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The theology of Chris Lilley

Michael Mullins |  11 May 2014

Chris Lilley as Jonah from Tonga

The jury is out on whether Chris Lilley's new ABC1 comedy Jonah from Tonga gives a free kick to racism and other forms of discriminatory behaviour. 

TV critic Giles Hardie says it is 'fantastic that people are accusing this show of being racist, because that is exactly the way to start the relevant and important conversation'. But Polynesian writer Morgan Godfery argues that Lilley empowers racism. '[He] reinscribe[s] the very stereotypes [he's] acting out ...   Whenever people dress in racial drag, they channel that history of racism.'

Critic David Knox borrows a theological concept when he suggests Jonah and Lilley's previous work should be judged on the basis of redemption'Showing an abusive character (particularly to an impressionable young audience) must service a point, which should also include the lesson-learning that the abuse is hardly acceptable to a reasonable-thinking person.'

Knox believes redemption in Lilley's characters does take place, but it's a case of too little too late. He cites the character Ja'mie becoming 'momentarily same-sex attracted after her tirade of "lesbian" insults'. But, Knox says, 'the risk is that before you reach that point the wider audience is potentially so offended that it does not stick around for that lesson'.

However the effort to avoid offence can also be seen as an attempt to deny reality in a way that creates a set of politically correct stereotypes that may themselves be discriminatory. 

Irish writer Colm Tóibín speaks in his recent lecture 'The censor in each of us' of the perceived need to deny the existence of behaviour that offends social aspiration. We choose 'images that are comforting and comfortable, images that cover the national or social or religious wound, or attempt to heal it'. Hence our politically correct depictions of racial harmony. Until the 1960s, we were comforted by images of 'white Australia'. 

Tóibín describes hostile demonstrations of political correctness outside Dublin's Abbey Theatre early last century. Inside were performances of plays that depicted Irish peasant women as 'earthy and sexually alive'. The protesters saw them as frustrating attempts to make Irish women 'seem more pure, more fully Victorian than their English counterparts'.

The prejudices in Lilley's Jonah are depictions of the wounds of Australian society, not the attempt of a far-right ideologue to promote a stratified nation based on race. Before the redemption can take place, we need to own our woundedness and moral imperfection. That is the theology of Chris Lillley.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 



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Submitted comments

Thankyou Michael for this article, it clears up much of what I felt was unsaid in the debate about Lilley's creations.

Tom 10 May 2014

Chris Lilley has portrayed the Ugly Australian. Ja'mie, I think, is almost on a par with Aussie yob incarnate Dr Sir Leslie Patterson. They both show a dark side to the Australian character. With Ja'mie, as you say Michael, there exists the hint of possible redemption. The stark tragedy is that redemption is never full. That is the essence of major tragedy as in "King Lear". The real and quite fair question is, to a person of colour, as with Morgan Godfrey, could the portrayal of Jonah be seen as racist, even if, as I believe, Lilley is no racist and not recreating the dreadful stereotypical racist American TV "comedy" portrayal of Afro-Americans of the 1950s? The simple answer is "Yes". Lilley presenting an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander character in the same light as Jonah would be unacceptable. Why? Probably - apart from legal implications - because they, like Afro-Americans, have suffered enough. I think we need to beware of seeing any ethnic groups in stereotypical terms even if there is a supposedly moral purpose in their depiction as such. The "moral purpose" in Jonah's case would be "Art". I am unsure this excuse is morally acceptable.

Edward Fido 12 May 2014

I found ep. 1 of 'Jonah from Tonga' so unpleasant to watch I turned off after five minutes - having endured more of Lilley's 'Jami'e' series. I agree with David Knox that moments of redemption, if any, are too little, too late. The Tongan tan Lilley uses is no less offensive that a singer using blackface - can anyone tell me the difference?

Rodney Wetherell 12 May 2014

Content of a letter sent to the SMH and ABC - no response received: What an obscenity Jonah from Tonga (ABC1) is. Few people seem to see beyond the surface of this so-called comedy series by the (admittedly talented) Chris Lilley. Does no one realise that this is simple black-face, racist comedy? A spray-on tan to make Lilley appear Tongan is no less demeaning than a singer performing as black by smearing on some make-up. If Lilley appeared as a middle-aged white man sitting with a group of prepubescent boys singing ‘Island girl I want to touch your boobies’, he’d soon find himself on a charge. Not to mention the running gag about the young female teacher’s lack of a penis, or the homophobia that runs through the entire program. No advocate of censorship, I am at a loss to know how the worldwide audience cannot see this appalling, humourless, vindictive, racist, exploitative program for what it really isThe success of programs like this makes me sad to think that this is where we have come in 2014. Please think about what this program is saying – really think about it – and you will see what an aberration it is. Sorry Aunty ABC (and BBC and HBO) we deserve better than this. And Chris Lilley, your extraordinary talent is wasted and ultimately will turn and bite you on the bum, or even more likely, do a Jonah and hit you in the balls.

Russell Thomson 12 May 2014

Chris Lilley's right to make the program and mine to turn it off. Is this an advertisement for keeping 18C?

Jane Penseur 12 May 2014

To Russell Thomson. Jonah from Tonga is a tragedy/ comedy to those that feel. When you close your eyes to tragedy, you close your eyes to greatness.

Annoying Orange 12 May 2014

There is nothing "redemptive" about a white man pretending to be brown. It perpetuates racist stereotypes and this should be interrogated more critically It is not ok and never will be.

Elizabeth 12 May 2014

What is Jonah really saying to his audience? That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. Excerpt - Others - Joseph Hillis Miller.

Annoying Orange 12 May 2014

As a Tongan living abroad, majority of my people and I are deeply offended by this comedy. The actor shows no respect what-so-ever to our culture and taboos which only us understand. He painted himself brownish/blackish and portrays a Tongan, Majority of Tongan people who could speak English don't sound like that - and what he does not understand is that it is very difficult to learn to speak English. Sorry to intrude...Good day to you all.

Senolita 'Aholelei Swan 13 May 2014

The narrator explains why it is that most people don't feel sympathy for common, everyday suffering: there's so much quiet, common angst going on around us, all the time, that really seeing and sympathizing with it all would be "like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat." We wouldn't be able to stand it for very long. Which is why, she says, that even the "quickest" (i.e., most compassionate) of us "walk about" with our ears and hearts "well wadded with stupidity." It's a defense mechanism.

Name 13 May 2014

This is twaddle. Jonah is crude and not funny. Call it for what it is- the approval and affirmation of poor behaviour. It does not merit such intellectual reflection. It is supposed to be a comedy- watch it and try laughing.

John Fox 16 May 2014

What Chris Lillee's Jonah calls forth in this viewer is pity, grief and anger. Surely these are the precursors to prophetic action? (The first task of prophecy is to cry out against injustice, as Walter Bruegemanns reminded us). Lillee doesn't call on us to laugh at Jonah or despise him. He calls us to ask why!

Joan Seymour 21 May 2014

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