The Scene of a Thousand Jokes
Laughter is one of the ways we cope with the discrepancies of our lives. There is a dream we all have for this world, and then there is, well, this world. There are expectations we have of our religions, and then there are our religions. . . . Our capacity to love God, ourselves, people, and all of life grows with our capacity to laugh. We are ridiculous, and not to laugh at our religions, our worldviews, and our philosophies (that is, ourselves), would be a false witness…. This ability to laugh in the midst of our imperfections in the presence of God is what we call grace.
Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the
The question, of course, recalls an old riddle about a chicken. The riddle goes back at least to 1847 when it appeared in a New York magazine. By the 1890s, the joke was so well-known that it was generating riffs and variations on the theme.
The original riddle exemplifies “anti-humor”—a joke that is funny because it isn’t funny. Anti-humor works by setting up a convention that leads us to expect a joke, and then reverses that expectation in a humorous way. In the nearly countless “Chicken-Joke 2.0” riffs and variations being hatched around the world, jokesters build humor upon the anti-humor, like this:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Grandpa: In my day we didn’t ask why the chicken crossed the road. Somebody told us the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, and that was good enough for us.
Albert Einstein: Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?
Sir Isaac Newton: Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross the road.
A nun: It was a habit.
Hamlet: That is not the question.
Donne: It crosseth for thee.
Colonel Sanders: Did I miss one?
So, why is it funny to ask about Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed crossing the road? Before looking for a punch line, just for fun try to imagine the scene: four of history’s greatest religious leaders . . . not fighting, not arguing, not damning, and condemning one another, not launching crusades or jihads, but walking together, moving together, leading together. Doesn’t that already reverse some of our expectations? And doesn’t that reversal expose our unspoken expectation—that different religions are inherently and unchangeably incompatible, disharmonious, fractious, and hostile toward one another?
The image of the four men crossing a road also surprises and interests us because it puts the four in a similar situation, in a common predicament. Whatever the answer will be, it will be the same for all of them, perhaps even rendering them companions rather than competitors. That possibility makes claims on all of us who follow them.
If you’re a Christian like me, of whatever sort—Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox; conservative, liberal, or moderate; traditional or whatever—if you love Jesus, if you know and have confidence in him as Lord, Savior, Son of God, Son of Man, God incarnate, Word made flesh, and more, let me ask you to seriously consider this: how do you think Jesus would treat Moses, Mohammed, and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) if they took a walk across a road together?
Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first, claiming that his ancestor’s failed religion had been forever superseded by his own? Would he trade insults with Mohammed, claiming his crusaders could whup Mohammed’s jihadists any day of the week, demanding that Mohammed cross behind, not beside him? Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet and demonstrate submission before letting him cross? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome each to a table of fellowship, not demanding any special status or privileges, maybe even taking the role of a servant—hanging up their coats, getting them something to eat and drink, making sure each felt welcome, safe, and at home?
If his three counterparts reached out their hands in friendship, it’s pretty hard to imagine that “the friend of sinners” would cross his arms or turn his back, refusing to reciprocate. It’s much more likely he would embrace them with open arms and without hesitation, proving himself over time to be the best friend they ever had. It’s pretty hard to imagine Jesus cursing or “smiting” them, but entirely natural to imagine him blessing them and “doing unto others” as he would want them to do for him. I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practice the neighborliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion, or demonization.
After all, according to the four Gospels, Jesus had extraordinary insight into human character. He saw value where others saw only flaws. He saw the love of a sinful woman who anointed his feet with tears at a banquet, the spiritual thirst of an oft-married woman at a well in Samaria, the big seed of hope in a little chap named Zaccheus, the undeniable faith of a Syrophoenician mother, the flinty strength of loudmouth Peter, and the deep and spunky wisdom of Mary of Bethany. With that track record in mind, we can only imagine what he would see in Mohammed, Moses, or the Buddha, not to mention Confucius, Lao Tsu, Nanak, or Wovoka.
It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them. It’s unthinkable, if one of them came to confer with him by night like Nicodemus, or in broad daylight like the rich young ruler, that he would intimidate them, threaten them, call down fire upon them, patronize them, or humiliate them. Maybe his followers would pull out a sword and slash off their ears, or herd them and their followers into ghettoes, concentration camps, or reservations where their influence could be limited. But never Jesus. Never.
And if you know anything about Mohammed, Moses, and the Buddha, how do you think they would approach Jesus, and one another, if they encountered one another along the road? Is it a joke to think they would respect one another and be drawn toward one another as friends, allies, collaborators? Isn’t it more ridiculous to imagine any other outcome? I can’t help but think of recent scenes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, a Christian and a Buddhist, almost giddy in their friendship and mutual regard.
So why might Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road? Imagine if the answer were, “To go to a bar.” That answer wouldn’t be funny, and many, in fact, would find it offensive. But wouldn’t that open the way for another joke that would begin, “Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed walk into a bar . . .”
Walking into a bar, of course, is the scene of even more jokes than crossing a road. So we might expect a chuckle as Mohammed orders a Wahabi cocktail—a mixed drink of warm milk, sugar, and hot tea (since alcohol is officially forbidden to Muslims, and the Wahabis are known for their strictness on such matters). We might expect a smile as the Buddha makes a sage comment about the mindful breaking of the Fifth Precept, after which he orders a mojito, then makes a toast “to moderation in all things, including following the Fifth Precept.” And perhaps there would be outright laughter if Moses were to part his margarita and Jesus were to order water and then, with a wink, turn it into a fine Stellenbosch pinotage.
Like the road waiting to be crossed, the bar is quintessential comedic space, indeed. It is also prime secular space, a place for the imbibing of spirits rather than Spirit. It’s the place of profanity, not sacredness; levity, not liturgy; and relaxation, not reverence, right? What could the pub possibly have in common with the narthex?
The scarily brilliant Romantic poet and visionary William Blake dared to say what many of us have perhaps thought but kept to ourselves: “A good local pub has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer, and there’s more conversation.” Blake had a keen eye for irony. He knew how easily congregations can become cold, hostile places where we Christians intoxicate ourselves on unholy spirits. He knew how, drunk on dogmatism, we can say and do shockingly profane and unholy things. So for Blake the church can become profane and the bar can become sacred, as he portrayed in his poem “The Little Vagabond.” A precocious and innocent child speaks to his mother:
Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold, But the Ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well, Such usage in Heaven will never do well.
But if at the Church they would give us some ale, And a pleasant fire our souls to regale, We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day, Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.
Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing, And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring; And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church, Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
And God, like a father, rejoicing to see His children as pleasant and happy as He, Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel, But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.
Blake, of course, was neither the only nor the first visionary with an eye for irony. Jesus himself spoke pithily and often about religious absurdity. He surely elicited some laughs when he portrayed religious leaders as straining at gnats and swallowing camels, whitewashing tombs, scrubbing only the outside of a filthy bowl, and so on. His whole ministry was a kind of guerrilla theatre, playing—can we say devilishly?—on irony, overturning figuratively as well as literally the money-laden tables of the religious elite.
If the Temple has been turned into a den of robbers—a joke, in other words—where then can the Spirit be found? Jesus dramatizes the answer. The Spirit, driven from the Temple, shows up in one surprising place after another . . . in the treetops like the wind, on the sandy banks of the muddy Jordan River, on a hillside in the presence of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, among wine bibbers and sinners, by a crime scene on the Jericho road, among rowdy children and a boisterous crowd, in a stranger on the road to Emmaus, in the last, the least, and the lost.
Given the bizarre and hostile state of our religious communities too often these days, isn’t a bar the perfect place for the Spirit to convene a scandalous parliament of the world’s religious leaders? Don’t we need some “secular” social space where diverse people of faith can encounter one another with some level of privacy and anonymity? Isn’t the real scandal not that our religious leaders might be imagined talking as friends together in a bar, but rather that their followers are found speaking against one another as enemies, day after day in situation after situation?
Questions like these have always mattered. But in the years since 9/11/01, more and more of us are realizing just how much they matter. So to imagine Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed taking a walk across a road or even getting together as friends for a meal and conversation doesn’t have to introduce a joke: it could introduce one of the most important conversations possible in today’s world.
And all over the world, this is the conversation Christians want and need to have. In Capetown and Bujumbura, in Bethlehem and Amsterdam, in Mombassa and Santo Domingo, in Santiago and Kuala Lumpur, in San Francisco and Phnom Penh, I’ve heard deeply earnest and highly committed Christians raise questions about what it means to be Christian in a multifaith world. I knew that I should write on the subject, but what approach should I take? I could take an educational approach—informing Christians about other religions, overturning misconceptions, and showing what Christians do and don’t have in common with people of other faiths. I could take an apologetic or evangelistic approach—showing what is special and unique about Christianity, encouraging people to become or remain Christians—without insulting or misrepresenting other religions. I could take an approach of moral outrage, venting righteous fury about religious violence and bigotry. I could follow a deconstructive approach, grappling with the problematic philosophical assumptions that commonly lead to violence and bigotry. But in the end I felt I should take a different tack—a practical, pastoral, and constructive one, focusing on how to develop a healthy, sane, and faithful Christian identity in a multifaith world like ours.
Simply put, we Christians already know how to do two things very well. First, some of us know how to have a strong Christian identity that responds negatively toward other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or oppo- sition to other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the more we emphasize our differences with other faiths and the more we frame those differences in terms of good/evil, right/wrong, and better/worse. We may be friendly to individuals of other religions, but our friendship always has a pretext: we want them to switch sides and be won over to our better way. We love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity, hoping that they will see the light and abandon it to find shelter under the tent of our own.
Alternatively, others of us know how to have a more positive, accepting response to other religions. We never proselytize. We always show respect for other religions and their adherents. We always minimize differences and maximize commonalities. But we typically achieve coexistence by weakening our Christian identity. We make it matter less that they are Muslim or Hindu by making it matter less that we are Christian. We might even say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity.
For reasons that will become clear in the pages ahead, I’m convinced that neither of these responses is good enough for today’s world. So I will explore the possibility of a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive, and defining—an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and lov- ing, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view. My pursuit, not just in this book but in my life, is a Christian identity that moves me toward people of other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of my own Christian identity, but because of my identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus.
As in all of my books, I’m writing for a general audience of thoughtful Christians, especially Christian leaders, rather than a specialized audience of scholars. Even though I’ve been somewhat restrained in quoting and footnoting scholarship in these pages, I hope it will be clear that I myself am an avid reader of relevant scholarship. With over two decades of my life invested as a pastor in a local congregation, and another decade invested in writing for and speaking with Christian leaders, I’m drawn to bring good scholarship to bear on the grass-roots struggles faced by pastors and laypeople day to day in our multifaith world.
I’m especially mindful of two other audiences as I write. First, I’m conscious of a new generation of young Christians—high school and college students, young adults coming of age, and emerging leaders grappling with the formation of their identities. I hope they will find in these pages a way of staying and being wholeheartedly Christian without hostility, and I hope they will pioneer ways of raising future generations of children and youth in that path as well. And I also think of the young nonreligious or postreligious adults I meet almost every week—not practicing any religion, but deeply interested in finding a way to be human that is informed by the best of our religious traditions—including the hard lessons learned by the failures of those religious traditions.
Although I find the integrated vision presented in these pages to be both persuasive, coherent, and beautiful, I expect some readers to 10 find the book baffling because it proposes not minor changes within the existing paradigm of Christian identity, and not even major changes, but rather a different paradigm altogether. (It is terribly difficult to understand a different paradigm from the outside.) I expect some readers to say, “I’m with you in certain chapters, not so much in others.” Rather than being disappointed in less than complete agreement or understanding, I’ll be grateful for even small steps we can take together in challenging dangerous features of the status quo and opening up better possibilities for the future. Where you can’t follow some of my proposals, I plead only that you pursue—in your own way, according to the lines of reasoning and imagination that seem best to you—the benevolence, the kindness, and the love without which all our words are noise and we ourselves are nothing. We are increasingly faced with a choice, I believe, not between kindness and hostility, but between kindness and nonexistence.
That is the choice we must make, the road we must cross.
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