Have you ever noticed that some people just can't seem to help themselves when it comes to embracing a joking or even mocking attitude toward just about everything? I must confess that I have fallen into patterns like this myself from time to time. For many people, I think this can begin from a simple start line: I want to fit in, I want to be popular, I want to make people laugh, I want to be "the funny guy." I know that for me, this was oftentimes the case. It was surely bound up with some insecure fear that I wasn't really good enough or, more often, a desire to shift any undesirable attention from myself to someone or something else.
Here's where the problems begin. I see this a lot these days as a theology teacher and to experience the situation from the other side is interesting. When my friends and I would goof off or make constant jokes about what a teacher said or a particular word he or she was using (ex. laughing every time a teacher said "duty" because it sounded like "doodie" - forgive me God!) we were certainly not about to win any maturity awards. And truth be told, I can speak for at least myself and some of my friends when I say that we never really had any malicious intent when behaving this way. Even when we had that nagging feeling that what we were doing was wrong (or at least not totally right), we would say things like, "I didn't mean anything by it" when we were caught.
Lately I've come to ponder a deeper dimension here. The Eighth Commandment is, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." If you're like me, you've probably only ever associated this directive with a courtroom scene or some other legal framework. While that's certainly a crucial aspect, the prayerful discernment of many great Christian saints wiser and holier than me has discovered something even deeper and more unsettling here for those of us who may be quick to think this commandment is for someone else. I am called to love everyone. So are you. Love is the greatest commandment because love is what God is in Himself, not merely one attribute of His among many. Love is the very grounding of existence itself. To bear false witness means, at its core, to think, say, or do something that pushes back against love. Put another way, I think its fair to say that when I mock you or put on a goofy and joking air in the midst of a situation in which humor is not an authentic reflection of that situation, I'm essentially breaking the 8th Commandment. I'm refusing to respect you, your dignity or even your authority in some cases, and I'm abusing humor itself because I'm communicating a falsehood, a lie, to everyone around me. My words and actions are saying, "This calls for a joke!" when the time and setting, in fact, do not.
Please don't misunderstand - I'm not for a moment suggesting that it's realistic or even reasonable to expect teenagers or young adults to arrive at this understanding overnight (I know them too well at this point!) I'm also not suggesting that I've become a stick-in-the-mud who can't take a little ribbing or teasing banter. I joke around A LOT, folks! I'm not even suggesting that jokes can't ever push the line a little bit. I just think it would do us all some good to occasionally reflect a little bit more on our usage of "humor", especially if that humor is something that is, in fact, degrading something holy or beautiful or demeaning someone who deserves to be loved and respected. God invented humor! We should try to do a better job of experiencing it in the way it was meant to be experienced and shared.