Parodying Violence in Ferguson (EHJ series)

“To stand in front of a tank and be willing to be run over is absolutely not a funny situation, but it is a case parody. … The student tries through non-violent resistance to publicly humiliate the army in an exaggerated and literal demonstration of its callous oppression.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 134

Smoky photos of police in riot gear alongside protestors in street clothes with paper signs, breathless cries of frustration from reporters, rumors of fire hoses and international investigations—in a heartbeat, fifty-year-old iconic images of racially charged history explode with latent power. Ferguson, Missouri, has reminded us that our everyday reality is pregnant with past violence.

The images are kept alive in our imaginations by family lore, literature and media, ready to escape when triggered. “The circulation of violence becomes a habit of life, and everybody makes a contribution,” writes David Galston in chapter 6 of Embracing the Human Jesus. We operate out of these habits as though they are the natural way to be—our “default reality” (115). Most of the time they exist as a backdrop, something that doesn't need to be thought out or noticed, but then something happens to awaken us to our assumptions. In Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters, Kenneth Stow tells compellingly of how the slur “Jewish dog” is perpetuated in seemingly harmless ways across history—such as through cartoons and children’s games—only to rear up in more serious forms when new developments in political and social conflicts excite feelings against Jewish people.

Consider: if we recall the murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in a conversation about Michael Brown, as I’ve seen people do this week on social media, what are we hoping people will do with that connection? Likewise, NPR ran a story about a black teen who was ‘almost another dead black male’—the catch? His mom was white. My children's skin color is darker than my own, so yes, this concerns me. But what I want to know is what we’re trying to accomplish with all these images.

Protest as parody

Ferguson protest © Light Bringading (Flickr) | Tiananmen protest © ryanne lei (Flickr)

David Galston suggests we can see non-violent resistance as a parody that demands change via embarrassment of the oppressor’s assumed power. Parody is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as imitation “for comic effect or in ridicule, often with certain peculiarities greatly heightened or exaggerated.” This was a strategy employed by the historical Jesus, and it was probably what motivated Roman authorities to kill him. Many readers will be familiar with the following interpretation of "turn the other cheek": When Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he probably was not encouraging us to passively accept abuse. Rather, it was a demand for equality. “To be slapped on the right cheek is to receive the backhanded blow of your oppressor’s right hand. It is symbolically a ‘downward’ blow meant to put you in your place” (134). Yet when you turn the other cheek, you demand a blow “that assumes equality.”

Galston does not mean to argue that Jesus taught exactly this popular lesson of non-violent resistance as it is now associated with him. It may have nothing to do with what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Rather, “the point is to extend ancient wisdom of the Jesus school into our time and language” (139). We carry the momentum of his teaching forward in our own ways. As the late Marshallese storyteller Jorju Arre once explained, he only told stories to the people who asked, even if that meant only one person would ever hear them (Kelin & Nashon, Marshall Islands Legends & Stories: 169). Sometimes we need to demand stories of the past that propel us toward a better future. If we don’t ask, it won’t be remembered.

Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open. Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 refused to move from in front of tanks. What are we doing when we set up and recall such highly visual protests? We are declaring the imbalance of power. We are not allowing it to go unseen. It’s a parody of the oppressor’s control. True, we don’t laugh; but we sure see the ridiculousness of our oppressor’s demands for peace and quiet.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

24 replies
  1. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    On the other “hand,” when one gets whacked on the right side of the face the head snaps to the left. At that point one instinctively snaps the head back to the right, revealing the left cheek. At this time If one retaliates, it would normally be with the left hand, revealing the left cheek even more. When one is whacked one doesn’t think back to an aphorism. “Wisdom” in this case is instinctive action caused by an increase in noradrenaline!

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Cassandra wrote: “Galston does not mean to argue that Jesus taught exactly this popular lesson of non-violent resistance as it is now associated with him. It may have nothing to do with what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Rather, ‘the point is to extend ancient wisdom of the Jesus school into our time and language'” (139). Someone explain that to me. It sounds like we’ve moved from taking the human Jesus to church to taking ancient wisdom, as a general category, to church.

      • Cassandra says:

        Gene, I agree this is a legitimate point/question. To paraphrase what I think David is saying: No school ends with the teacher; rather, it continues to evolve in response both to reflection on the words of the teacher and applying the teachings to life. Experience causes us to question, refine and/or reject teachings over time. However, that does mean the shape and path are defined by the teacher. If you start walking from Minneapolis, the landscape will look different from starting at San…

        • Gene Stecher says:

          What’s the point then of embracing the teacher? To draw a // with the author of Acts and Paul. Acts says very little about P’s teaching that corresponds well with the letters – Paul is simply a revered name in Christian history. Likewise, with his teaching constantly morphed, Jesus is just a revered name. In any rewrite, I suggest a new book title: Embracing the Enlightened Ones of History: A Wisdom Path for Life: Jesus of Nazareth An Introductory Case Study.

    • Cassandra says:

      Clever thought, Dennis! Although I don’t think this is what was directly meant by the saying, it may be an aspect of why it “rings true” to the ear.

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        Without context, anything can be meant by it.There are certainly neurotransmitter releases, though, that, unless one has experienced them first hand, one doesn’t understand. (One just reacts.)The two words for “strike” in the two Gospels also lead one to the abuse against Jesus in the Passion. There are any number of reasons not to overthink this as “case parody.”

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Yep, good question I’d like to see answered. My view is that this “Jesus school” at its core, is merely sayings attributed to Jesus, most of which find their “home” not with a particular human, but as common wisdom of a Greco-Roman milieu, just as Proverbs found a Judean home as sayings of “Solomon.”As with the scholarly view of Proverbs, do the “Jesus sayings” fit the culture, language, locale & content of his zeitgeist?

  3. Gene Stecher says:

    Galston (140): “I wish to explore how a community can be a historical Jesus community while remaining in a Christian setting:” (1) immanent language, not transcendent. (2) life language, not God language. (3) gather to learn, not worship. (4) gather with honesty. (5) gather as a banquet. (6) inspired to gather by Jesus, but learn from others, as well. Two questions: (a) Why is ‘historical’ and ‘human Jesus the same?’ (b) How can the above setting be called ‘Christian?’

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    A follower statement as opposed to credal: “I follow Jesus, son of Mary and resident of Capernaum, baptized by John, a teacher and healer who attracted crowds in ancient Galilee with wisdom and interpersonal caring. He saw a reality which focuses on the needs of the helpless, especially giving consideration to children and the destitute. He used parables and wise sayings to emphasize this urgency.” Why couldn’t this type of statement be used in “Christian worship?”

    • Cassandra says:

      I don’t think worship is the point anymore when you take on this orientation. One can experience gratitude and a sense of awe from an immanent point of view, but if there is no transcendent god, what would we worship? The attitude of worship pushes one to look “beyond” instead of “here,” which is the opposite of an immanent frame of mind.

      • Gene Stecher says:

        Do we want to bring Jesus’ wisdom to church or set up a competing wisdom center? Your response mirrors contemporary politics, as if input is not useful from all points on the spectrum. Immanence is not contraindicated in a transcendent setting, but it is harder to have it the other way around. Profound experience does not derive from metaphysics; one can be committed to christian ideas such as sin and redemption w/o accepting the universe of the ancients.

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    The paradigm I see is that of a college course, the creedal formula a mission statement of an aid group.The creed reminds me of many Evangelical (etc) sects that send doctors,& and others to developing countries filled with the destitute,with starving children.They are obviously worshipping a supernatural Christ, while supporting the marginalized, actualizing teachings.The disconnect occurs by downplaying of positive things to emphasize negative.Soon,positive disappears.

  6. Peter Kane says:

    Parody needs historical context. An Emmett Till or Tiananmen tank would not ‘work’ unless the powerful were becoming paranoid and the powerless hopeful, unless a tipping point was in view. Remember countless lynchings prior to Till. Ferguson is about race, but also about economic imbalance, the sense that US is under attack, security in guns, governmental paralysis, white fear of demographics, The ground is shifting; some are fearful, some are hopeful. That is when parody ‘works’.

    • Cassandra says:

      Peter, I like the contextual piece, a sort of “right place, right time” for an event to hold broader meaning for a community. I’ve read comments, phrased in various ways, from public figures, who acknowledged that they found themselves coming to represent something for people beyond who they themselves were. Lloyd Geering says it about his experiences. Neither of the most well-known public caricatures of him were “really” him, but he came to physically symbolize a painful conflict.

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    Dr. Galston speaks of the five gospels of Jesus, one being the gospel of the anonymous self (119-125), which seems to be the foundation for the others: equilibrium, comedy, non-violent resistance, and joy. Can someone help me with what he means with ideas like, “The anonymous self is a self that accepts itself anonymously as a location of awareness…in the anonymous world of parable every event is of equal importance or no importance.” I’m not getting it, for some reason.

  8. Peter Kane says:

    Gene: What you do professionally is help people discover themselves and their place, their healthy identity and function, in the default world. The parable world is not the default world. So who am I ‘over there’? How do I function ‘over there’? The default rules don’t apply. Then what?

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Peter. What I’m not getting is the word “anonymous.” What does that mean in the context in which he is using it? We do find, “to enter the parable world I must overcome assumptions I hold about myself–.” So, is it simply observing in a detached way, with no preconceived notions? But why is the word anonymous used, “the self that is anonymous to itself” (122). I’m not the smartest guy, but not so un-bright either. Can you imagine trying to explain the concept to…

  9. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Parody isn’t fixed only by context.In the form of a spoken saying it is indistinguishable from sarcasm. Take the “cheek turning” statement. With the right posture and facial expression it has the same impact as adding, ‘Yeah, right you idiot’ to it. Print turns it into a moral injunction.Jesus the smart aleck becomes Jesus the holy.That is one problem with applying literary terms to an oral model.They aren’t the same.

  10. Gene Stecher says:

    Does Dr. Galston propose to castrate a human Jesus, eliminating Father God and a Satan adversary? I once summarized the JS red/pinks as follows: lending without return, non-retaliation, revealing the hidden, reversing norms, integrating opposites: pursuing loss of life while at the same time running head long into the joyous life of the kingdom. This was all part of a larger struggle with Satan; it is best fought over a good meal, respecting those who paved the way.

  11. David says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I chose the word “anonymous” because it means no-name. I was trying to counteract the social construction of the self that the parable world, it seems to me (among other things), asks us to abandon. It may not be the best term, but I thought it was pretty good at the time. I think one has to be – well, it helps to be – an anonymous self to practice non-violence. I took Mahatma Gandhi as a type of model, thinking of his expression “point zero.”

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Looking closer at Mt 5: 36-48//Lk 6:27-36: teaching truth through value reversals, humor, shame, and exaggeration. (1) turn cheek, give cloak, walk 2nd mile, give to beggars, i.e. be generous to the least generous (the enemy). (2a) Why? God is impartial with rain and sun. God is kind to the ungrateful/wicked. (2b) Why? Avoid the ‘shameful’ behavior of tax collectors, gentiles, and sinners. who at best are only generous with those who are like-minded.

  12. Gene Stecher says:

    Quoting my friend Chuck Jones: “It seems possible that Jesus’ riddle is this: How should we behave given that in real life it is laughable to pretend peasants have access to the recourse of law (even The Law)…What if we respond in love–by voluntarily giving the oppressor the thing he would take from us? What if we reclaim power in the precise moment that is exposing our helplessness–by acting autonomously (even if absurdly) before hate has a chance to germinate?”

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