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.