Fools for Christ

The Power of the Cross to Shame the Wise

The Los Angeles Dodgers recently hosted at their ballpark the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization that claims to “raise drag awareness” and increase “understanding of gay spirituality.” This has caused controversy since the men in the organization are flamboyantly anti-Catholic, dress as nuns, and incorporate blasphemy into their “performances.” The Dodgers invited the group to participate in “Pride Night,” but before it took place they disinvited the Sisters in response to online anger on the part of Christian groups and others. The disinvitation prompted what was evidently an even bigger backlash on social media from defenders of the Sisters, which prompted the Dodgers to re-invite the group, and then publicly bestow upon them a “Community Hero Award.”

The Dodgers have reconfirmed it is possible to be craven and sanctimonious at the same time.

Drag Queens are not the only means of challenging moral and social norms in society, or, of problematizing heteronormative bourgeois values, as I would have said had I paid better attention during drag queen story hour. What the left has known and said for quite some time–at least since the 1960s—is that just about any kind of clownishness will do. The clown is a caricature, an exaggeration. His method is to distort some facet of reality to the point of absurdity. Big noses, red lips, oversized feet, effeminate men—does not really matter what is exaggerated. What matters is that you, the viewer, are entertained or captivated or distracted. Playing the fool means not fitting in, usually in a spectacular way.

But clowning is about more than mocking the clown. Foolishness can be a means of persuasion, too. In this case, the real joke is not on the fools, but on the people laughing at them. An effective clown prompts you to ponder the world in a different light, imagine another way, maybe even another world, and to come to see your own position as more strange or arbitrary or absurd than you previously thought. Court jesters, parodists, and drag queens have known this as long as they have been around. Embracing one’s own foolishness in the eyes of the majority is a powerful, and potentially revolutionary tool.

This is where Evangelical Christians have something to learn from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Foolishness delivers a message to the ones who laugh; it is a tool of persuasion wielded by outliers in society. After generations of occupying one kind of moral majority or another, Evangelicals have forgotten how to embrace and defend the “foolishness” of our own faith. We have spent the past few decades trying to appease the scoffers. The result is that our resolve to stand for truth is weakened in a world hostile to us. We need to recover the art of godly foolishness, an ancient and venerable means of speaking truth, and one that will inoculate us against the inevitable disdain of the world. 

Revolutionary Potential of the Fool

In the 1960s, the radical left incorporated clownishness into its repertoire as a matter of course. Reading about it is quite refreshing, honestly, given how humorless and dour so much of the left can often be. Marx was never known for his knock-knock jokes. In recent years, the left’s resentment toward humor has been on full display. The banning of The Babylon Bee from Twitter for mocking left-wing pieties should have been a Babylon Bee gag, not an actual news story.

There was a period, however, during which this was not the case. In 1968, for instance, the left-wing radicals who called themselves Yippies nominated a 150-pound pig named “Pigasus the Immortal” to run for President against Richard Nixon. They were arrested at the campaign launch in Chicago, and charged with bringing livestock into the city. When asked why they nominated a pig for the presidency, one of them explained it was “because if we can’t have him in the White House, we can at least have him for breakfast.” This is fine political satire, suggesting that the potential bacon value of your candidate outweighs the policy value of your opponent. Surely there were a few Republicans that gave a chuckle at the time, even if they deplored the Yippies.

The 1960s and 70s superstar Marxist intellectual and father of the New Left, Herbert Marcuse was completely onboard with this kind of clownishness. Marcuse explained in his jargony though wildly popular writing (every academic’s dream) how all the goofiness amounted to oppositional political action. For instance, he wrote in 1969 that “in some sectors of the opposition the radical protest tends to become antinomian, anarchistic, and even non-political. Here is another reason why the rebellion often takes on the weird and clownish forms which get on the nerves of the Establishment.” This comes from his Essay on Liberation, a title more ironic than “Pigasus the Immortal.”

Marcuse understood the revolutionary potential of the fool, who, by the way, does not have to be as offensive as the drag queen nuns of L.A. to be effective; I suspect that not all drag story hour readers are twerking in the library. They do not have to in order to achieve their goal, which is, according to the nonprofit “Drag Story Hour,” that kids “see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves.” This group started in 2015 in San Francisco to shepherd this “global phenomenon” into the next generation; it understands that the defiance of gender restrictions opens the door for imagining a new world. Deconstruct to reconstruct.

It is important here not to get tempted by the pablum of “authentic selves” into thinking this is innocuous. It sounds innocuous, but there is a difference between innocuous and vacuous. The first is unthreatening, by definition, whereas the second is empty and therefore fillable with whatever one wants to fill it with. Vacuous social justice cliches are the Trojan Horses of the movement. Inside the call to “imagine a world” is the moral sanction to deconstruct the world as it is. Inside the phrase “authentic selves” dwells the doctrine of human sovereignty over human nature. This is the logic of utopia: you deconstruct the “structures of power” as they exist, and in the vacuum install a new king. Or drag queen.

That is precisely the problem for the radical left, though. Since its entrance onto the world stage in the French Revolution, the radical left has always been better at destruction than construction. This is a liability inherent to utopianism, though leftists seldom concede that it is a liability. The vision of a new world is such a powerfully beautiful end, even without having to spell out what that end actually looks like, that it justifies the destructive means necessary to achieve it. 

The left has a long history of making virtues out of these necessities. The nineteenth-century Russian Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin inspired generations of revolutionaries with his maxim: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” What, Mr. Bakunin, are you creating? His reply: “The Kingdom of God on Earth.” Less poetic but more accurate was The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which Bakunin helped to write. It absolved revolutionaries of any obligation to create a new society, a task that would be “left to future generations.” Alexander Herzen, a socialist and contemporary of Bakunin, put it the most succinctly. “We do not build, we destroy.”

Marcuse’s language is a bit more euphemistic than Herzen’s. But the goals of what he calls “the new politics” are the same: dismantle, destabilize, destroy. And foolishness is effective to that end. Consider Marcuse’s following theorization of the fool:

In the face of the gruesomely serious totality of institutionalized politics, satire, irony, and laughing provocation become a necessary dimension of the new politics. The contempt for the deadly esprit de sérieux [spirit of seriousness] which permeates the talkings and doings of the professional and semiprofessional politicians appears as contempt for the values which they profess while destroying them. The rebels revive the desperate laughter and the cynical defiance of the fool as means for demasking the deeds of the serious ones who govern the whole.

In Marcuse’s formulation, the “contempt for the values” of society is itself the positive substance of the new politics. Contempt implies judgment: the “serious ones who govern the whole” are misguided, wrong, unjust, dangerous, even. The rebels offer the opposite: righteousness, and justice. That much can be clearly inferred, though it is decidedly unclear what that righteousness and justice will look like. It is not much more concrete than “imagining a world” full of “authentic selves.”

Those presiding over the social justice causes of today, including the L.A. Sisters, are frequently as vague as Marcuse and his leftist forebears about what positive set of values they are offering. Famously, even Marx was coy when it came to describing the post-capitalist world he was calling for. This is a great strategic advantage since the rebels can adapt. It’s also one of the clues as to its utopian nature: the goal is unclear because it has never existed before.

The critical theory of the left has harnessed only half the persuasive power of the fool. Leftist clowns call into question the “systems,” “power structures” and “normativities” that order society and sometimes nature. But the critique is hopelessly lopsided in the negative direction. It offers nothing of substance to replace the rubble pile it is creating.

Wiser Than Human Wisdom

Christian foolishness, by contrast, is not merely critique. It is a consequence of the positive claims of the gospel being incompatible with the world’s standards of wisdom and power: that Jesus is the Son of God, whose death is reckoned as atonement for sinners who have faith in it. It is foolish because it short-circuits the wisest and mightiest efforts of men. This is what Paul means when he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Paul embraces the foolishness, which is designed by God in the first place to “shame the wise.” What Paul understood, and what many Protestant Evangelicals have forgotten, is that being fools for Christ is a powerful means of uncovering the foolishness of the world and at the same time pointing toward the one true source of hope.

This second, positive function of Christian foolishness is where we take leave of left-wing fools: we are seen to be fools because of the substance of what we believe, not because of what we reject. After embracing our foolishness in the eyes of the world, Paul writes that Christ “became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” These are substantiated through the entirety of Biblical theology and the lives of countless redeemed sinners throughout history. Contrast this with the ostensible virtues promised by the social justice left: equity, diversity, justice, and so on. They are pale shadows of Christianity, from which they derive, and in any case, emptied of substance nearly to the point of unrecognizability. 

In other words, there is more to learn from the Dodgers than that blasphemous drag queens and left-wing radicals are not natural allies of Christianity. The fools on the left should be a valuable reminder of the power of foolishness as a tool of persuasion. The solution is not cross-dressing preachers, a point that until recently might have gone without saying. The solution, rather, is to embrace the foolishness of the gospel in a society increasingly hostile to what we believe. This is not self-pity, even less a concession. Do not forget: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Foolishness is a powerful means of revealing the truth.

Foolishness has been a powerful vehicle for truth in many cultures for many millennia. The Greeks, who invented theater, among other things, dressed up actors in large, exaggerated masks (and sometimes phalluses) to make people laugh and test the pieties of their day. Aristophanes, one of the great Athenian comic playwrights, was an expert at weaponizing foolishness, as was the famous Socrates, one of Aristophanes’ favorite targets of lampoonery. The two men demonstrated the negative and positive power of the weapon, respectively. Aristophanes’ fool-making of Socrates played no small part in the trial and subsequent execution of Athens’ greatest citizen. Meanwhile, Socrates’ foolishness played no small part in his invention of Western Philosophy.

In Byzantium and then later in Russia, the figure of the “holy fool” came to be one of the most potent and, in its own way revered, figures. Imagine a near-naked man wandering into a Russian village, barefoot in the snow, dragging a dead dog behind him, or some other similarly revolting object. The kids throw snowballs at him. The women are repulsed. The men egg on their children and laugh.

What is the point? In Orthodox Christianity, the figure of the fool was a real-life manifestation of the Apostle Paul’s “fool for Christ’s sake” described in First Corinthians: a spectacle, beaten, ignoble, poor, weak, homeless. His power resided in his (or sometimes her) voluntary humiliation, which made a mockery of his own pride and exposed the pride of all who were disgusted and offended by him. His foolishness exposed their hypocrisy, amplified their un-Christlikeness, and thereby provoked them into realizing how desperately they needed to repent.

We need not emulate the Russian holy fools any more literally than we need to start plucking out our eyes. Nevertheless, there is something to learn here. The holy fool in his shamelessness draws a stark contrast between the truth of the gospel and the values of society. The sacrifice of God’s only Son on behalf of people who do not deserve mercy contrasts the drive toward self-glorification and self-gratification that animates the world. The cross is offensive because it subverts the values that order our societies. What kind of divinity glories in weakness, in foolishness and assembles herds of sheep rather than wolves? This infuriated Nietzsche, student as he was of Greco-Roman antiquity, which despised Christianity’s foolishness from the beginning. The cross is also offensive because it condemns us all. We are the scoffing villagers, disgusted by the shame of the cross until we realize it comes with a call to repent. God uses the shameful things of the world to demonstrate his power to save.

Marcuse’s radical clowns and Paul’s fools for Christ wield tremendous revolutionary potential. They can disrupt the most complacent and entrenched social mores and taboos. The left has been actively cultivating its foolishness revolution for the past several generations. It has chalked up some impressive wins in recent years. Meanwhile, a significant segment of Evangelicals strives for acceptance amidst the lofty realms of human wisdom, having forgotten, it would seem, the promise in scripture that the cross will always seem foolish to the world. The mainstreaming and institutional takeovers of the left’s cultural revolution have revealed the bankruptcy of their positive utopian vision; they are like the dog who at last caught the car. The Christians who have gone mad with the crowd—or just tried to avoid getting trampled by it—have ended up looking like the fools of the book of Proverbs, rather than Corinthians.

Evangelicals need a Biblical theology of foolishness for our generation that will at once “shame the wise” and declare the truth and promise of the gospel. How should that look for Protestant believers in the twenty-first century? Whatever it looks like, it must embrace the foolishness of the cross to affirm that our faith does not “rest not on human wisdom,” as Paul put it to the Corinthians, “but on the power of God.”

Image Credit: Unsplash

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David Rainbow

David Rainbow is an associate professor of history in the Honors College at the University of Houston. Before moving to Houston, he earned a PhD in Russian history from New York University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russia, Eurasian, and East European Studies. Next year he will take a position as associate professor of history at Colorado Christian University. He can be found on Twitter/X @david_rainbow