Monday, December 03, 2018

This Advent: Snark, Sarcasm, Hospitality, and Inclusion

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There are two spirits within me that, when juxtaposed, can appear as rivals.

The first is generous, warm and welcoming. She reaches out across chasms for human connection. She has endless patience, the capacity to see beyond a person's weaknesses, and will sit for hours listening to those who yearn to be heard. She is grace-filled, hope-filled, peace-filled. In recent years she's done a pretty decent job at showing up when Pastor Taylor is called upon. 

The second is bitter, pissed off, and snarky as all get out. Satire is her language of choice. She gets much of her news from folks like Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah. She likes BarbieSaviorRadi-Aid videos and JadedAid, and she thinks Hannah Gadsby is brilliant. She often uses descriptive words unsuitable for respectable newspapers and is so fed-up with the state of the world that sometimes, well, perhaps I should leave her fantasies involving chainsaws and blowtorches unshared.

So which spirit do I feed? BOTH. I feed both. Sheesh. I may be many things, but I don't deliberately kill a piece of myself by starving her to death. 

I have been giving the ethics of snark and sarcasm a lot of thought the past few days, though. Are they at odds with the values of radical hospitality and inclusion, or is there a nuance that needs to be named? I've thought about how ugly snark can appear and the pain I've felt being excluded from specific cliques of snarky folks--even at seminary and church conferences. I also thought about how affirming and invigorating it felt this past year to gain two new snark-filled friendships. So, I sought out some wisdom on the topic from Google, but only found articles about snark and sarcasm as a form of bullying. And that's not the kind of snark I'm talking about. 

I'm not talking about snark as a weapon to tear down the vulnerable, nor am I talking about the snark of insecure teenagers and emotionally stunted adults who think trash-talking everything makes them cool. I'm talking instead about snark and sarcasm as informed critique and an art of resistance- as tools of those who care deeply about issues yet are excluded from the tables where decisions are made. 

The more I thought about this, the more peace I felt about those times when I have been excluded from snarky cliques. My white female privilege has programmed me to expect persons to make room for me, but sometimes I'm not invited into other people's support groups--and that's ok, and it is also ok that the existence of such groups reminds me of things that are not ok. Entrance into the cliques I'm talking about has to be earned the hard way.* For example, when war veterans snark together about problems with the military, they need not feel obliged to pause their moment of commiseration to include me in their conversation. When folks who have experienced marginalization by the church hang out together at conferences and bond through cynical humor, they also aren't morally required to invite others to hang out with them at that very moment. And, on those too rare occasions when I find someone else who is striving to change the mission models of her/his community of origin and laments about the feeling of screaming into the wind, it is ok to walk off to a quiet corner together and crack jokes that are only funny to us. Because some shared frustrations are so intense that you can either laugh or cry about them, and it feels amazing to find someone(s) with whom you feel safe to do both. 

Exclusive support communities and a praxis of radical inclusion aren't intrinsically at odds with each other. It is in such exclusive communities that people who would otherwise feel on their own find a place where they are included and their laments are affirmed. And through this sense of inclusion, they can then find the emotional energy to reach out across boundaries in prophetic ways.      
So what makes this an Advent reflection? Advent is the season of waiting and hoping for an end of sorrow and the birth of a new reality. It is a time of wrestling with the tensions of inclusion, exclusion, justice and compassion. It is also the one time of year when Protestants talk about Mary and Elizabeth. 

And so, I think I'll close with Eugene H. Peterson's telling of Luke 1:39-56. I encourage you to re-visit it through the lens of support groups, social critique, and a message of hope-filled anticipation spoken by a marginalized woman who is both pissed off and grace-filled.

Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!
 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.

  *For more on this, read also Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria