Proper 16(C): Punching Down
By: Dr. Emily Kahm
I can’t remember where I first heard the concept of “punching up” and “punching down,” but I think it had to do with how comedians decide who or what in their lives they can turn into stand-up material. There’s something of an unspoken rule that you’re allowed to punch up as much as you want – to make fun of people or institutions that have more power than you. As the thinking goes, those people aren’t likely to be bothered by the musings of some random comic at an open-mic night. Maybe they’re public figures and know that being in the public eye means that people will occasionally poke fun at their lives, words, choices, etc. Regardless of whether this is entirely fair or good-hearted, it’s considered a good rule of thumb – if you’re going to mock someone, make sure it’s someone who can take the hit.
“Punching down” is the logical opposite – making fun of a person or group of people who are already on the margins. Making jokes at the expense of people who are LGBTQ+, or people of color, or disabled, or who are undocumented; creating material that denigrates women, folks living in poverty, people who have little or poor education. We know these “downward” jokes when we hear them because even when they are well set up and delivered, we don’t feel entertained by them. We feel awkward. We feel icky. Our gut sometimes knows better than our brain when we’re hearing something that isn’t okay.
What strikes me most about this passage where Jesus heals a woman who had been bent and in pain for 18 years of her life isn’t actually the part about the healing – it’s the reaction of the synagogue leader. At first glance, when you see that he gets angry and Jesus rebukes him, it looks like he’s directing his frustration at Jesus. It makes sense – Jesus is the one breaking the commandment this leader is so preoccupied with maintaining. Why wouldn’t he go yell at the guy?
But that’s not what the leader does. He admonishes the people who came to the synagogue seeking healing. He tells them they shouldn’t be there on the Sabbath; if they want their miracle, they can get it any of the other six days of the week. Maybe he was intimidated by Jesus’ following, his charisma, his power (and who wouldn’t be?) But instead of confronting the person who was really bothering him, he reprimands those who have come looking for relief. He berates the people who don’t have what he has – the sick, the hungry, the impoverished. He punches down.
This is where Jesus’ intervention turns from looking like a tough conversation to a refusal to witness injustice. He sees that this leader is taking out his frustration on the wrong people and he intercepts it. He isn’t just calling out an overly scrupulous leader, he’s taking the abuse that was rightfully his instead of letting somebody else get yelled at. He’s taking responsibility and using his privilege to protect people who can’t defend themselves.
Again, we know this sort of good leadership when we see it – it’s the boss that takes responsibility for the mistake of her employee and deals with the lecture from upper management so the underling can focus on fixing the error and learning from it. It’s the spouse who takes over when they see their partner’s tiredness and frustration is at risk of spilling onto the kids. The pastor who meets with the self-righteous parishioner who just doesn’t think it’s right to let “those people” (the gay couple, the unmarried parents, the family who might be undocumented) worship here too. It’s the kind of leadership that nobody really wants to have to do, but good leaders know it’s part of the system – you have the power, and sometimes you have to run interference for those who have less.
This isn’t the sort of Christian living I think we can expect to do elegantly; stepping in the way of an angry person’s rant is always going to make us nervous and it might be too much to hope that our outcome will humiliate the ranter and gain us the love of the spared in the tidy way Luke tells it. (I wonder if Jesus also got all shaky and tongue-tied after he’d been yelled at. Luke doesn’t say so, but maybe.) But it’s part of the mess of Christian living. When you see someone punching down, get in the way. Make them look at you. Defend people who don’t have your power or privilege, even if they don’t respond with gratitude. And maybe the world will become a little more just in the meantime.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris; son, Xavier; and two floofy rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.