Racial or Religious Humor as Means of Negotiation

By Zach Price

Zach Price is a Religious Studies major; a Black Belt in Isshin Ryu; a student of Shen Lung Kung Fu; and a guitar, banjo, and tin whistle enthusiast. This post originally appeared on the blog Monks and Nones, the class blog for REL 371.

So if you missed the “joke” that Rick Warren posted on Facebook and the proceeding backlash then you can catch up on all of it here. Basically Rick Warren, a famous mega-church pastor, posted an image of a Red Guard from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and made a joke about how his co-workers are like that on Mondays. Other pastors were upset that a religious leader like Warren would use a joke making light of the horrific acts committed during the Cultural Revolution.

Instead of trying to determine the appropriateness or humor of the joke , I would like to understand the kind of work that joke and the actions taken by Warren and others are doing. In other words: how is this joke functioning among these groups.

I imagine that if this joke were made by a pastor say fifty years ago it probably would not have had the same reaction to it. White evangelicals were firmly in power in American culture and remember that it would have been shortly after the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) containing an infamous scene of the most stereotypical stereotypes of Asian-Americans.

Fast-foward to today. A number of Asian-Americans were offended and Rick Warren after one attempt of justifying his joke eventually apologized. So what changed?

I would argue that at least one function of humor might be negotiation between various groups. Fifty years ago the joke would have served to reinforce white male protestant dominance. The joke would negotiate the group by showing who is in the group (those that think it was funny) and who is at the top of that particular social structure. Today, by the reactions and Warren’s apology I would argue that same power structure was renegotiated. Since the joke is not funny, the white male protestant is no longer the complete dominant within American Christianity or at least who is in and who is out has been expanded. This seems to be congruent with the growing numbers of Asian (and Hispanic) members within American churches.

So maybe this joke isn’t just saying whether or not the Cultural Revolution is funny. Maybe it is saying who is or isn’t in the group.


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About Michael Altman

Michael J. Altman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. Dr. Altman's areas of interest are American religious history, theory and method in the study of religion, the history of comparative religion, and Asian religions in American culture. Overall, his research sits at the crossroads of American religious history and religious studies, using the theoretical insights of religious studies to dig deeper into what we mean by "religion" in religious history. His current research examines cultural constructions of Hinduism in 19th-century America.

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