Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

The Killing Joke

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Today, many people will hear sermons and read posts about Palm Sunday and varieties of foolishness: Jesus as God's Fool, the human race being foolish towards the Gospel, and whatnot. Some people will sing Michael Card's God's Own Fool or songs from that underground clown passion, Godspell. Some will quote Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, proclaiming themselves "fools for Christ's sake" or remember the Franciscans' countercultural actions of kindness that seem foolish in the eyes of the world. This is all well and good, but let them have that. Hindsight of the Gospel is 20/20. I'm going to write about something far darker, something far less safe.

Palm Sunday, as I noted last year, is the cruelest Sunday of all, when in less than seven days, a man praised royally with palm fronds, will be hung on a tree, betrayed and abandoned. The best stories are the ironic ones, the ones not just about the future, but about the present. And irony is 20/20, too. It can only be understood backwards, while we live forward. The Danish theological philosopher (and a kind of poet), Søren Kierkegaard, wrote that life must be lived forward, but understood backwards. (His dissertation was written on irony, but that is a post for another day). When we hear the story of Palm Sunday for the first time, we are confused, but not so confused. We've seen the lead up for the entire narrative of Jesus' life, so it kinda makes sense that everyone would go nuts for Jesus. It's a bit foolish, yes. (#OMGJerusalem) These days we talk about celebrity culture and we're just as foolish. But that foolishness is always passé.

Foolishness is one thing. Absurdity is another. Foolishness grounds itself upon the foundation of the expected. It queers the expected. It operates within the bounds of the expected. When you see a fool or a clown, you expect something erratic, something novel. Fools and clowns announce their intentions immediately. It's part of their job description. The fool is set up by the context from which it comes. The fool, by his or her presentation, announces that something is odd about the situation. When peasant, Jewish Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, this seems odd. This situation appears foolish. But Jesus does not present himself as neither a fool, nor a clown. And we do not read the story as fools or clowns. We read it with bated breath. Something bad is going to happen. Something really bad. You can just feel it. It's not that the crowd is acting like (seditious) idiots in a garrison city of a very young and skittish Roman Empire. It's that we feel like something really bad is about to happen. Something really, really bad.

Absurdity has its irony, but, as I said above, the hindsight of irony is 20/20 (as is the Gospel). But absurdity in the moment requires immediate self-reflection. We must become aware of our surroundings for the absurd to occur. We enter into the text of Palm Sunday. We watch Jesus carefully. We look at what is happening and this makes no sense. Fools operate with a greater sense, that sense of the foundation of the expected. We enter Jerusalem where all bets are off. Anything can happen. And when it does, all expectations are overturned, like exchange tables in the temple. 

Jesus gets treated like a Davidian king. He gets the royal treatment. Jesus, you're going to get yourself killed. What the fuck are you doing? Why don't we say that to ourselves, to Jesus? Because we've been fooled by time, by time of our own making. The joke is on us. Every single year we do this – and we've been doing this for almost two thousand, so we've got a good track record.

With the safety of the liturgical year, we can say that Jesus' action is grounded in the expected. And that makes Jesus the fool, it makes the remembering reader the fool, it makes the Church the fool. And we are fooled by the liturgical calendar. The repetition of time, the expectation of the event (and the Event) makes us lazy and bored – and Kierkegaard wrote that boredom is the root of all evil. The fool is set up by the context of the expected foundation. And the freshness of the horror of Palm Sunday, the monstrosity of Palm Sunday, the birth of the terror of Passion Week is smoothed over by a ceremony of processing with palm fronds in our hands. 

Today, is the cruelest day on the beginning of T.S. Eliot's cruelest month. We are cruel as absurdity is cruel, because it is senseless. Foolishness is not senseless. It's grounded in the senses, its grounded in our sensibilities. Absurdity has not grounds. It is the upheaval of all foundations, of all groundings. There is not greater sensibility. If we lazily read Palm Sunday, we foolishly keep our groundings. The absurdity of Palm Sunday is that Jesus is going to be killed, a man will be tried for sedition and executed. All we can do is watch. How we participate is another matter. But trust me, it's not going to be pretty.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

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