Interfaith Amigos Highlight Importance of Humor in Faith

The Interfaith Amigos, from left, Imam Jamal Rahman, Rev. Don Mackenzie, and Rabbi Ted Falcon, mix comedy and faith during their afternoon lecture on the spirit of observing and exploring other faiths as well as how their group came to be formed. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Interfaith Amigos first came together, they shared the “riches of their traditions,” each bringing their sacred text to read from.

“My companions have brought their books; I brought the original tablet and we shared sacred words,” Rabbi Ted Falcon joked.

To start off Week Six’s interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?” Interfaith Amigos Falcon, Imam Jamal Rahman and Pastor Don Mackenzie presented their lecture, “What’s So Funny About Religion? Laughter is Her Language of Hope,” Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The group formed after 9/11. After the tragedy, Falcon thought it would be good to invite Rahman to the Shabbat service Friday.

“People had to see a different face of Islam than the one that was blasted at us through the media,” Falcon said.

After listening to each other teach, the two became friends over time and started working together. Eventually, they recognized that they needed the third faith of the Abrahamic family — Mackenzie joined the group six months after 9/11.

“We shared an intuition that if we could penetrate the barriers that have separated our traditions historically,” Mackenzie said, “we might be able to help get to a place where cooperation and collaboration would be possible, and addressing the great moral issues of our times.”

The group began meeting weekly, giving presentations and eventually writing books. However, the Amigos’ beginning was difficult, according to Falcon.

“The truth is, it’s really a risk to open ourselves to the treasures of another’s tradition,” he said. “Sometimes, we feel that our own identity will somehow be watered down or somehow we will be drawn to forbidden territory. And it takes a level of trust to really allow ourselves to hear and to appreciate the treasures of spirit wherever they arise.”

At the dais in the Hall of Philosophy, the three then shared verses from each of their sacred texts. The point of doing so was to demonstrate how similar the messages were, despite that the verses come from different faiths.

Falcon said, in the Book of Micah, people forgot that worshipping God requires one to follow through and apply teachings to everyday life — that performance ritual was not accomplishing anything by itself.

“And so Micah said, ‘It has been told you humankind, what is good and what the eternal one asks of you, nothing other than doing justly and loving kindness and walking with integrity in the presence of your God,’ ” Falcon said. “And the prophet was urging, walking with the fullness of who we are.”

Mackenzie quoted from John 15, in which Jesus was trying to direct his disciples with his wisdom.

“ ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you,’ ” Mackenzie said. “ ‘No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends. If you do what I command you, I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I’ve heard from God; you did not choose me. But I chose you.’ ”

Rahman then quoted the Quran: “Repel evil with something which is better, so that your enemy becomes your intimate, close friend.”

Rahman said that the largest overarching problem for all three Abrahamic faiths is exclusivity.

“Brother Jamal, I hear you saying that, but the fact is we Jews are the chosen people from all the peoples of the planet,” Falcon said. “God chose us as God’s treasured people. Deuteronomy 14:2.”

“Excuse me, Rabbi — in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except by me,’ ” Mackenzie interjected.

“Not my Bible,” Falcon replied.

“My dear brother, my dear friends, here is the real truth,” Rahman said, interrupting Falcon and Mackenzie. “The Quran says, ‘If anyone chooses religion other than Islam, he too will not be accepted of Him and he’d be a loser here and in the hereafter,’ 3:85. Please make a note for your sake.”

“So that’s it. That’s where our program ends,” Falcon joked.

The three laughed and explained the purpose of their demonstration: to show that exclusivity is a problem.

“At some point, something like that rises (when we see that) our (faith) really is the way,” Falcon said. “It’s just a little bit truer unless we recognize that as a symptom of our straying, unless we recognize that as a symptom of how we’ve forgotten the essential spiritual teachings of inclusivity, of oneness, of love and compassion that are at the heart of each of our traditions.”

Falcon said when one thinks their faith alone is the chosen faith, the consequence will always be violence.

On the other hand, when faiths can come together, as the three Interfaith Amigos have, humor can flourish. The three men explained the role humor plays in their faith and presented jokes as examples.

“Jewish humor is often self-deprecating,” Falcon said. “And Jewish humor is often some attempt to talk about the struggles in generations, … is often some way of enduring hardships and enduring times of suffering, … (and) is often some way of helping us identify ourselves as a minority in most cultures in the world.”

In particular, the Jewish jokes Falcon likes to tell are those that can only be told by a Jew.

“There were three (people) who were traveling across a desert environment — a German, a Frenchman, and a Jew,” Falcon said. “At a certain point, the Frenchman says, ‘I’m so hot, I’m so tired. I must have wine.’ A little bit later, the German says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot, I must have beer.’ And sure enough, a little bit later the Jew says, ‘I’m so tired, I’m so hot. I must have diabetes.’ ”

Mackenzie said Christian humor is funny when it prods at the idea of Christianity being the superior religion.

“The guy takes the train into Penn Station in New York, runs up, gets into a cab, and tells the cabbie to take him to Christ Church,” Mackenzie said. “The cabbie takes him to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The guy says, ‘No, no Christ Church, I said.’ The cabbie turns around and says, ‘Look, Mac, if he’s in town, this is where he’ll be.’ ”

Rahman said that Sufis, a group of Muslim mystics, wrote humor into poetry, conveying stories that “open hearts and minds, and to really counter the rigid and negative ideologies of these very conservative, self-serving clerics.” Death also plays a role in many of the poems.

“The Mullah is gravely ill — on his deathbed, some think,” Rahman said. “His wife is moaning and lamenting. And now here comes the authority, the allopathic doctor who examines the Mullah at length. Then, he turns to the Mullah’s wife and says, ‘Oh, honorable wife of the Mullah, the Quran says, ‘Only Allah is immortal.’ Your husband’s soul has flown to the bosom of God. He’s dead.’ But, the Mullah is not dead. He’s feebly saying, ‘I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.’ What does the wife say? ‘Quiet. Don’t argue with the doctor.’ ”

Some of the jokes the Interfaith Amigos told during their lecture are based on stories that actually happened to them. For example, Falcon was approached at the end of an interfaith program by a woman who wanted him to sign her book.

“And I said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to.’ And she hands me … a Bible,” Falcon said. “And I said to her, ‘I didn’t write this.’ ”

Through the humor, the three said they learn from one another. And, through humor and the lessons that accompany it, it is clear to Falcon, Mackenzie and Rahman that laughter is the language of hope.

Rahman told another story, of a Mullah who is on a train traveling to India. He sees the ticket conductor approaching, and the Mullah begins looking into other people’s pockets and bags for a ticket, Rahman said.

One annoyed passenger finally says, “What are you doing?” The Mullah says, “I’m looking for my ticket.” The man says, “You’re crazy. Look for your ticket in your own pocket.” The Mullah replies, “Yes, I know I could do that. But if I do that and if I don’t find my ticket, I shall lose all hope.”

“We need our hope, our deeper wisdom, our greater awareness unto others as if seeking in other people’s pockets what actually belongs to us,” Falcon said. “And such a story is meant to remind us that the laughter we seek, the hope we seek, the wisdom we seek, the connection we seek is waiting to be found within our own pockets, within our own hearts, within our own minds, within our own souls, and to take the time to honor that which each and every one of us carries into each moment of our lives.”

“The need for hope is universal and this is a time when sometimes we have trouble holding onto hope. … Hope has moral value,” Mackenzie added. “It hopes for something good. It engages us, heart, mind and soul, and moves us to act, thanks be to God.”

The Interfaith Amigos ended their lecture with an original song, involving all three singing key verses from each of their sacred texts in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

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AnaBella Lassiter

The author AnaBella Lassiter

AnaBella Lassiter is a rising senior at Penn State Behrend in Erie, where she’s studying English with a focus in professional writing and history. She also serve as the Arts & Entertainment editor of her school’s paper, the Behrend Beacon. She is eager to report on the afternoon lectures for The Chautauquan Daily. When she’s not writing, she is walking her dachshund or rereading Wuthering Heights for the 30th time.