Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sarcasm and Justice

In 1865, a Tennessee man wrote to his emancipated former slave, Jourdan Anderson, asking Jourdan to come back and work for him on his farm. Jourdan, who lived in Ohio with his family and had subsequently found work, wrote a brilliant (and sarcastic) response, in which he asked for all the wages for the time he worked as a slave:
Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.
Read the entire remarkable letter here. (I particularly loved Jourdan's closing signature.)

The letter reminds me of the Old Testament prophets, who were known for their memorable phrasing and having the best object lessons. They also talked a great deal about justice, probably because God told them to. Justice is close to God's heart, and injustice seems to bring out His sarcasm and wit. Amos writes this:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
   your assemblies are a stench to me.
 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
   I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
   I will have no regard for them.
 Away with the noise of your songs!
   I will not listen to the music of your harps.
 But let justice roll on like a river,
   righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Without a heart for justice, the Israelites' worship was simply static noise to God's ears. Without righteousness, what was meant as a fragrant offering is the equivalent of a stinking pile of garbage.

I have a love/hate relationship with sarcasm. On one hand, a quick wit and a bit of irony can be quite hilarious and revealing. On the other hand, sarcasm can often be used with a passive-aggressive tone as a way to insult and tear down others. In youth ministry, a tone of sarcasm can bring significant hurt to a community of young people. The word's roots are from the Greek word sarkasmos, meaning "to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly." That doesn't seem to fit with Paul's exhortation in Ephesians 4 to "not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

Yet God seems to use it particularly when His people are missing His heart for justice. He calls us to defend the widow and orphan, to offer compassion to the downtrodden, to give grace to our enemies and love our neighbors. For someone to sing songs about God on a Sunday morning, then ignore the myriad of justice issues in our world might require a dose of sarcasm to open their eyes to the inconsistency in their worship.

Perhaps injustice is something worth gnashing our teeth over.

What is your view of sarcasm? Is it ever appropriate, particularly in Christian community?

And just for your viewing pleasure, this old "The Kids in the Hall" skit about sarcasm always makes me laugh:


  1. Good post, tough call. I wanted to answer "no" to your question "is sarcasm ever a good thing?" But your point about God using it is inescapable. I also thought of God's response to Job at the end of the book of Job. It seems there may be a place for it; but I certainly hope it's a small place.

    Rob H

    1. Rob, I've never forgotten the idea you shared that sarcasm doesn't really have a healthy place in our youth groups. Your voice has been in the back of my head when I find my tone becoming sarcastic, so thanks for that encouragement and reminder!

  2. Love this post! Sarcasm can become such a subtle creep into our lives and wording. Thanks for the perspective.