The adult table, the children's table and the table of grace...

Yesterday, NY Times columnist David Brooks made the observation that most of us are not
really "Charlie" (Je suis Charlie) - and his point deserves consideration. First, he wrote that the type of humor that is common place in Charlie Hebdo is adolescent, stick a finger in your eye humor. It is often the type of joke that I loved when I was 13 and wanted to offend everyone (except, of course, myself and my allies.) Further, the cartoons have none of the nuance or self-awareness found on either The Simpsons or South Park. (My point, not that of Brooks.)

Second, Brooks went on to note that Americans now exhibit a weirdly moralistic double standard when it comes to satire: it must never offend. Look at who is allowed to speak publicly or in print on our college campuses:

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Brooks elaborated on this observation later in the day on the PBS News Hour saying: in our drive to be sensitive, we have also embraced a type of censorship that restricts the way we communicate. If we want to honor and strengthen free speech, we must also toughen our resolve when it comes to tolerating offensive words and images in the public square. We don't have to like them - or buy them - but we can do a better job at making sure that the "jesters" of the world are not shut down. Because as offensive as jesters are, they often tell us things about ourselves we don't want to accept as true.

Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.

Third, and this one is really fascinating to me, is the distinction Brooks makes between those who sit at the adults table and those who eat with the children:  if you want to be taken seriously then you must grow-up. You must learn how to "play well with others" and show as much respect and tolerance as you demand.

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying. Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
I like his distinctions - and affirm them. Especially because in these later years of ministry I am starting to explore what Brooks might call the role of the "holy fool." St. Paul uses it as a title of distinction for those who follow the radical way of Christ and the Cross. I am aware that when you choose to step away from the adult's table and become playful - child-like but not childish - there is a disconnect that makes some uncomfortable. And this discomfort is a beautiful thing. Not the discomfort of Bill Maher or Ann Coulter, but the gentle, compassionate discomfort of St. Frances. Or Anne LaMott. Or Thomas Merton.
I am grateful for David Brooks - and all who have grown up - as they now occupy the adult table. I often celebrate those at the children's table, too even if I don't find myself comfortable with their more abrasive foolishness. What I am learning, however, is that there is another table - a bigger table - the banquet table of the Lord where there is a seat for all of us - adults, children, fools, sinners, saints and everyone in-between. And at this stage in the journey of life, that bigger table - the table of grace that often looks so foolish to the adults - is where I want to spend most of my time. It is why I insist on making music in the face of abrasive and ugly action. Why I bite my tongue and urge silence when I want to lash out at the crude and violent ones. And why I ask God to break my heart over and over so that I don't become jaded or cynical.


ddl said…
Yes, awesome. Thought provoking.

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