Jim West mentioned yesterday that the appearance of Stephen Colbert at a House Committee Judiciary hearing on migrant farm workers and immigration reform was “nothing more than a publicity stunt by the committee” and he suggested that Colbert was not “capable or equipped to testify before Congress.” Certainly he was capable, so I’m not sure what Jim means by using that word. The substantive question is whether or not Colbert was equipped. Jim suggested that Colbert’s experience working alongside migrant farm workers for one day was not sufficient experience to equip him to testify before congress. While this experience was largely responsible for getting him involved in this committee, I don’t think that this experience per se is why those responsible for bringing him before congress believed he was equipped.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, argues that the powers-that-be and their oppressive regime’s are most threatened by the artist, in Israel’s case the prophet as poet who refuses to absolutize the present but rather imagines an alternative future (2001: 40). Colbert is an artist of a different shade, but his artistry is no less threatening to the oppressive social policies of the current established order. Satire, his weapon of choice, employs humor, irony, and exaggeration so as to ridicule its target; it is an exercise in constructive social criticism. I would suggest that it was Colbert’s use of satire that equipped him to present to the committee.
Colbert’s presentation was well done, and it appears to have been well received by most. There is a sense in which I am inclined to understand Colbert’s satirical artistry as prophetic. The biblical prophets were themselves unconventional in the way that attempted to effect change, and many made use of satire (c.f. 1 Kgs 18:27; Isa 44:9-20; Amos 4:4; Jer 2:23-24). However, the most deeply prophetic moment of Colbert’s presentation was when he broke character to explain his interest in this issue. Do click through and hear his response.