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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Celebrating Fools
distributed 4/1/16 - ©2016

Be careful today -- foolishness is afoot!

April 1 is the day when pranksters and silly people are given permission to act out. Unfortunately, the occasion is also used by mean and thoughtless people who can inflict real damage on family members, neighbors and co-workers.

So have fun, and be careful, both with your own actions, and with what others might be conspiring to do to you.

I regret, though, that this annual Fool's day does not honor and empower the genuine fools of our time. We are in desperate need of those honorable folk who use humor to poke prophetic fun at the pompous and powerful, and who shine blindingly honest light on our cultural foibles.

Today -- drawing on Christian and other traditions -- I celebrate Fools. No joke!

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Consider the court jester of medieval Europe, the one with the patchwork costume and the jangly hat. The jester had an official role in the royal setting, one that was exercised with great caution, I'm sure.

The jester had to be a good entertainer, juggling and joking well enough so that folk would pay attention. But he (were there women in that role?) was also an in-house prophet. When everybody else was fawning before the monarch, or frightened to speak the truth, he could tell a joke or perform a skit to skewer a stupid idea, or deflate a pompous ego.

Dr. Patricia Limerick -- the official University Fool at the University of Colorado -- sums up the role of fool, both long ago and now: "It is to speak out truthfully and directly in times when others are scared to do that."

Think of the best of today's late-night TV comics, whose headline-based routines provide some of the most honest and insightful commentary on current events. Or political cartoonists, who cram great wisdom into a one-panel caricature. The fool is an essential role, in all cultures.

I have been privileged to see great jesters of another tradition. On many occasions, I have visited the ceremonial dances of the historic Indian pueblos in northern New Mexico. The society of clowns -- "Koshare" in some of those languages -- is a constant presence at the ceremonies. They can walk through the middle of solemn rituals, fixing costumes, giving instruction, and passing out cool watermelon on a scorching day. And between dances, they do their own skits.

I remember a striking example, at Taos Pueblo during the mid-winter Deer Dance, when one clown led his fellows around the plaza. The leader of the procession held aloft a dirty mop, and each time he stopped, the others knelt in prayer before the mop. The reaction of the crowd -- both laughter and shock -- indicated that they all got the jab at the Catholic Church during the indigenous religious festival.

The pueblo creation stories tell of numerous attempts of people to emerge from the underworld, each time having to return for some important thing left behind. The last return was needed because they had forgotten to bring the clowns. Life in their culture cannot happen properly without the helper-comic who keeps things on the right track.

And of course, Christianity is centered on a great Fool, and on great foolishness. Our transformational faith looks at the ways of the world, at "business as usual", and has the courage to say that what most people see as normal really is ludicrous and wrong.

We church folk have just come through Holy Week. Recognize the jester in the events of that week. There is the symbolically powerful parade of Palm Sunday, the table-flipping in the temple (which was not funny, but spoke truthfully!), quite a string of pointed parables, and the astonishing role reversal of foot washing.

Even the crucifixion fits into the enacted prophetic message of the great jester. Paul put it in terms of foolishness, a truth that is almost incomprehensible to those caught up in other ways of being (1 Cor. 1:18-31):

  • "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles"
  • "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."
  • "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God."

The foolishness of Christ presents the way of God -- servanthood, sufficiency, community and love, even sacrificial love -- as the way to justice, joy and fullness of life. The fool embodies and acts out what the rulers and power-brokers do not want to hear. If we genuinely follow in the way of Christ, then our calling, too, is to be a holy jester. (That message is developed in Edward Hay's book, Holy Fools & Mad Hatters: A Handbook for Hobbyhorse Holiness.)

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April Fool's Day is an occasion for gags and pranks. One day of fun is a nice change of pace as winter shifts into spring.

The work of fools, though, is a year-round enterprise. It is an honorable but dangerous calling. This day, I celebrate the pastors who tell transforming stories and who speak prophetically, calling congregations into counter-cultural foolishness. I celebrate Black Lives Matter, a movement which is speaking out truthfully and directly in times when others are scared to do that (and we see how hard it is to join humor with great pain). I celebrate environmental activists -- those wearing polar bear suits, and those wearing suits and ties -- who risk arrest in challenging the devastation of our fossil fuel economy. I celebrate urban gardeners, whose digging and tending is a beautiful protest against industrial agriculture while revitalizing cities.

We need fools, jesters, prophets -- people who help us laugh at wealth and pride and power, people who show us what it means to live in right relationship, people who don't take themselves too seriously in the face of very serious issues.

On this Fool's day, thank a fool who keeps you honest. And start plotting for how you can be a jester, announcing truth in your community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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