Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gallows Humor in Missions

A few years ago, I was at a gathering of missionaries serving in Africa.  Sitting around the table after supper, the person next to me started telling his own stories of tough experiences since moving to the continent.  Going around the table and sharing, most of them had served less than five years as a cross-cultural missionary.  So when at last it came my turn, I remember the expressions on their faces as I shared some of what has happened to us.

Our mission team has served in northern Mozambique since 2003 and that has given us plenty of experiences to laugh and cry about.  Beyond the “normal” or “expected” difficulties of struggling to learn language and culture, leaving behind family and friends as well as enduring sickness and sunburn, malaria and dysentery, right at the beginning or our time in Africa, we were falsely accused and ended up living in exile for over a year.  Our mission team experienced a painful split.  We felt abandoned by some colleagues and others fell into sin.  And, at the time of this retreat, I was still in the midst of processing a recent difficult event: a home invasion.  Needless to say, that was a lot to drop on a group of people that I barely knew. 

It was interesting and encouraging, though, to see the way the group handled all of our negative experiences.  We could have cried, but instead, amazingly, we spent the meal laughing… a lot.  While still recognizing the seriousness of what each of us had gone through, the group was not allowing the pain to have the final word or authority.  Instead of giving in to despair or desolation, the tone was that of laughter – there was an appropriate amount of levity. 

In reflecting on that memorable dinner conversation, I’ve realized that being able to laugh at tough experiences has propped me up at multiple points along the journey.  Joking with my teammates (as well as praying with them!) about mystery illnesses helped with the fact that we are so far from quality medical care. And humor has been especially important in processing our interactions with a toxic church leader who has caused so many problems over the years.  At one point when it looked like this man’s efforts to get us kicked out of the country just might have turned out to be effective, I remember laughing with Chad and Jeremy about different silly employment opportunities that might be in our future. In the life of our mission team, humor has been a very effective release valve for dealing with stress and struggles.

One label for this kind of response is: “Gallows Humor.”  Examples can be found all over the world of this natural, normal instinct. Wikipedia summarizes it this way: “Any humor that treats serious matters, such as death, war, disease, and crime, in a light, silly or satirical fashion is considered gallows humor. Gallows humor has been described as a witticism in response to a hopeless situation.”

Gallows Humor in Medicine

As I have tried to think critically about my own experience of gallows humor, an article by Katie Watson has been very helpful.  She looks at the ethics of the way medical doctors use gallows humor to cope with their own encounters with pain and death.  The following are quotes from: “Gallows Humor in Medicine” by Katie Watson The Hastings Center Report. 2011; 41(5):37-45. --> link

“Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well.”

“Gallows humor is not a feel-good, Patch Adams kind of humor, but it is not synonymous with all cruel humor, either. As one physician put it, the difference between gallows humor and derogatory humor is like ‘the difference between whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones.’” (D. Wear et al., "Derogatory and Cynical Humor Directed Towards Patients: Views of Residents and Attending Doctors," Medical Education 43 (2009): 34–41, at 39.)

“Viktor Frankl describes concentration camp prisoners who "cracked jokes" about their horrible circumstances: ‘Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.’" (V. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 56, 54.)

Philosopher Ted Cohen argues that sometimes we joke not for distance but for connection. If you laugh at my joking, it means that we are alike in some way, that we see the world similarly. (T. Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 29. Cohen's book addresses scripted jokes, but many of his insights apply to spontaneous joking as well. In Cohen's terms, humor serves the vital psychological and social function of confirming or cultivating intimacy, and establishing or reinforcing community. (Ibid., 28–31)).  Another function of joking Cohen considers is acknowledging and integrating painful absurdities: "When we laugh at a true absurdity, we simultaneously confess that we cannot make sense of it and that we accept it. Thus laughter is an expression of our humanity, our finite capacity, our ability to live with what we cannot understand or subdue. We can dwell within the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad." (Ibid. 41.)

Kuhlman argues that gallows humor "offers a way of being sane in an insane place." (T.L. Kuhlman, "Gallows Humor for a Scaffold Setting: Managing Aggressive Patients on a Maximum-Security Forensic Unit," Hospital and Community Psychiatry 39, no. 10 (1988): 1085.

Joan Sayre came to a compatible conclusion in her study of psychiatric unit meetings: gallows humor was one part of "the basic social process of facing a series of ultimately unresolvable problems." (J. Sayre, "The Use of Aberrant Medical Humor by Psychiatric Unit Staff," Issues in Mental Health Nursing 22 (2001): 669–89, at 674)

This article discusses the way doctors use gallows humor in positive, helpful ways as well as describing the dangers of using gallows humor with patients who are not ready for that kind of levity.  Watson believes that gallows humor serves an important function within the medical community as a way to cope with working in the midst of death.  At best, it is a kind of “insider” talk that allows doctors to process tragedy in a healthy way, allowing them to continue to serve.

Gallows Humor, Humility and Missions

I’ve seen many missionaries naturally lean on gallows humor as a coping mechanism, but I think it is helpful to consider and recognize the benefits of using it appropriately (laughing at tough situations as well as, or instead of, crying).  

In order to do that, one of the main adjustments we may need to make is to not take ourselves too seriously. Without an appropriate levity about himself or herself, the missionary will not be able to discern levity or irony in the world.  There is an important link between humor and humility.  In the introduction to Erwin McManus’ book An Unstoppable Force, Rick Warren talks about the importance of self-deprecating humor.  He says, “It’s an enduring trait that I’ve found in all pastors who are greatly used by God.  Too many Christian leaders take themselves way too seriously and don’t take God seriously enough.  Humor and humility come from the same root word” (7).

In important counsel for preachers, Long recommends:
“'Never lose a sense of humor about yourself.’ Perhaps that line ought to be engraved on a plaque and placed on the back of the pulpit alongside the traditional quotation from the Gospel of John, ‘We would see Jesus.’ The verse from John would remind us to take the task of preaching the gospel of Christ seriously; the phrase about a sense of humor would encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously while we are doing that task.  Moreover, a sense of humor in worship is not only a sign of humility but also of the gospel’s liberating power. ‘With Easter,’ states Moltmann, ‘the laughter of the redeemed… begins.’  Because God in Christ has broken the power of sin and death, Christian congregations and their preachers are free to laugh at themselves and they can also laugh at the empty gods of pride and greed.  They can mock hell and dance on the grave of death and sin.” (Long, The Witness of Preaching, 8-9)
If anyone can have the courage to laugh at death it should be followers of Jesus.  As Willard notes, “Jesus’ attitude toward death is frankly quite cavalier” (The Great Omission, 222).  And Paul, our model missionary, while facing disease, difficulties and his own demise was not afraid to use humor to taunt and mock the enemy of death (1 Cor. 15:55).   

Having an appropriate level of humility about our own humanity allows us to appreciate correctly our role in the mission of God. “We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially.  But we do not carry the load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry.  In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him.  Our life is not an object of deep concern” (The Great Omission, 101).


Humor can be a useful mechanism for finding a deeper understanding for what is happening around us and our place in the drama.  Peterson says that “some insights are only accessible while laughing. Others only arrive by indirection” (The Contemplative Pastor, 115).  And gallows humor can clear the clutter of tension and stress on the path and make a way for perseverance. “We cannot alter the tragic character of human life, but that we can endure and so prevail.” (Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives, 206)

Watson comments that the power in gallows humor is that while we admit our own frailty in the situation, that levity allows us to look forward: “In a situation that (is) horrific and absurd, a joke is the rock you throw after the bad guy's already gone—an admission of loss, and a promise to fight again another day.” Like medical doctors, cross-cultural missionaries end up experiencing and witnessing a lot of tragedy and gallows humor can be a way to both hold onto an appropriate amount of personal humility as well as use irony and humor to highlight the way that God’s kingdom could possibly poke through in the future.

Gallows humor treats serious (or grave!) matters with the medicine of laughter.  And at its best, that laughter can help bring us back from despair and call to mind the ways that the powers of death and decay will eventually die themselves.  Gallows humor can help us bring the irony before God, asking our true Lord to redeem what by all accounts should be weak and dead.

What do you think?  Any thoughts on how gallows humor has been a blessing in your life or ministry?

Grace and Peace,

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