THE murder of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices
must be one of the worst examples ever of sense-of-humour failure.
What could it be about a few cartoons, drawn in an atmosphere of
laughter, which made others who saw them reach for a
There are many reasons that people experience catastrophic loss
of humour in the face of a joke, but the traditional reason is when
they find themselves squarely in the punchline.
I have been to enough comedy clubs to know how it feels when
jokes are told against my faith, and a boisterous audience is
laughing at something that is deeply part of me. It feels highly
awkward, and very uncomfortable. And if the stand- up asks, "Any
Christians here tonight?", then it feels as if you are being
beckoned on to comedy martyrdom, where the roar of Colosseum lions
has been replaced by roars of laughter.
Lord Carey might see this as a prime example of a way in which
Christians are "persecuted" in this country - but social
awkwardness can never equate to what believers go through in Iraq,
North Korea, and other places of genuine persecution. I mention the
experience only because I am trying to grasp even a fraction of how
it must feel to someone from a truly minority faith, such as Islam
in the West, when his or her religion is dragged through the mud in
Several years ago, we launched a project on Ship of
Fools, "The Laugh Judgment", searching for the ten best and
ten worst religious jokes of all eternity. We confined ourselves
for the most part to cracks about Christianity, as poking fun at
other faiths has never been in our sights. Almost 1000 jokes were
sent in by our readers, ranging from the light and fluffy to the
dark and painful. We then opened an online discussion about all the
most interesting jokes, inviting people to say whether they found
them funny or offensive, and asking them to theologise about
humour, faith, and blasphemy.
We discovered that, some 30 years after the final musical number
of Monty Python's Life of Brian, many Christians were no
longer shocked and appalled by jokes about the crucifixion. Some
were, of course, but there were fewer of them than expected. "For
me, that's when it gets personal," one reader said. "It would be
like telling a joke about my mother being raped."
If you are offended by humour about Jesus, you might like to
skip the next three paragraphs, as they are an example of a joke
that made it into our top ten.
After the resurrection, Peter goes fishing, and Jesus tries to
walk on water out to his boat, but begins to sink.
"What's happened, Lord?" asks Peter, suddenly doubting.
"Well," said Jesus, "last time, I didn't have holes in my feet,
We found that the majority of our readers were offended by jokes
that contained racism and sexism, but not by jokes made at the
expense of popes, priests, and Mothers Superior, or even by jokes
aimed at God and Jesus.
Maybe this is the result of Christians' living for several
decades in a culture where deference has declined, and where the
Church has lost its sacred status, and become the plaything of
comedy. Maybe it is because Christians, in a hostile climate, feel
surprisingly confident about their faith.
At a live show for "The Laugh Judgment", we performed all the
jokes, ending with our top ten most religiously offensive jokes.
These became progressively darker and more tasteless as we
approached the worst joke of all, and the audience, who had laughed
gamely through some quite horrible material, finally heard the last
three jokes in complete silence.
I think that something similar has happened with the most
extreme Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Images of Muhammad with a
hook nose, or kneeling naked, or wearing a headdress shaped like a
phallus, look less like humour or satirical comment and more like a
scribble on a lavatory wall. They are not mere depictions of
Muhammad, but images that reach too quickly for sexual and
scatological imagery to add insult to injury. On the Christian
side, a cartoon showing the three Persons of the Trinity blissfully
engaged in an orgy is in the same vein: small on satire, big on
All religions need to be satirised. They hold huge power over
us, and that power is sometimes in the hands of leaders who are
abusive, controlling, ambitious, or egotistical. But satire works
best when it operates from a moral centre, and makes a credible
point. I would not want to see Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad
cartoons banned from publication, but nor would I vote for them in
an editorial meeting. Perhaps something has got lost in
translation, but for me they are not funny or satirical enough. In
The Decameron, the Renaissance author Boccaccio has one of
his characters say: "The nature of wit is such that its bite must
be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog; for if it were to
bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but
Even the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo which bite like a
dog do not add up to a justification for young men to murder 12
people in cold blood. But they do make it hard for me to say
"Je suis Charlie." Instead, put me down for "Je
suis not convinced."
Simon Jenkins is Editor of Ship of Fools, the
online magazine and community.