Madness and crucifixion
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
by Matt Elia
Feb 2, 2014
The prayer I’d like to open with is from Saint Vincent de Paul, a 17th century French priest who spent his life serving the poor. In 1605 he was taken captive and sold into slavery in North Africa. Being freed years later, he would go on to help ransom 1,200 slaves from bondage. Let’s pray.
“O my Savior, you were pleased to be a scandal to the Jews, and a madness to the Gentiles; you were pleased to seem out of your senses, as it is reported in the Holy Gospel that it was thought of Our Lord that he had gone mad…Your apostles sometimes looked upon you as a man in anger, and you seemed such to them, so that they should bear witness that you had borne with all our infirmities and all our states of affliction, and to teach them and us as well to have compassion upon those who fall into these infirmities. Amen.”
A lot hangs on what is smart and what is stupid.
This is only a cruder and blunter way of saying what Paul says in our 1 Corinthians text for today. The world we know, the world we inhabit, stakes its life on that distinction: of smart from stupid, or in its more sophisticated form: of wisdom from folly—of reason from whatever it appears is the opposite of reason. That is, reason must be split from un-reason, reasonableness from unreasonableness, sanity from madness, philosophy from folly. These fissures are the borders which govern our world. And they have a history, which I’ll say a little more about in a minute.
But I do so because the question I want to get at today is this: Where does Jesus land when he comes into this world, our world, which divides itself into wisdom and foolishness, reason and madness? Which side of that line that has on one side what is sane and normal and realistic, and on the other what is crazy and abnormal and perhaps even dangerous? When God shows up in a real life human body like yours—walking around, sitting down, eating, sweating, sleeping—which side of the line does he fall on? Does God’s entrance into history look like madness or wisdom? Or, as I want to suggest, does the event of Jesus Christ show us God playing around with the lines themselves?
But first, I want to pay close attention to what is at stake, what has been at stake historically and politically, in securing the distinction between wisdom and foolishness. And I’ve suggested that when we hear those words, we should maybe hear echoes of “smart versus stupid”—not to be stark and cruel but in order to render these categories fresh, present in our time. Otherwise those Bible words can sound quaint, vaguely Victorian—removed from our world and therefore safe to examine from a distance. (We don’t typically yell at kids: “Enough folly from you mister!” And when a public figure says something mindless or offensive, we don’t tend to say, “Why, what utter foolishness!”)
And even those silly examples help drive us toward the first thing to notice about what’s been at stake historically in splitting madness from wisdom, smart from stupid, namely: To recognize smart ideas from stupid ideas has, in our history, always involved recognizing smart people over stupid people. That is, the difference between wisdom and folly is not academic. It isn’t just intellectual. It is material and historical. It is bodies and power.
Indeed, this is precisely what the apostle Paul seems to recognize in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, a church whose location in a prosperous trade city placed their congregational life under constant pressure. Throughout the letter, Paul seems deeply aware that social divisions and class struggle were threatening the fabric of the community. Notice that in our passage, Paul does not treat ‘wisdom’ and ‘foolishness’ as mental categories so much as markers of status and power: In verse 27, wisdom is aligned with strength in the world; foolishness with weakness. Paul is not naïve about the way these distinctions work in the making of concrete social realities in the world.
And indeed, this tendency for the alignment of ‘wisdom’ with human social power is deeply embedded in that history which comes both before and after the Apostle Paul, and by ‘that history’ I mean what we call ‘Western civilization’—which of course was invented by Europeans in the 19th century, but that’s a story for another time. In Aristotle’s treatise on Politics, the difference between one who is able to govern himself through reason and one who is deficient in reason, is precisely the difference between the master and the slave. And I say ‘himself’ in the previous sentence because it is only the freeborn Greek male, in Aristotle, for whom rational deliberation and, with it wisdom, are possible. Free born women, enslaved women, enslaved men, children: these are all condemned to the official realm of foolishness, unreason, stupidity. And if you are incapable of ruling yourself through reason, then surely you are not capable of ruling anything else. Therefore we will rule you, and rule for you. We who reason. We who are wise, who are smart—and not stupid.
And in the modern period of Western civilization, this distinction gets racialized into the invention of white people and non-white peoples. The consequences of this are familiar: the rise of global colonial empires, the worldwide seizing of land from indigenous peoples, the enslavement of millions of bodies, the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands today, the joining of Western civilization to white supremacy, the creation of societies in which white racism remains the unspoken but ongoing logic of power.
My point in all this is not an over-simplifying one: as though distinguishing wisdom from folly, rationality from madness is by itself somehow responsible for all this. Nor is my point an anti-intellectual one: as though rationality and thinking and being smart are themselves inherently suspect. Indeed, anti-intellectualism—including popular invocations of ole fashioned ‘common sense’ and so on—is often no less wedded to the exercise of power over bodies. So my point is not to oversimplify or anti-intellectualize, but instead to recognize that, when we come to a passage like 1 Corinthians, we see this: human claims to knowing, to wisdom, and to reason, can never be removed from human claims to ruling, to power, and to control.
And if this is true, there is a tremendous amount at stake in such passages, not just for the church community, but for the way that community lives today within a world still governed by the claims of power to reason. That is, by the claims of powerful people to reason—to what is considered reasonable and realistic. Everything, we are told, is necessary. It is reasonable, wise, and prudent that things are the way they are. Political wisdom tells us we must spend trillions on military defense, but health care and education for all people is unrealistic, a fool’s errand. Economic wisdom tells us that, when transnational corporations lay off workers and lavish bonuses on executives, they are simply at the mercy of unchangeable market forces; poor people, however, could change their lot if only they worked a little harder. Cultural wisdom tells us it is reasonable to know on the front end which neighborhoods look dangerous, which bodies look criminal, which voices should be silent. The world’s wisdom and the world’s power walk forward hand in hand.
So, when this is what reasonableness looks like, when this is what human wisdom looks like, it’s no surprise that we read in verse 27 of 1 Corinthians 1, that “the world did not know God through its wisdom.” When this is what human rationality looks like, it is no surprise that when God shows up in human flesh, his family believes he is out of his damn mind. When this is what human wisdom looks like, we can expect the way of Jesus to be the way of foolishness, folly and madness.
What does this mean for our communal life—that when God shows up on earth, it looks like madness? I have been talking about the way that wisdom and foolishness are not abstractions, but a way of ordering human relationships, of creating community through the difference of smart and stupid, strong and weak. In the life of Jesus, we see that a new way of community is possible, or rather, that a new way is already here. In this community, a new order of relationships has emerged, a new code of wisdom is made present. It feels strange and foreign to us, as it should. It is, after all, the code of another kingdom just arriving. It’s a world in which it becomes possible to say stupid things, things so ordinary only the deranged could say them: Blessed are poor people. Blessed are the mourners. Blessed are people who are hungry and thirsty, weak and stupid. Blessed are the low and despised. Blessed are the pure in heart.
The world in which such claims are true is a long way from us, and yet somehow, in Jesus Christ, it’s already here. You can live in it each day, if you’d like to. But for now, to do so puts you on the side of madness, the side of the weak, the side of the slaves. For now, it’s the side at odds with a very reasonable and murderous world, the side that gets laughed right onto a cross.