There are few things more institutionalized in America today than Christianity. It’s a practical requirement in large swathes of the country to be a loud and proud, “born again” Christian to obtain elected office. While it’s true that our nation is in no way an officially “Christian nation,” there is no doubt that Christianity has had a profound effect on America, for good, and more often, for bad. And the way so many people like to equate America and Christianity makes it clear that our faith has become a part of the “establishment”, that part of society that makes and enforces societal norms, rules and prejudices.
So one would be forgiven for thinking that Paul’s identification of the Christian faith as a sort of worldly “foolishness” is sort of, well, foolish. We take the cultural context of the beginning of 1 Corinthians for granted at this point, understanding that Paul was writing within and to a church that oppressed and unacceptable within the Roman world. Paul’s juxtaposition of Christianity and “wisdom” makes perfect sense in the first century world. But today, two thousand years later, Christianity has become the “Wisdom” and the allegiance of rulers and kings has turned to Jesus.
Or perhaps more accurately, the allegiance of the Jesus’ followers has been turned to the rulers and kings.
Yet, Paul’s message here is still very relevant, regardless of the “Christian” nature of the worldly powers. True Christianity is still a tradition rooted in foolishness, in opposition to the prevailing wisdom and common sense of the world and those who rule it.
Perhaps the most central idea to liberation theology is the idea of God’s “preferential option for poor.” The man who coined the name “liberation theology,” Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, also is responsible for this term, from his seminal 1971 text “A Theology of Liberation.” Proponents of this world view are deeply indebted to the first two chapters of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.
Writing to one of the most successful centers of first century Christianity in this bustling Greek metropolis, Paul is providing much needed shepherding and pastoral care to one of his most successful church plants. In light of various divisions and splits, he writes to implore them to find Christian unity, reminding them that they all follow one God.
In making this argument, he seeks to bind them together around their common shared knowledge and experience of Jesus. Hoping to make them feel like “insiders”, he reminds them that they understand something the wider world doesn’t, namely, that Jesus gave them a new way of living in and looking at the world. He reminds them that as Christians, they are viewed as foolish, but they should embrace it, and remember that Christ turned the world upside-down for all who follow him.
Paul elaborates on the upside-down nature of Christianity by ruminating on the foolishness of the Gospel in the eyes of the world. As Paul explains it, Christianity is not the way of the world, but a way opposed to how the world views success. In 1:20-25, he writes:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
He continues the theme in 2:6-8:
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages of our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood that; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
In today’s world, especially here in America, we are quick to equate Christianity with our nation, and with worldly success. The popularity of prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar shows what the world thinks Christianity it all about: namely, personal success and wealth accumulation, due to the favor of God.
But Jesus truly showed a preferential option for the lowly. In 1:26-28, Paul powerfully affirms this:
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; no many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised of the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
Our faith is one predicated on identification with the “least of these,” and success is not measured in dollars and followers. A lot of Christians mouth this as a meaningless platitude, without understanding the nature of this way of life. We are called to be in solidarity and at one with the poor and the forgotten. The only way we can serve others is through truly walking in their shoes, not just sympathizing with their struggles, but joining them in it as fully as possible. We can’t just do that by sending money overseas, or by donating food to a pantry. We must join their struggle for liberation, we must work to dismantle those institutions and structures that keep people in chains, even if that institution is the church itself, or America itself.
At it’s core, Christianity is a worldview centered on the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the least. It is a worldview with the homeless, the prisoner, the drug abuser, the prostitute as it’s cherished class. It is a religion of takers and welfare recipients and moochers and illegal immigrants and the unemployed. Everything we are called to do is to be centered on those the world rejects. We are to identify and work in harmony with the losers and rejects and outcasts, to liberate the world from social class and stigma and inequality. Such is the foolishness of the Christian faith. Such is the foolishness of God.
Next: 1 Corinthians 3-4