Satirists as Public Theologians by Melissa James

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Why satirists have become our public theologians (or why I am doubling down on feminist theological ethics as public theology)…

Did you see the Daily Show last night? I’m sure it was all over your Facebook feed and Twitter. The show just nailed the response to. . .fill in the blank. From Ferguson to pay inequality, from racism to culture wars the satirists have had quite the run lately. From political cartoons to the Onion to late night cable “news” shows, satire plays an important role in society. What satirists are excellent at is holding up a magnifying mirror to our society to show us areas of absurdity, oppression, and hypocrisy. The mix of political commentary and humor allows satirists to push further than many other interlocutors in public discourse.

Part of their success stems from our deep need and longing for collective moral reflection and humor allows us to do so in a way that feels safe enough to engage. What makes good satirists effective is their ability to do deep, critical analysis of society. They use sociology. The better they employ their analysis the better their satire. The better the satire the more they reflect to us what we need to hear. And many satirists have played that role really well.

And then they cut to commercial or we flip the page and their job is done. I will admit, however, that I have been among the many that let them take the role of prophetic public witness. Allowing my reposting of the witty one-liner or comedy bit suffice as my own act of prophetic witness. Theirs is not the role of suggesting new ways forward, offering alternative narratives, or deconstructing and reconstructing the oppressive systems rooted in our cultural narratives or, dare I say it, our theologies.

That is our job. That is the work of public theologians and faith and spiritual leaders. Yet much of public discourse on religion and theology is lacking the critical awareness and analysis that makes good satire show up on our Facebook feeds. If I were to have a motto it would be “you should never extend the theology without examining the sociology.” Unfortunately, in the past months and years I have had too many opportunities to see well-intended people of faith and religious leaders respond to tragedy. Some have knocked it out of the park while others. . .not so much. The difference, I have found, has been whether or not their theology is sufficiently rooted in sociology. Take a recent example of a response from the recent Charleston shooting:

The leader of a mainline Protestant church wrote a response that, while Pastoral, tip-toed on the edge of naming the way that race was at work. The author was willing to admit that “Racism is a fact in American culture” and even name the “deadly sin of racism” and call us to “speak out against inequity.” Yet, the one concrete call to the church was an admonition that “no stereotype or racial slur is justified.” These are appropriate responses-yet they are insufficient. They play into the white construction of privilege in which racism is an individual problem—a personal sin needing repentance. They respond by holding up what Robin DiAngelo calls “White Fragility” by insulating the majority White congregation from racial stress. The response, lacking in the depth of social analysis of our satirical counterparts ignores the reality that a sociological analysis would show us: racism is a macro level issue experienced and perpetuated on both the macro and micro level.

We cannot respond to the needs of our world without a solid and comprehensive understanding of how the world works. We cannot offer a theological response to the tragedy in South Carolina or fully understand how the Supreme Court ruling on marriage created space for us to rejoice and then act unless we understand the relationship between individual, culture, and society. They are intertwined, mutually influential and must all be transformed. Naming and addressing structural sin is one of the most important and powerful tasks people of faith and spiritual and religious leaders have. Holy texts and theological traditions can be wonderful sources but are too often used for harm when our theologians and religious leaders don’t know their sociology. Or, as is too often the case, when complicit silence leaves the burden of our collective moral wrestling to satirists and pundits.

Theological movements from the margins know this. Building on a long history of looking to the real of experience of communities and employing the sociological imagination which asks us to “make the familiar strange,” I am doubling down on feminist theological ethics as a public theology. Critical feminist theological ethics can be the mirror needed to call out where classism, sexism, racism, and all forms of oppression are at work in our world. Because it examines the sociology, we are then called to extend the theology in order to help reconstruct a way forward. I say, keep on satirists, our collective conversations need your critical and humorous voices. But it’s not your job to offer new ways, deconstruct and reconstruct the oppressive theologies and social structures—that’s our job!

Dr. Melissa James earned a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.  She has taught at the college and seminary levels including courses in Sociology, Christianity, Gender Studies, World Religions, and Applied Ethics. She is the Founder and Director of Farm to Faith, San Diego, an interfaith organization dedicated to providing resources to faith communities interested in issues of food justice. She also currently works as the Director of Children and Family Ministry at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego.

Categories: Activism, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Ethics, General, Humor, Justice, Media, Social Justice

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13 replies

  1. This is an interesting post, but I admit I am wrestling with it.

    Round 1: Satirists as artists. The job of the artist is to hold up mirrors and ask questions. The purpose of the artist is the journey of the question. The artist freely admits that she does not have the answers, and not having the answers is ok. She is comfortable with doubt. Doubt is often her source of inspiration.

    Round 2 Theologians as activists.Theologians as activists are expected to provide answers. The better their answer fits into the context of their society and addresses real-life problems, the more effective their activism. The theologian activist must be confident and certain of her answer. She must have no doubts, because the doubts would erode her activist energy.

    Round 3: Not all theologians are activists. Should they be? Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with that role, maybe they have doubts. Does that make their ministry less important than the activist theologians? Will they be labeled as ‘complacent’ or ‘buying into the system’?

    Round 4: Are you still an artist if you hold up a distorted mirror, one that panders to the status quo and upholds standards of inequality and privilege? Are you an artist if you ask bad or lame questions? Who gets to decide who is in the artist club and who is not?

    and so on…..But hey- you made my old neurons start firing up this morning, and that is a good thing!


    • Thanks for your comments, nmr. I’m glad it got you thinking.

      As for rounds 1 & 2, I am curious about your use of doubt (lack of, inspiration from) as the point of juxtapositon of satirist versus theologians. Both satirist/artists and theologians wrestle with doubt and do so necessarily.

      As for your round 3, that is an interesting question to ponder (one which I do not address in this post). Theology plays various roles in our society and lives–all of which, I would argue, would benefit from having basic social analysis. Not all theologians are prophetic but those who venture in that realm have a particular duty to be sure they have done their analysis.

      As for round 4: I’ll leave that question to thea artists. As an applied ethicist it is not my place to tell someone whether or not they are an artist. Thanks for getting me pondering, though.


  2. I’ve always been a big fan of satire and parody. Societies need that point of view, especially societies that take themselves entirely too seriously. (I’m not naming any names here.) Thanks for writing this.


  3. The Druids in their function as Bards used satire as a religious practice. The job was to puncture egos, point out wrongs particularly to those in power and the mighty feared that power. Supposedly they could even bring boils to an offender in power’s face. So satire does have a religious function in pointing out wrongs and making people think.


    • Fair enough. Certainly throughout time art, satire, humor and so much more has been rooted in or at least connected explicitly to religious life. What I am interested in is the way in which some secular contemporary satire is so much better at social analysis than so many who speak publicly from within religions. I would love to see examples of contemporary religious satire which does the same level of social analysis which makes it secular counterparts effective. Any suggestions?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We forget that all caricature is a form of satire also. From a feminist viewpoint, one of the best in the business is Ann Telnaes — her latest political cartoon on guns is right-on, as all her cartoons usually are. I even keep a link to her on my Bookmarks Bar — her work, strictly as a cartoonist, is right up there with my old favorite, Dennis the Menace!! (for Dennis)


  5. If public theology means theologians commenting on political issues, there are many of us who do that all the time. The problem, however, as I see it, is that Christian hegemony in the political sphere no longer coheres, so whether we speak as fundamentalist or liberal Christians or from other perspectives, we no longer have “the ear” of America as was the case for in the 60s. Nor does Comedy Central or MSNBC have the ear of all America, we cannot go back.


    • I don’t think public theology is limited to just political issues though it is an aspect of it. There are certainly many public theologians who do really solid social analysis (many of whom write for FAR). You’re absolutely right that the current religious landscape of the the US is very different than 60s (or any other era for that matter) and that calls for a different way of engaging in public theology. I have no interest in “going back.” I do, however, find that those who have the power and position to speak on a national or even global stage whose theology is completely separated from social analysis are certainly not helping us move forward. Thanks for your thoughts.


  6. I will never forget my professor of anthropology almost 50 years ago, who wrote a satirical piece that was published in the local newspaper, about the lack of education for African-Americans. He expected push-back from white racists. Instead, he got hate mail from African-Americans themselves, who did not understand that his article was an ironic parody. He was devastated, but came to realize that satire is a very sophisticated form, that requires a certain degree of education to understand. In other words, the very thing he was deploring led to his being criticized by the people he meant to support.
    I have become very conscious that my love of clever word-games can very easily be misunderstood.


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