The Laughter of the Oppressed argues that when the oppressed laugh, their laughter can function as an act of ethical and theological resistance in the midst of tragedy. To make this case, Jacqueline Bussie explores three novels: Elie Wiesel's Gates of the Forest; Shusaku Endo's Silence; and Toni Morrison's Beloved. Bussie listens deeply to the voices of people traditionally marginalized to discover how they have given expression to the paradox of "colliding narratives" and responded creatively to tragic suffering. She finishes by proposing a Christian theology of laughter that holds out genuine hope for Christian theology to face up to some of its own historic limitations. The Laughter of the Oppressed won the 2006 Trinity Prize.
The first chapter, "Laughter From Below," argues concisely for the need to consider laughter as the resistance of the oppressed. Bussie takes the reader through her exploration of texts addressing laughter throughout Christian history. When she found mainly condemnations, she realized that this was because laughter was always treated from the point of view of the powerful, who condemned laughter in those "below" them because they experienced it as threatening. Bussie states that inquiring into the laughter of "everyday theologians" reveals a valuable ethical purpose of laughter-as-resistance previously unnoticed by the "experts." She gives a most elegant justification for the use of novels as theological sources (p. 5).
The second chapter charts the development of theories of laughter throughout the history of Western philosophy and theology. From Plato to Kirkegaard, Chrysostom to Niebuhr, Bussie shows that most have either condemned laughter as meaningless or sinful or treated it as a response to the absurd. Though one or two have considered laughter in the context of "seriousness," none have explored the phenomenon of laughter in response to tragedy. Demonstrating that the Bible allows for more complex possibilities, Bussie aims to fill this gap.
Chapters three through five take up the three novels in turn. With Wiesel's Gates of the Forest, Bussie notes that although it makes us uncomfortable to think of laughter in conjunction with indescribable suffering, we must ponder the laughter of Holocaust victims if we are to understand how some survived. Bussie identifies five interrelated ways in which laughter functions as resistance to the tragedy of the Holocaust: to laugh is to respond, creatively and extra-linguistically, to the crisis of language, the exercise of demonic power by the state, the problem of evil, radical despair, and absolute paradox. Bussie weaves together literary criticism, Holocaust studies, and Jewish philosophy and mysticism to create a multilayered interpretation of the theological significance of Gavriel's laughter in Gates of the Forest, showing how ancient Jewish wisdom gives rise to this creative response in the face of absolute evil.
Chapters four and five proceed similarly. With Endo's Silence, Bussie shows that the laughter of the apostatized priest Rodrigues is also a creatively and extra-linguistic response to tragic suffering. Rodrigues, an "embodied paradox" (p. 110), is neither simply a priest or an apostate: he is both at the same time, and his laughter expresses this apparently absurd reality where language cannot. This chapter presents laughter as a legitimate aspect of a theology of the cross, holding death and resurrection together. Finally, investigating Morrison's Beloved, Bussie discusses many meanings of the laughter of three characters: Baby Suggs, Sixo, and Paul D. Collectively, their laughter rejects the dehumanizing narratives of white supremacy and affirms their hope and dignity alongside tragedy both past and present. Bussie concludes this chapter with a tantalizingly brief comparison of laughter in all three books, stating that Christian theologians and ethicists need to learn to consider multiple narratives at the same time (p. 122).
In conclusion, Bussie frames a theology of laughter. In five brief points, she suggests that a theology of laughter would deepen our understanding of faith, hope, and suffering; push us past certain sinful dichotomies and conventional theodicy; and keep theology more honest than it has been in the past. These are tremendously exciting possibilities.
Bussie's book is thoroughly researched and elegantly written. The chapters analyzing the novels are exhaustive; I would have appreciated a more detailed assessment of the similarities and differences in the varieties of laughter across the three works. Yet at the same time, I can see that too much compare-and-contrast would do violence to the individuality of the narratives and the experiences they represent. This work makes a vital contribution to Christian theology and ethics.
The Laughter of the Oppressed is recommended for scholarly readers; it could be utilized as a textbook at the graduate level. It is indispensable for those concerned with theodicy and the problem of suffering, the theology of the cross, liberation theologies, and the use of fiction as a theological resource.