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Columnists

Taking a joke

James Cary

Cary

Following the shocking events in Paris on January 7, when gunmen shot down a dozen people in their attempt to suppress anti-Islamic satire, much of the debate has been about freedom of speech and what we have a right to say. Freedom of expression is one of the key ingredients in liberty, which makes Theresa May's vile anti-terror legislation worrying. It will curb precisely the thing it is seeking to protect. The baby is not so much being thrown out with the bathwater, but suffocated by its own protective pillow - and I use such a tasteless analogy on purpose. Legislation that can lead to your being carted away in police van for saying something that might make someone somewhere feel bad is truly pernicious and worrying.

The question is not about freedom of speech, which is self-evidently necessary. The question is about how religions deal with ridicule, something that our largely secular media and government is unable, or at least unwilling, to deal with. I can understand why. To me, Islam is an alien way of thinking that I really don't understand, mostly because of my own ignorance. A copy of Koran has sat unread on my shelf for many years, and I've just not made the effort to understand how forgiveness works within Islam, and how anyone - or Allah, for that matter - can forgives sins against them.

To the secular journalist or columnist, Christianity is every bit as opaque as Islam. The familiarity of certain elements of the faith, like the Christmas imagery or half-remembered bits of the Lord's Prayer make it all the more confusing. They might assume that all religions essentially work (or fail to) the same way, not least because Christianity's treatment of humorists, satirists and troublemakers has been every bit as violent as their Muslim counterparts throughout history. The vice-like grip of the Church on society in Western Europe, at least, for over a thousand years appeared to be as much about coercion, censorship and violence as devoted voluntary adherence to the faith.

This is doubly frustrating for me as Christian, though, because it really shouldn't be this way. My faith appears, from the outside, to be no different from any other religion, but Christianity is a faith that is thoroughly equipped to deal with comedy, however misplaced and clumsy.

I can say this because the most significant day in human history was laced with hideously inappropriate satire. On the first Good Friday, Jesus was mocked, spat on, whipped, forced to wear a crown of thorns and a purple robe and was nailed to a cross under the sign 'This is the King of the Jews'. The Roman soldier must have thought it was hilarious, and chuckled to themselves as they played games to decide who got Jesus' meagre possessions. Rather than intervene with violence - which might well have been justified in this case - Jesus, as he preached in his ministry, turned the other cheek.

Jesus would not have been altogether surprised at this ridicule, given what he himself had dished out. His public ministry involved the satirising of powerful elites, the wealthy and the self-righteous religious leaders who excluded the poor, the sick and the downtrodden from the presence of God. Well, they couldn't do that any more because He Himself was the presence of God on earth, with them. Jesus's jokes at their expense, his impersonations of their holier-than-thou fasting, were not simply abuse. They were meant to teach them a lesson. And some, like Nicodemus, learned that lesson.

The main response of those elites was a clumsily planned murder; a tawdry execution at the exact time they should have been planning for the holiest feast of the year - the Passover, a festival of celebration about God's kindness and salvation. On the cross, Jesus did not respond with violence, but submission to a greater cause: Forgiveness. All people in all times and all places could be forgiven because of the death of a truly innocent man on the cross. The need for bloodshed was over.

Christianity can take a joke because it is a joke. The gospel is a delightful subversion of what our blinded eyes tell us is the truth, that this is no hope, no light and no prospect of salvation for us, or the world. And it's such good news it should make us want to laugh, not least because the extraordinary way in which God chooses to save the world: through a baby born in the obscurest part of the Roman empire, who grows up to be a harmless carpenter, who preaches for three years and executed for his inconvenient message of repentance. Jokes, however mean-spirited or inappropriate, can be forgiven, and ideally learned from.