Colbert, Chaplin, and the Cross

May 15, 2018

It all started when I saw Charlie Chaplin, dressed as Adolf Hitler, slow-dancing with a giant inflatable globe. It’s a bizarre scene in Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, his 1940 satire of all things Nazi. The legend behind the film is that Chaplin and a friend went to see a showing of the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. His friend was terrified, but Chaplin burst out laughing, and he resolved to make a movie lampooning the Nazi regime. As I watched Chaplin’s interpretive dance as an effeminate Hitler, playfully flirting with a balloon, I thought, Where have I seen this before? And then it hit me: Stephen Colbert. The prance, the camp, the mocking of masculinist politics is the same thing Colbert does to mock Donald Trump, week after week. The resemblance was almost hereditary.

Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that Trump is Hitler. That’s a tired and unhelpful comparison. But, I will say that there is a striking similarity between the way that Chaplin mocked Hitler and the way that Colbert mocks Trump. It is as if the king and the jester need each other. They form a twisted symbiotic relationship, like two parasites that somehow feed off of each other. In a May 2017 interview with TIME, Trump mentioned Stephen Colbert: “You see a no-talent guy like Colbert. There’s nothing funny about what he says… and it only builds up my base. It only helps me, people like him.” He continued, “The guy was dying. By the way, they were going to take him off television. Then he started attacking me and he started doing better.”

And, Trump is right. Colbert needs Trump, needs the king in order to keep his job as the jester. Colbert instinctively knows this. After Trump’s interview was published, Colbert responded on his show by saying, “The president of the United States has personally come after me and my show, and there’s only one thing to say: Yaaaaay!”

In a similar way, in the years leading up to filming The Great Dictator, Nazi propagandists denounced Chaplin as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat,” even while people noticed an uncanny resemblance between Hitler and Chaplin. They both even sported the same iconic mustache. The two mirrored each other so much that Chaplin once remarked to his own son, “Just think: he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” This is not to make light of the evils of Nazism. Chaplin himself later admitted that he would not have made The Great Dictator if he had known the full extent of the Holocaust. This forces us to ask: can comedic mirroring show us the fullness of the gospel, by fully naming the depth of sin, and the deeper triumph of grace?

No, but what comedic mirroring can provide is the catharsis of violence. For Chaplin, it was slapstick, as in another scene in The Great Dictator where Chaplin makes his Hitler choke on spicy mustard. Colbert has taken this one step further. In his monologues, he often addresses “Mr. President” directly, issuing insults that are, if we are honest, pretty hurtful, hateful, and sexually violent on their own. (I can’t bring myself to quote the worst of them here.) Several times, Colbert has digitally superimposed himself into a fake news interview with Trump, making the king/jester mirror image explicit. As they sit opposite each other, Colbert takes Trump’s words out of context and throws them back at him, often insulting him to his face. It’s funny, it’s mean, and it really only serves as a release for the people who already hate Trump. But, it’s all fun and games, right?

In Scripture, the book of Esther is full of funny comedic mirrors, but it is not all fun and games. I believe that this tiny book in the canon of Scripture has something to teach us about the dangers of comedic mirroring. The story of Esther is often summarized as a fairy tale: a brave peasant (Esther) meets a noble prince (Ahasuerus—a king, actually) and in the process saves her kinsman (Mordecai) and her people (Jews) from their doom at the hands of evil incarnate (Haman). But the actual story of Esther is quite a bit stranger: a grotesquely hedonist king blends the violence of the state and his own sexual appetite into a national beauty pageant, while Haman and Mordecai jockey for political power, with violent consequences. The climax of the book is a bloodbath, as the Jews systematically eliminate their enemies. When you think about it, it’s pretty horrifying, but if you read the book closely, it’s also quite funny. At every turn, jokes fly as the pomp and pretense of the king and the empire are mocked. And, there’s even a bit of gallows humor—literally—as Haman is executed on the very gallows that he made to kill Mordecai. With all the carnage and deathly shenanigans, it is an exceedingly dark comedy. It has a lot more in common with a Coen Brothers film than with singing, dancing vegetables.

But, there is also a disturbing dualism to the book of Esther. Mordecai and Haman are mirror images of each other. The exact same honor, power, and authority that were Haman’s are given to Mordecai. Haman is killed on the same gallows meant for Mordecai. The Jews use the same state-sponsored violence aimed at them against their enemies. The “good guys” fight back in the exact same way in which they were supposed to be attacked. It is a mirrored violence, blurring the distinction between good and evil.

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Popular readings of Esther assume that the good guys are supposed “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate” the bad guys. But, this absence of God’s name forces us to ask an uncomfortable question: what if Esther and Mordecai were wrong? What if mirrored violence, even comedic mirrored violence, is not the answer? Where is God in all this? If we believe that Christ is figuratively hidden throughout the Old Testament, then he must be hiding somewhere in this dark house of mirrors.

I would argue that the figure of Christ is not found in Esther, who receives the sexualized violence of the state and transposes it onto her enemies. Similarly, the figure of Christ is not found in Mordecai, who uses his political ascendancy to marshal the machinery of the state for his own ends. No, the figure of Christ appears in a surprising place. It is hidden in the image of Haman, the cursed man hanging from the dead tree. Translators usually translate Haman’s instrument of death as “gallows,” but the Hebrew word literally means “tree,” or a “piece of wood.” When Jesus died on the tree of the cross, he did not identify with the empire, or its subversive, comedic opposite. He took on the form of the serpent lifted up, the cursed one hanging from a tree. Here is the dark, offensive, and wondrous mystery of the cross in Esther: by being lifted up as one hanging accursed on a tree, “Christ came into the world to save sinners,” the persecutors and the insolent opponents (I Timothy 1:13-15 ESV). Christ dies as the enemy, so that we who are the enemies of God might be reconciled to God.

Chaplin and Hitler, Colbert and Trump, Mordecai and Haman stand as mirror images, caught in a cycle of retaliatory comedic violence. But, Christ the king, acting in perfect freedom, entered history, endured the cross, despised the shame, and destroyed this cycle of comedic violence. In this fractured, polarized time, we—who by the Spirit have the same freedom in Christ—can witness to a more excellent way: the way of the cross, the ministry of reconciliation, the way of love.

About the Author
  • Steven Rodriguez is the pastor of Lakeview Community Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church in America. He lives in Rochester, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @smarcorodriguez.

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