Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Last Laugh

Psalm 2:1-6 (King James Version)

1”Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
2The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
3Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
4He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision.
5Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
6Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.”

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a speech by Natan Sharansky on C-Span. In the speech Mr. Sharansky spoke of how he overcame torture and imprisonment in the former Soviet Union. His methodology was absolutely fascinating.

What was his principle weapon against the vast soviet apparatus, you ask? It was humor. He spoke of how, while he was being tortured, he would tell jokes to his KGB interrogators. He went into detail about one of the sessions. The torture began and Sharansky told the following joke to his torturers:

“When the United States beat the U.S.S.R in their race to the moon, the politburo met. An alternative victory was needed in the light of what appeared to be a great defeat. In the course of the meeting a strategy was decided upon. The soviets would land a cosmonaut on the sun. When the announcement was made a gasp rang out to those present for the public pronouncement. One daring person decided to ask the question that was on almost everyone (except for the politburo’s) minds. “How can you even think of such a thing? Our brave cosmonaut will burn to ashes in the brilliant light of the sun.” The premier had apparently anticipated the question. In what can best be described as the height of groupthink he declared, “Do you think we on the politburo are idiots? We are all very aware of the problems that come with such an endeavor. We have solved the problem and now are certain that we can land a cosmonaut safely on the sun. It’s all very simple, really. Instead of landing him on the sun during the day, we intend to land him there at night!”

Now, most people living freely would have absolutely howled if an American president had made such a ridiculous statement. It was, I think, given the circumstances and the times, a very funny joke. Think of it. The Soviets had been defeated in the space race and now Sharansky was using humor to drive the defeat home. But, Sharansky noted, in the Soviet Union self-deprecation was impossible because the beaurocrats, leaders, and operatives took themselves all too seriously.

It was that type of humor that helped Sharansky maintain his sanity and his power to overcome the machinations of this oppressive state. His great power was in being able to tell a joke and know that the people he was telling it to really wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. I could see it happening as he spoke of the incidents, Sharansky telling jokes a la’ Jay Lenno or David Letterman to a group of interrogators and torturers who were having to stifle the natural human response to laugh because if they had they too would soon have been objects of the torture they were meting out to Sharansky. The insanity of Sharansky’s situation pointed out in glaring terms the insanity of the entire Soviet system. While there were other tell-tale signs of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Unions, this one, Sharansky believed, was the most telling of all. The system had to protect itself at all costs. There was no freedom to criticize or even laugh at itself in a self-deprecating way.

I believe Sharansky was right.

In the light of his speech on C-Span I decided to buy his latest book, The Case for Democracy – the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Early on in his writing he describes the freedom he had gained under the cruelest of circumstances in the Soviet Union. There was nothing that could be done to take that freedom from him. Even as he was being prodded and twisted and beaten he joked with his captors. He decided he was going to have the last laugh, and indeed he did.

Upon emigrating to Israel Sharansky assumed that the freedom he had found would be the true essence of democratic Israel and the rest of the democratic west. The stark terms of his life in the Soviet Union had given him a unique window to the world. As Sharansky saw it, things were really more black and white than people in the west cared to admit. Many of the people he met and interacted with in the “free world” saw much in terms of gray, with little or no moral clarity to be seen or expressed. He put it this way:

“Finally, in fighting with the Soviet regime, we dissidents came to appreciate the power of the solidarity of the free world. We believed that a state’s respect for the rights of its own citizens should be the criterion by which to measure that state’s intentions. In the readiness of democratic leaders to link their relations with other states to the extent those states respected human rights, we saw great potential for the development and expansion of freedom across the globe.”

“While I brought this perspective on freedom with me to my new life in Israel, I soon realized that there were few who shared it. For many years, I have been asking myself why so many of those who have lived a life of liberty do not appreciate the enormous power of freedom. With time, I have come to understand that my exposure to the black-and-white world of the Soviet Union provided me with a unique laboratory to discover the line between good and evil. In the free world, with its varying shades of gray, isolating black and white, finding moral clarity, becomes far more difficult.”

I think what Shransky discovered, to his own dismay, was that the “free west” was not immune to this groupthink. Author/teacher Mark Edmundson has looked at the current generation and has seen the same cool detachment to reality and group-think that was evident in Sharansky’s Soviet Union. The only thing that seems to be missing, as I see it, is the physical torture and deprivation. As a university professor, Edmundson observed his students and asked himself, “Why were they staring into the abyss, as Lionel Trilling once described his own students as having done, and commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of deifying contemplation for years to come?”

Edmundson, in his latest work “Why Read?,” then goes on to describe not only the students, but also the academic community:

“The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. No should she (or he) create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lots their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing could befall one; it should be avoided at all costs.”

Does that sound like groupthink to you? It sure does to me!

Unfortunately that groupthink has made great inroads in the Christian church. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the evils all around us, while at the same time entering into this obscene frivolity as though we were dancing around a maypole.

I’ll give you an example. I could use others, but I’ve decided on this one because I believe it’s much in keeping with Sharansky’s way of coping with his life in the Soviet Union. The difference is, that while Sharansky used fiction to deliver his punch line, I’m going to use a current fact.

Have any of you heard of “ringers?” I’ll admit my own stupidity here. Until a few days ago I’d never heard of them. And, worse than that, I found out they are all the rage these days. Now I suppose I should have known that they were ring tones for cell phones. That part seemed fine to me as an explanation was offered. What came next was the real joke, though. Young people, including many Christian young people, are spending lots of money to just listen to these “ringers.” Think of it. A lot of our young people (and who know, some of our “oldest and wisest”) have been caught up in the craze. They’ve nothing better to do with their time than to listen to a phone that rings with something like “The William Tell Overture” or “You’re a Mean One, Mr.Grinch” or even one of Snoop Doggy Dog’s latest. I’ll say it again. They have nothing better to do with their time than to listen to a phone ringing.

It makes me really wonder. What type of foundations are we building? The Master Himself spoke to this issue of foundations, using a stark contrast, something so black and white that His intent could not be mistaken:

Matthew 7:24-28 (King James Version)

24”Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
28And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine”

Now you might say I’m making more of all this than I should be. What can I say in my defense? I’ll just leave a few things with you and I’ll be done:

1. I’m a man out of step with my times.

2. I sense that we, as a Christian generation, are now reaping what we have sown. (see Galatians 6:7)

3. We may think otherwise, but if we continue on our current path we’ll find that God Himself will certainly have the last laugh. That is, unless we change our ways, the joke is going to be on us!

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