God's Fools

Like Jesus, Francis of Assisi did some pretty outrageous things. Everybody knows how he went and preached to the birds, but not everybody knows why he did it.

It wasn't, as certain 1970s movies would have it, because he was a nature-loving hippie (although I do love Donavan's soundtrack, especially the theme song). It was because the human beings he was preaching to wouldn't listen.

He had wanted to preach the word of God in Rome, but when he arrived there, the people scorned him because he was dressed poorly, so they thought him an idiot. He tried for several days to gain their attention, but could not overcome their hardness of heart.

"I grieve deeply over your misfortune," he told them, "because you are not only spurning me as a servant of Christ, but you are also really despising Him in me, since I have been preaching to you the Gospel of the Redeemer of the world. And so I am now leaving Rome. And I call as witness of your desolation Him who is the faithful Witness in heaven. And for your confusion I am going to preach the Gospel of Christ to the brute animals and the birds of the sky, so that by hearing the soul-saving words of God they may obey and have peace."

At which, the people of Rome drove him from the city.

Preaching to the birds was far from the most outrageous thing Francis did. Another time when he was in Rome to see the pope to get approval for his Rule, the pope looked at Francis in his "ill-fitting robe," with his "ugly face, long beard, disheveled hair, and overhanging black eyebrows," and couldn't believe that Francis, an unknown "nobody," could possibly be a servant of God--or even a human being.

"Brother," Pope Innocent rebuked him, "go find some pigs--to which you should be compared rather than to men--and roll in the mud with them. And take the Rule you have made to them--and give them the benefit of your preaching!"

So, of course, Francis did. He bowed his head, went out into the street, found some pigs, and rolled with them in the mud until he was completely covered with it. Then he went back inside, presented himself to the pope, and said, "Lord, I have done what you ordered. Now please listen to my petition."

As with Jesus, so with Francis, we have a terrible tendency to bowdlerize what these young men must have been like in person. In retrospect, we have made them as clean-cut and boring as the most stereotypical 1950s suburbanite: no swearing, no sex outside marriage and only decorous sex within, no stepping outside society's norms. In our imaginations, both Jesus and Francis look and behave like wispy, gentle hippies (thanks, Zeffirelli!), a mix between Walter Sallman's famous Head of Christ (1940) and Graham Faulkner's folk-singing Francis. They speak softly, wandering wistfully about the countryside picking flowers, and never, ever embarrass anyone by doing anything outrageous.

Except they did. In later life, Francis may have been all pious and sweet (not exactly), but in his youth, you will recall, he was a regular rapscallion. He dreamed of being a knight, lived high on his father's wealth, and even went off to war to fight on behalf of his hometown Assisi. And when the crucifix at San Damiano told him: "Go, and repair my house," what did he do? Take a bunch of his father's best textiles to sell for funds. His father was not pleased. Francis hid for a month in a cave to escape his father's wrath, and on emerging made his most outrageous gesture yet. He marched into the center of Assisi, took off all his clothes, and stood naked before the bishop and people, saying to his father, "Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only, 'Our Father who art in Heaven.'"

How, exactly, do we know how Jesus behaved in his youth? Answer: we don't. We know nothing of his life before he began his preaching tour, except for the story in Luke about how, one year at the age of twelve, he stayed in the Temple arguing with the priests when his family had gone up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. Sure Luke says that, after his frantic parents found him, afterwards Jesus was obedient to them, but that's it. Let me repeat: we know NOTHING of what Jesus did between the age of twelve and his showing up at the Jordan for John to baptize him.

And then what did Jesus do? This is the way I phrased it back in November when I was first trying to give a sense of how extraordinary what Milo was doing seemed--and yet, how oddly familiar:
You all know the story. A young man of obscure birth and questionable parentage comes out of the countryside to the big city. He collects a following of other young men and even some women, who see him as a good person despite his reputation as a libertine. He speaks plainly and gathers large crowds of simple people who look to him for help and credit him with freeing them from ailments that they have suffered under for years. He causes a disruption in the city, shames the members of the establishment for their hypocrisy and greed, and bests even the most learned teachers in argument. He violates the most sacred taboos and is accused of blasphemy and corrupting the youth. He is accused by the leaders of his community of fomenting rebellion and of sympathies with the most dangerous elements of the society. Eventually, he is betrayed by one of his own followers, handed over to the authorities for questioning, tortured, mocked, and subjected to a cruel and unusual punishment without proper trial. And yet, even as he hangs dying on the cross, he forgives his persecutors, taking all of the hate and anger and envy and fear that they can throw at him and giving it back as love.
I am getting some flak from my colleagues in academia for this particular comparison. Of course, I do not mean that Milo is the Second Coming of Christ. Duh. What I meant was--and said in the original post--was that Milo is sincere when he says he is a Catholic, and that as a Catholic he understands his ultimate model to be Christ. Whether he himself is conscious of the parallels I saw between his going on his campus tour and the way in which Jesus traveled round the country, I don't know. (He didn't share Kung Fu Milo on his Facebook page, which makes me think I embarrassed him a little bit, although as his fans know, Milo doesn't embarrass easily.) Certainly, however, Francis saw the parallels in what he was doing--quite purposefully.

Like Jesus, Francis went round the countryside gathering young men as followers. Like Jesus, Francis focused on preaching to the people. Like Jesus, Francis stood up to the established authorities of his day on behalf of the people whom he felt needed caring for. Like Jesus, Francis used extravagant gestures and stories to make his point. Like Jesus, Francis spoke simply and vividly. And like Jesus, Francis made jokes. For example, with his preaching to the birds or rolling in the mud with the pigs. His biographers recorded many more.

One day, one of the brothers in Assisi asked Francis to allow him to have a psalter. To which Francis replied: "Once you have a psalter, you will insist on having a breviary. And when you get a breviary, you will sit on a professor's chair and give orders to your brother like some mighty prelate: 'Here, you, bring me my breviary.' Francis then strewed ashes on his head and cried from the depths of his soul: 'I am the breviary! I am the breviary!'"Another time, Francis made a brother who had picked up a coin off the altar in the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula to take the coin up in his mouth and carry it outside to a pile of donkey dung.

Milo, who was raised a Catholic, seems to use similar techniques as Jesus and Francis to help get his audiences' attention. As I told Oliver Bateman for his essay on Milo,
Milo is playing a particular kind of role: that of the holy fool. He is a clown--like St. Francis of Assisi--using jokes to shock us out of our established pieties. Like Francis, people find him outrageous and embarrassing: If Francis stripped off all his clothes in the piazza of Assisi to shock the wealthy elite of his hometown, Milo has dressed in drag, had himself 'hazed,' disguised himself as a protestor at one of his own talks, dressed in police fetish gear carrying a giant pink dildo water bottle, and had himself carried into the lecture hall on a golden throne [FB--that was actually the students' idea]. He wants to shock people out of their complacency and make them think, but like Francis, he does so by making himself a figure of fun.
Back in January, when I wrote the above, Milo was just getting back on the road with his Dangerous Faggot bus and staff of young men. As they traveled round the country for the last leg of his tour, it soon became clear that the reception they were getting in the West was somewhat different from that which the tour had received in the South and Southeast. Out West, the protestors got more and more aggressive. A shot was fired in Seattle. Fires were lit and windows broken in Berkeley. Some of the scheduled talks were canceled on the day. The shouts of "No Milo, no Nazis, no fascist KKK!" got louder and louder and louder.

And then came the night with Bill Maher and soon after the invitation to speak at CPAC. At which point the conservative establishment struck and brought Milo down. You will forgive me, I hope, for not pointing out the obvious parallels. The invitation to speak was rescinded, Milo lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster, and in the midst of the shame storm that fell upon him from all sides, including even conservatives like Stefan Molyneux who had previously been on his side, he felt the only honorable thing to do was to resign his position at Breitbart. Not a crucifixion, I grant you. But hardly a basket of accolades. Mocked, shunned, humiliated, spat at by former colleagues. Betrayed by his friends. Socially speaking, it was pretty close.

And, therefore, quite frankly, uncanny. I have been writing for and about Milo since September. He has become a friend and an ally in the battle against the SJWs, the pearl-clutchers and nannies, who gasp at the use of the C-word and refuse to let anybody have any fun, lest somebody feel offended or the language not be "inclusive" enough. (I was upset, and besides it was Milo's phrase. If you had been paying better attention to my blog, you would have recognized it as an epithet for conservatives. Spineless cunts.) Many of my Facebook friends had been gleefully predicting Milo's downfall for months. Commendably, most of them have held their tongues this past week, although I am wondering about how happy they feel having watched their prediction come true. There he was, the young man in whom so many had placed so much hope, brought down by the media mob and crucified (metaphorically speaking) by the authorities.

Two days later, he did a press conference, made his confession, announced his resignation and the end of his journalism career. And promised his followers that he was not giving up. He has plans to develop a new round of campus talks and to focus more on "entertaining and educating everyone, left, right and otherwise." And then he threw out his gauntlet:
Don't think for a moment that this will stop me being as offensive, provocative and outrageously funny as I want on any subject I want. America has a colossal free speech problem. The land of the First Amendment has some of the most oppressive social restrictions on free expression anywhere in the western world. I'm proud to be a warrior for free speech and creative expression. I want everyone in America, the greatest country in the history of human civilization, to be able to be, do, read and say anything. I will never stop fighting for your right to do that.
Could you have recovered from such a public humiliation that fast? Yeah, right.

Let me say this again so everybody in the back can hear me: I do not think Milo is Christ. What I do think is that he, like Francis, is attempting to live out the imitation of Christ, as in fact every Christian should. (It's hard to get perfect, but then only Jesus was--is God.)

Contrary to what you might think from Donavan's version of the song, Francis was not celebrating "nature" in his Canticle of the Creatures, he was celebrating the creation of God. As Thomas of Celano explained in his biography of Francis:
Though he was eager to leave this world as a place of exile, this happy pilgrim took a great deal of joy in the things that are in the world. In fighting the princes of darkness he used the world as a battleground, but in relation to God he used it as a very clear mirror of the Creator's goodness.
In order that all things might arouse the love of God in his heart, he would praise the Divine Craftsman for each thing which He had made, and whatever he found in things he would refer to their Maker. He rejoiced in all the works of the Lord's hands. And his insight penetrated beyond these pleasing appearances to their life-giving principle and cause.
In beautiful things he recognized Him who is beauty itself. Everywhere he followed his Beloved by means of the traces of Himself which God has imprinted on all things. He made all things a ladder by which he climbed up to the throne of God.
In his interview with Maher, Milo mentioned that he was not sure anymore whether he would call himself a conservative. Given how things played out in the following three days, perhaps it was because he had an inkling of what was to come. No, Milo is not a conservative as the organizers of CPAC seem to think of conservatism, because at the end of the day, Milo doesn't care about politics. What he cares about, and constantly explains, is culture. He is much more focused on beauty and joy, laughter and art, than he is on the machinations of politics. He never wanted to be press secretary; he wanted to have fun.

Which, in the end, is far more important than politics. How was it Jesus put it? "My kingdom is not of this world."

Reference

Raphael Brown, Fifty Animal Stories of Saint Francis as told by his companions (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1958).

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