I was thinking about last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, on servanthood, this week – maybe this is the read/mark/learn/inwardly digest stuff I keep hearing about – and, curiously, the same image kept popping into my head:
I am not a rodeo aficionado, but I know a little bit about rodeo clowns. Part of their gig is, as you might expect, simply to entertain the crowd through broad, clownish cowboy slapstick. But part of their job description is deathly serious: If an angry bull is endangering the life of a rider in the rodeo ring, the clown is the one who, despite the risk to his or her own life, distracts the beast, giving the cowboy an opportunity to get away or, if injured, be carried to safety and attended to. That’s pretty serious stuff.
I got to thinking about the rodeo clowns who live in our midst.
The comics whose humor has an edge that cuts through the hype of political boilerplate and consumerism and entertainment fluff, and points us to the reality of our common life hidden underneath, even while making us laugh.
The activists who poke, prod, irritate and outrage, in a way that gives their less outspoken and flamboyant allies room to work quietly, within the system. And all the change agents who put on their face paint and false noses as duty calls, and flummox whatever beasts are savaging the wholeness of the world and the people in it, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, party pin on his lapel, playing dutiful Nazi in order to have access to the means of forging passports for Jews.
Servanthood is a tricky concept, one that is often misunderstood and misused – self-serving leaders trying to pass as public servants; classes of people forced into involuntary servitude by those who disingenuously extol servanthood as a virtue even as they themselves refuse to practice it and instead expect to be served. There is also a servanthood, a kenotic emptying out of self that is self-evident and self-explanatory – the love and care of a parent, or the self-sacrifice of a peace officer or first responder or aid worker who puts his or her own life at risk to help others.
But there’s another kind of servant – the one who serves by irony; or by self-parody; or or by craft, like the fox in Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer’s Manifesto, doubling back on his or her tracks, running circles around the powers and principalities.
Be a clown.