How do we make sense of laughter? We all know its liberating power, but we also know its debilitating sting. On the one hand, laughter has the cumulative strength to tear down seemingly, immovable walls. On the other, it may be the last recourse for sanity, when those walls encroach upon us and overwhelm us. How then, can laughter be both generative—a force for life and power—and protective—a last and often weak defense against the hells of our world? Taking a Project TURN class inside a North Carolina prison got me thinking about Jesus and laughter.
After my fellow Duke students and I went through the metal detectors of the prison, we entered into the foreign world of clanking doors, multiple control centers, long windowless hallways, and dull, florescent bulbs. Our walk to the classroom took us at least ten minutes. Though we ascended floors, the disorientation of it all felt like we were descending into a dungeon. Halfway there, we walked by men who wore red jumpsuits—the classification for death row. It was a sobering walk, one of quiet conversations and occasional head-nods. There definitely wasn’t much or any laughter. But once we entered our classroom, we were greeted as guests (as if you could be a guest in prison) with warm smiles, friendly handshakes, and over time, the handshake to shoulder touch to concluding fist pump.
After a quick introduction, we broke into small groups, where we discussed novels. It was here that laughter seemed to shoot out throughout the classroom. It might have been connected to a story from the week before or catalyzed by a truthful statement about the difficulty of grappling with the text or with life. Or other times, it was done out of a new revelation or joyous discovery. Or even, laughter came at the shock and incredulity of a cruel world.
These scattered images will always stay with me: Demiko relaying a concern with urgency and wide-eyed passion and then laughing and pointing at you, if he was in agreement; Adam, throwing his head back and cackling at the revelation of an unnoticed and usually ominous symbol in the novel; Sunny addressing the classroom with the intonation of a great orator and then rumbling with delight, usually all by himself, when he made some comment that clearly went over our heads; Monty, sitting back in a pensive mode, smiling and swaying his head back and forward as he looked down; Mark, full body shaking and giggling, after he made a sarcastic comment.
How do we make sense of laughter? How do we make sense of laughter in a prison? How do we make sense of the times when laughter, vulnerability, sarcasm, and truth-telling were so abounding that it didn’t feel like we were in prison? But then, how do we faithfully remind ourselves that prisons are destroying lives, the lives of our classmates, and therefore, we run the risk of laughing together prematurely, or even at the expense of another? How do we reconcile both the generative and protective realities of laughter—one where laughter brings life and liberation, even for a short moment—and the other, which is the necessary defense against the cruelty and incomprehensibility of an unjust and evil world?
Ben Theimer is a Duke Divinity student in Durham, North Carolina