When 'Religious Jokes' Cross a Line

On Facebook, you see a lot of religious memes. They are posted (and reposted and reposted) by religious people with genuine reverence. On the Facebook group for secular mothers that I belong to, you see a lot of religious memes, too. Only they're posted ironically, and for the express purpose of being skewered. The contrast can be refreshing.

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Now, to be fair, the group is much more about connecting with a like-minded community of women. Most posts seek parental advice or share the latest on someone's health scare or fertility problems or battle with cancer. But there are jokes to be had, too. Lots and lots of jokes.

It's a good group.

But sometimes, in good groups, bad things happen. And a few days ago, there quite the dust-up around a member who posted a picture joke that ended up offending a good number of people. I didn't see the joke myself — it was taken down before I logged on — but the controversy continued into a follow-up post that I did see.

From what I gather, the picture depicted the Last Supper (original, right?) and featured a joke about the cost of the Last Supper and who would be footing the bill for all that food. The joke was apparently a play on the stereotype that Jews are cheap. And it used that word, too: Jews.

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Tempers flared immediately.

It was offensive, people said. It promulgated a harmful stereotype.

No, said others, it was totally benign. And, plus, plenty of religious jokes are posted and tolerated on the site. Why not this one?

But it didn't poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That's different. 

It was funny. Sorry it offended you.

It was harmful. And you're not really sorry.

And so it went.

Finally, the member took down the joke.

The controversy interested me on a couple of levels. On one side, I had to roll my eyes at this idea that poking fun at religious groups is A-okay, while posting jokes about other groups — ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation — is not. Talk about a sweeping double-standard.

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But then there was this ridiculous notion that because some people thought the joke was funny, the joke deserved to be seen in that light. In short, this woman didn't mean to offend people, so why were people so bent out of shape?

The whole thing reminded me of the whole "rape-joke" controversy last summer. Remember that? When comedian Daniel Tosh was talking about rape jokes at the Laugh Factory and a woman in the audience heckled him by saying, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" And he responded by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Well, as you can imagine, that thing blew up, too — BIG TIME. Tosh got hammered by feminist groups. Meanwhile, tons of big-name comedians lined up to defend Tosh's right to tell jokes about rape. They turned it into a censorship issue.

In the midst of the ongoing debate, a woman named Lindy West, a comedian herself, printed her response on the website Jezebel. And talk about nailing it. First off, West is a funny, funny lady. Second off, West is smart, smart lady. In a nutshell, her point was this: Comedians have every right to say whatever they want, make whatever joke they want, no matter the subject, no matter how dark. Will it offend someone? Of course. Most jokes would offend someone. But just as comedians have the right to tell any joke they want, WE have the right to respond any way we see fit. If we want to stand up and say, "That is a joke that harms women," and call for that person to be fired from Comedy Central, then that's what we should do. It's not about the subject matter; rape jokes can be funny. So can jokes about molestation and cancer and race and ethnicity and religion. It's about the specific joke. We're not talking about government censorship; we're talking about audience regulation. Democracy.

Religious_fc7036_2240321I'm not, as my friends can attest, easily offended. I love edgy humor, the edgier the better. Shock value is a value I admire. But just because SOMEONE finds something funny — or that someone told it TO BE funny — doesn't mean it's a good joke. Or that they should telling it. Sure the line is hard to see sometimes; but we are human beings. We should care enough to look for it. And if we don't, we should be prepared to be, forgive the expression, bitch-slapped.

In the end, Tosh got scolded in a very effective way. He was the object of national criticism, apologized to his fans on Twitter. Democracy.

In the end, the Facebook user got scolded in a very effective way, too. She took down her joke and dropped out of the group.

God Bless America.