A Rabbi, a Muslim, and a Baptist preacher walk into a room. (Rim shot!) Yes, it is the setup for a joke, but not like you expect. Comedian/Rabbi Bob Alper, Muslim comic Azhar Usman, and myself, an ex-lawyer, turned Baptist minister and standup comedian are taking the stage for the Laugh in Peace Tour. Appearing everywhere from The World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC to the Palestinian Fest in Houston, Texas, to Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, the goal of the tour is to build bridges and reconcile differences through humor.
The three of us believe that humor may be the quickest way to world peace. Given the current headlines, it's hard to imagine a message the world needs more.
Humor highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone, whether it is a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment. It is then that our differences fade and our common connections gleam forth. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, "Love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart."
Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten and we all laugh together.
In the show, Rabbi Alper explains about the differences in language and culture:
"After three years at seminary I took a year off, to study in Israel. I had some Biblical Hebrew under my belt, but it was difficult during the first weeks. For example, I can still see the look on the cab driver's face when we pulled into our neighborhood and I said to him, in my Hebrew, 'BEHOLD! Here I descend.'"
I talk about the sometimes limited worldview of Christians -- especially Baptists:
"One nice thing you can say about the Southern Baptists is that their theology is always short and sweet. Like their idea of heaven: 'You ain't Southern Baptist? You ain't coming.' That's like 6.5 billion people not coming. If you look at a world map, that's every landmass on the face of the globe ... except Texas and Alabama."
Alternatively, Azhar Usman rifts on what it's like being Muslim in America:
"It's nice to be back home in America, where I get dirty looks for being a Muslim. I was just overseas, and it felt totally different: people hating me just for being an American. I felt so patriotic."
Humor has long been seen as the great equalizer -- a means to facilitate conversation and bridge differences. In fact, humor has been identified as a key factor in peace building and international mediation. Dr. Craig Zelizer, Professor in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, writes that "humour can play an important role in conflict contexts in fostering connections, helping groups cope with the effects of conflict ... and providing a degree of safety for expressing difficult ideas or opinions."
A tiny, but powerful example of this occurred in one of our recent college performances. The show was sponsored by both the Muslim and Jewish Student Associations. We were told that although their offices were literally across the hall from each other, prior to our show, the students of each group had never spoken to one another. Laugh in Peace brought them together -- literally -- for the first time.
Will we change the world overnight? No. Will we start a ripple effect that may eventually change the way we see each other? Maybe. All we can do is offer the gifts we've been given in a way that leaves the world a little better than we found it. It's our best effort at world peace; world peace, that is, one joke at a time.
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