The Gospel of Mark begins with a bit of satire. Its opening words declare, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Now, to our modern ears, we don’t quite catch the satire, and we need to know some background.
When evangelists roamed the countryside of the Roman empire, visiting villages and hamlets such as Nazareth or Bethlehem, they were evangelists of the Roman emperor. The word evangelist means “bringer of good news,” with the word evangel meaning good news. And well before Christians were known for being evangelists — televangelists and otherwise — the Roman empire employed evangelists working on behalf of the Roman emperor, to share the “good news” the emperor had for his subjects.
The beginning of Mark’s gospel is a direct play on evangelists who represented Caesar Tiberius, evangelists who would enter a town and say, “Hear the good news of Caesar Tiberius, the son of God” — as you might recall, well before Jesus was proclaimed as Son of God by Christians, the Roman emperor was proclaimed as the divine son of God, Lord, Savior, and so forth.
But in a striking rhetorical move, the early Christians took these titles and phrases surrounding the Roman emperor and subverted them — bestowing them upon Jesus instead. This was a provocative, satirical way of saying that if you really want to hear good news, don’t look to Caesar, who, like most politicians and rulers of the day, is just out for political and material gain, often at your expense, but rather, look to Jesus for good news, for he wishes to liberate the oppressed and not exploit them, he longs to heal and mend without asking anything in return, he is the true prince of peace (remember the symbol of the dove appearing at his baptism), who brings peace not through conquest and military might — ala the Caesars of this world — but through justice, equity and reconciliation that is not about establishing a dominant empire through violence but is about ushering in a world built on mutuality and care and restoration for all people. In other words, it’s the narrator’s way of saying if you really want to know where God’s goodness is located, where true power can be used for the greater good, don’t look to Caesar or to Rome — which stand for the conventional, violent powers of empire that have ruled the world down through the centuries — but instead look to what is stirring in the life of Jesus — for there is a much better picture of where God’s goodness is located, hence the reasons early Christians reappropriated the titles son of God, savior, and Lord, bestowing them upon Jesus and taking them away from Caesar. This subversion or satire of Roman titles and phrases begs the question, where does one locate the truth of God — in the good news stirring in the life of Jesus, or the good news of empire? While Christians down through the ages have often sided with empire, the early Christians subverted empire, and said that hope is hope when it seeks the good of all subjects, as opposed to the expendability of all subjects.
The Bible is full of satire such as this. Even John the Baptizer, who plays a key role in announcing the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus, functions in the subversive capacity of turning the tables on the expectations of what God’s evangelist, or messenger, or announcer of good news might look like — instead of embracing excesses of empire, symbolized by white horses and gold rings and purple robes, John the Baptizer arrives on the scene wearing clothes made of camel hair and a simple leather belt, eating locusts and honey (he was backwoods ya’ll).
I mention all of this in order to raise the question of the value of satire as a truth-telling mechanism, which is fresh in our minds following the tragic massacre in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo paper. In the wake of the shooting, many around the globe began tweeting with the hashtag #WeAreCharlie, announcing solidarity with the satirical newspaper itself, which is not necessarily the same thing as announcing solidarity with the victims of violence and their grieving families. Part of the #WeAreCharlie response, of course, is connected to showing support for freedom of speech, which is viewed as a major value in democratized societies. Charlie Hebdo is a paper known for its provocative satirical pieces that push freedom of speech to its max, making fun not only of Muslims but of anything that might get a rise out of others.
And it’s here I must confess a bit of confusion. While I am all for freedom of speech — and while I believe satire can be used for great gain, as is often the case not only in the Bible, but, say, in the genius of Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or the American pseudo newspaper The Onion — satire for the sake of satire, especially if it is demeaning and dehumanizing of others, as Charlie Hebdo often is, does not strike me as something to be in solidarity with. Instead, ought not we express solidarity with the lives of those who were lost and their families, the victims of tragic violence, rather than with the paper itself? And at the same time, ought not we take this moment to unequivocally denounce all forms of violence? Including violence done in the name of Islam, as well as all forms of political violence, economic violence, systemic violence, and religious violence that’s not exclusive to Muslim violence? And ought not we ask questions about the value of freedom of speech that’s only employed for freedom of speech’s sake? Isn’t the primary value of freedom of speech the freedom to speak truth to power, without being imprisoned, as opposed to simply provoking for provoking’s sake?
When the Bible tells us the story about Jesus being baptized in the waters of the Jordan, with the descent of the dove making its way toward him, it’s a way of saying that if you follow this one, you will find truth, and such truth harbors the promise to set you free. Rest assured, following this one may lead you toward encountering uncomfortable truths, uncomfortable truths about our lives and about our society, but they are truths that ultimately harbor the promise to set us free. And they are truths that don’t provoke for provoking’s sake, but in order to bridge divides, mend fences, break down walls of separation. And they are truths that set free in large part by virtue of their condemnation of violence and dehumanization in all its forms, whether physical or verbal, political or religious, implicit or explicit, personal or systemic.
The Bible uses satire to describe the kinds of truths that harbor the promise to set us free. This is what satire can do at its best. But when satire is used simply and vapidly to provoke and agitate and anger and dehumanize, with no viable greater good, it may very well be an expression of freedom of speech, but it’s hardly the kind of truth that can set us free. And when one feels like their faith is so threatened by such provocations that violence becomes the answer, as was the case with the massacre in Paris, then it’s in that moment that religion cedes its high ground and becomes nothing more than another self-defeating nihilistic pursuit. Which is precisely what any religion worth its salt is supposed to save us from.