of our freedom. It tells us that the greatest betrayal we can undertake is to portray ourselves as victims and not perpetrators; Christ is the victim; we are the perpetrators and perhaps the aspect of life in which we most often make wrong choices is in the way we talk and the way we stay silent.

The mockery of the crown of thorns and the purple robe might lead us to think that the inscription over the head of Jesus is the final joke: this broken man is proclaimed King of the Jews. When the religious authorities tell Pilate that he should write "He said he was the King of the Jews", they are surely missing the point; for this is not only Pilate's joke at the expense of Jesus - there can be nothing more obvious than that this dying man is no king - but it is also a joke at the expense of the Jews who are given this pathetic leader, and at the expense of the authorities who are, in effect, told that this is the only king they will get. As jokes go it works well because it hurts everyone; Pilate's revenge is bitter/sweet.

Let us project ourselves forward. The self importance and the mockery came to nothing. The failure of the Jewish religious authorities to see what had come and what was coming proved fatal to their power and position; the Roman Empire was conquered by the cross; the man who was tortured, mocked and murdered became our King. In this we should take comfort, the strength to be brave. We are not torturers and murderers; it is our mockery and our complicit silence that have brought us here, to the spectacle of unmitigated disaster and defeat, to a remembrance of the Letter of James, of the tongue that is a spark; restrained, it brings warmth, light and comfort; unrestrained, it destroys everything in its path, as we have seen recently in Victoria. We never know when we toss the verbal equivalent of a cigarette butt carelessly out of a car window what damage it will do. We speed away, oblivious and later, when we read about the fire, we wonder whether we started it, shrug, and move on. There are so many trivial incidents that could have caused it; it can hardly have been us. Then something in us, a perverse pride, a feeling of guilt, changes our outlook and we begin to watch the flames with a possessive, perverted pleasure. Whoever it was had it coming; it was going to happen to them sooner or later; if it wasn't me it would have been somebody else.

And we suddenly say to someone, because we can't hold it in any longer. "I started that fire, you know." but when we see the horror with which the admission is greeted, we check ourselves and say with a half laugh: "Just joking!"

Prayer. Lord Jesus, it is only at this point of contact between the tongues of the mockers and your sacred heart that we can bring ourselves to wonder at what we have said and what we have failed to say; for we, who were given language have almost killed it. May we learn from your love, vivid in everything you said, how we may love you; and grant us the grace to see ourselves as fellows in your mockery, as well as mockers and cowards, so that we may be truthful in all we say.