Ironic or Prophetic? What I learned from a joke I wish I didn’t hear

I didn’t see it coming.

It starts on a Sunday Night before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  A room full of  350 teenagers are dancing to the sound of a Christian rap artist.  The rapper has their full attention, teaching them to waive their arms here and shout an anthem there.  Even the adults in the room, well most of them, joined in on this new way of singing and dancing for God.  Most of them looked out of place, but no one seemed to care.

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Next up, a comedian takes the stage.  Like the rapper, he quickly engages the attention of the audience.  He runs through his normal set with ease.  A joke here and magic trick there.  The teenagers laugh and applaud with approval.  And then it happens.

The comedian says, “Man, didn’t you guys love the rapper?  Isn’t he awesome?  The last time I saw a black man make this many white people stand with their arms in the air, he had a gun.”

[PAUSE]  “Whoa.  Did he really just say that,” I think to myself.

Fast forward to the next morning, it is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I’m sitting in the same room with the same audience listening to the same comedian.  Again, he has the teenagers laughing and clapping for more.  But this time, at the end of his set, he takes a different tone.

The jokes are over.  The funny act is done.  The room is quiet and he says:  “I need to make an apology.  Last night, I made a joke about the rapper.  I was wrong.  As soon as I got back to my room, a heaviness sat on my chest.  I knew I was wrong.  I’m sorry for what I said.  I shouldn’t have said it.  I’ve already asked for forgiveness from him.  But I need to know, will you forgive me?”

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I realize, all at once, how far we’ve come yet how far we still have to go.  I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:15-16 that God is creating “in God’s self one new humanity in place of the two, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”  I realize Paul’s vision of reconciliation is between Jews and Gentiles.  But I have to believe, God has the same vision for us today.  Whatever the tint of one’s skin, the language one speaks, or the land one calls home, God’s vision is for one new humanity.

I have to admit.  My first inclination is to point my finger at the comedian and say, “Look how wrong he is.”  When it’s me, things seem different.  Whenever I think something, say something, or do something with prejudice or judgment, I’m not ready to claim it.  I’m not as quick to be critical.  Somehow, my tendency is to justify it by saying things like, “I have a friend who is…”, or “I didn’t mean it that way”, or “What I meant to say was…”

But, I can’t.  I can’t because I’m guilty as well.  Embedded in me is a list of judgments and prejudices that rise to the surface from time to time.  And all I can say is, God, forgive me and change my ways.

As disappointed as I am to hear such a bad joke, I’m not writing this to deride or discredit the comedian.  I’m writing these words to face my own demons.

As I type my last words and reflect on the experience, I wonder, “Is this MLK Day ironic or prophetic?

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