It’s Just a Joke

John McCain has recently caught a bit of flack in the media for both a blatantly staged photo op in Baghdad which he claimed was evidence of improvement in Iraq—one in which he had the advantage of a heavily armed military escort—and for cavalierly joking about bombing Iran at a campaign stop in South Carolina. When questioned about the indignation over his joke, McCain insisted “lighten up, get a life.” It was, after all, just a joke.

Should people let their feathers get ruffled by statements which are “just a joke”? My first inclination is to dismiss McCain’s foolish singing. I’m a smart-alec myself. Sometimes we say things to get a reaction. Why make a big deal about some throw-away statement tossed out there in a moment of levity. What’s the harm?

When I was a youth, I was often admonished in the Church that we need to watch what we say, that our words mean something. Leaders from the General Authorities of the Church down to bishops and youth leaders would warn us specifically to avoid inappropriate or off-color jokes and stories. There is harm in jests. Typically my elders would interpret that to refer to sexual content or swearing. But are those really the some total of inappropriate content? Is that all the Lord cares about in our conversation?

Tony Campolo, Evangelical minister, was noted in The Progressive to have made an interesting observation.

First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Well said. There is so many things more inappropriate than the words damn, shit and hell. And I tend to suspect that the Lord finds many topics of conversation as offensive as crude sexual references or stories.

I know of more than one active, decent LDS member who has told racist jokes. At each occasion, I was shocked and dismayed. None of them has given any other evidence of racial bigotry, and I have little reason to think that they would act anywhere nearly as crudely as their jokes suggest. But can there be any reason to think that our Father is fine with jokes in which the punchline revolves around murder? If He is saddened when we objectify his daughters in jokes of a sexual nature, how hurt must he be when he hears those who claim to follow him referring in a quip to the killing of his children?

One of the reasons our leaders give us not to talk frivolously about sex is that so we are not desensitized to the true beauty and intimacy of sex. I can hardly believe he is any less concerned about our desensitization to the pain, suffering, and death of his children. According to LDS theology, the one sin greater than adultery is murder. Whether talking about the casual killing of blacks, or the casual bombing of thousands of people in a foreign nation, I doubt such jokes are any less objectionable than those about sex or swearing. Even if we have no real intent or desire to commit such crimes, the subject is not one to be treated lightly by a moral people, one trying to follow the Prince of Peace and Love.

Had McCain been joking about bombing Canada or Norway, the joke might have been taken differently. But the reality is that who or what you joke about matters. I can personally attest to the fact that jokes about adultery become considerably less humorous when someone close to you has been hurt by adultery. Jokes about capricious military carnage are doubtless likewise less funny when other nations in the region have found themselves subject to rather capricious military operations, and when the jokester has been supportive of the military actions of a president who has accused the nation in question of being a member of an “Axis of Evil.”

As a leader of our nation, and one seeking no less than the highest leadership office in the most influential nation on earth, McCain must recognize that his words mean something, even words spoken in jest (as should all of us seeking to become closer to Christ—or even just more compassionate with our fellow human beings). McCain’s verbal blunder isn’t the worst thing he could have done. It wouldn’t be a determining factor in my vote, and I don’t believe it is worth making a big deal over. But his rationalization of the joke is more disappointing, and should give us all the opportunity to think about what we treat lightly.

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