Contrary to popular opinion, I think it’s sometimes good to be a fool. Most people approach foolishness in one of two ways. The first is to avoid any such scenario at all costs. The specter of failure and embarrassment haunts the professional, emotional and social lives of millions, quietly hindering people from sharing their opinions or speaking up in front of others.
The second is to exploit one’s potential foolishness to an extreme degree. While those who wish to avoid appearing foolish might recoil at the thought of public humiliation, hundreds of people have risen as stars of YouTube, reality television and daytime talk shows by acting as foolish as possible.
Neither of these approaches shows well what I have in mind—something that could be called evangelical foolishness, becoming “God’s fool,” a term applied to St. Francis of Assisi. There is perhaps no better time for a Franciscan friar’s first column in America than the issue dated April 1, the traditional day of fools, right after the election of the new pope, who will be known as Francis. St. Francis might rightly be regarded as the patron saint of fools. He might also offer us a surprising, if uneasy, Christian virtue between two foolish vices.
As Stephen Bullivant reminded us in this magazine a few weeks ago (2/11), the very core of Christianity appears “foolish” to the world. This was a truth that St. Paul recognized early in his ministry to first-century Gentiles, who could not easily reconcile the God of Jesus Christ with their Hellenistic worldview (1 Cor 1:23). The expectations of their time and culture did not smoothly align with the preaching of the incarnate Word or the crucified and risen Christ. Likewise, the ethical implications of the words and deeds of Jesus for those disciples who would follow him were not always in step with the standard practices and behaviors of their day, just as they aren’t always easily compatible with those of our time.
This is where evangelical foolishness comes into play. Francis earned the title because of his allegiance to the Gospel over against the culture of his rearing. He refused to accept money in the newly emerging merchant society because he saw how this nascent system began valuing people according to their wealth. He refused in other ways to participate in the power imbalances of his day because he recognized that following in the footprints of Christ meant prioritizing solidarity and relationship with all people instead of pursuing the accumulation of personal wealth and power.
Francis’ commitment to this way of being in the world, what he would call the vita evangelica (“Gospel life”), appeared foolish to his peers in Assisi. He was at first mocked and called insane for his new lifestyle and commitments.
Francis was a certain type of fool, a fool whose life and actions revealed Gospel wisdom.
I have often heard other Franciscans say: “If Francis applied to enter religious life today, he’d never make it beyond the psychological exam!” Even retrospectively, Francis is dismissed as a “madman.”
The risk of appearing foolish never stopped him from embracing the Gospel as best he could, protesting the injustices of certain social systems and letting nothing get in the way of his relationship with others. The virtue between the two foolish vices of avoidance and exploitation is the embrace of evangelical foolishness to become one of “God’s fools.”
As Paul makes clear to the Corinthians, being a Christian means appearing mad, foolish and out of step with the rest of society at times. This is because a Christian’s priorities aren’t measured by popular culture, but according to the reign of God that Jesus preached and modeled. It is the counterintuitive and gratuitous foolishness of God’s love revealed in the healing of the broken and brokenhearted, forgiving the unforgiveable and loving the unlovable.
Becoming a fool for God’s sake is not something to avoid out of fear or exploit for personal gain, but a vocation to embrace in revealing the love of God in our lives. Are we up to the challenge?
Happy April Fools’ Day!