Those who hear me preach regularly know I love comedians. Some Sundays, I’m just as likely to quote a comedian as I am a biblical scholar. Of course, saying “I love comedians” isn’t that interesting. It’s like saying, “I love ice cream,” or “I love vacations.” Comedians entertain us, make us laugh, and provide diversions from the seriousness and monotony of daily life. But, at their best, comedians do more than entertain. As masters of rhetoric, they artfully expose our hypocrisies, lay bare our absurdities, and reveal our stupidities. Because they do this playfully, making us laugh at ourselves, they hover under the radar of our natural resistance to rebuke. But make no mistake, the true masters of comedy are really prophets-in-disguise.
Yet, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the past several years. As tragedy piles on top of tragedy, our comedians are more often finding it necessary to break character in order to tell us the truth. A day after the most deadly mass shooting in modern American history occurred in Las Vegas, late show host Jimmy Kimmel fought back tears throughout his extended opening monologue. He pleaded with us for moral transformation and new (though still rather modest) gun legislation. This is a man who started his career on “The Man Show,” a theater of sophomoric jokes, Cro-Magnon cheers for binge drinking, and women in bikinis bouncing on trampolines. Nevertheless, Kimmel has become one of our most prophetic voices in times of crisis. I’m reminded of Jesus’ Palm Sunday rebuke, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk. 19:40).
Perhaps God resorts to speaking to us through the most unlikely people because, as a nation, we eventually kill or simply dismiss (or disinvite) those whose prophetic messages are too overt for people with good manners. Certainly, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (both shot to death). But I also think of contemporary voices whose deep, rich, biblically-grounded messages are, more often than not, categorized and dismissed as too “saintly,” or too radical for everyday folk: William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Will Campbell, and, more recently, Shane Claiborne, Ta-Nehisi Coats, William Barber, Helen Prejean, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and Bree Newsome.
Jesus pleaded with his countrymen to heed the prophets sent to them.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Matt. 23:37).
So many desolations of our time are the consequences of our violent or callous disregard for those who love us enough to cry out on our behalf. If Americans won’t listen to our prophets, priests, and poets, our artists and activists, our scientists and farmers, our MacArthur Geniuses and southern gadflies, can we, at the very least, listen to Jimmy Kimmel?