A Menagerie of Crooks, Cowards and Clowns

“O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?”

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)

It so happens that Juliet was mistaken about the duplicity of Romeo, and that the lovely lad was not altogether rotten at his core.  As a sketch of our species, however, the young girl’s philippic is not overdrawn.  It is certainly far closer to orthodox Christian anthropology than anything one is nowadays likely to hear from preacher or priest.  “Infinite dignity,” forsooth!  Intermittent dignity, mostly negligible, with long caesuras of degradation, depravity and deceit.  A menagerie, regrettably uncaged, of crooks, cowards and clowns.

“Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound?  O, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace.”

Let us peep inside this morocco-covered book.  Let us take tea with the inhabitant of this gorgeous palace.  Let us smell the breath of the dragon in this fair cave.

To appreciate the grubby, greasy soul of man, we should observe his conduct immediately after the Son of God decided to go through with the plan to save him from universal damnation.  I mean his conduct on the morning of Good Friday.  That conduct, you recall, was appalling.  I don’t think man could have shown himself less deserving of salvation.  I don’t think man could have more impressively exposed himself as an amalgam of crook, coward and clown.

This begins with a stunning display of cowardice and inconstancy, as the disciples take to their heels and vanish into the night.  Peter, who only hours before had boasted of his stalwart fidelity, is revealed as a shifty liar quaking under the gaze of a scullery maid.  He was not, like his companions, hiding under a bed or hightailing it back to Galilee in false whiskers, but when put to the test the “rock” crumbled like shale.

The cowardice of Peter is followed by the qualms of Judas.  The corrupt conscience of Judas could swallow a bribe but it balked at “blood money.”  Thirty pieces of silver would have sufficiently compensated Judas for the thought that he had betrayed Jesus to flogging, or prison, or public disgrace.  But his corrupt conscience drew the line when he discovered he was going to be complicit in a judicial murder.  And the utterly cynical Sanhedrim laughed at the shoddy scruples of this grubby little man.

The Sanhedrim are themselves exemplars of grubby sanctimony and deceit.  They convicted Jesus of blasphemy in a show trial, swallowed the camel of paying blood money and then strained at the gnat of using it, and then changed the indictment from blasphemy to political insurrection when they brought Jesus before Pilate.  The Sanhedrim are deceit dwelling in a gorgeous palace, a dragon coiled in a fair cave.  They are the type of every conspiracy of pious rogues and virtue-signaling villains that has ever polluted the earth with its sanctified atrocities.

Pilate is a greasy manager whose only aim is to make this problem go away without a troublesome riot.  Pilate’s motto in the “justice seat” is not justice.  It is expedience, and he believes expedience is the motto of Jesus and the Sanhedrim as well.  This is why Pilate thinks he can cut a deal that will allow everyone to walk away from a Mexican standoff without losing face.  This is why he tells his hysterical wife to can all her talk about dreams and let the big boys work something out.  Barabbas is his face-saving deal because Pilate assumes that pardoning Barabbas would be much more horrible than pardoning Jesus, and that offering the choice of Barabbas or Jesus therefore gives the Sanhedrim a way to back down without losing face.  This greasy graft fails because the Sanhedrim are pious rogues, not greasy grafters, and because this is not a Mexican standoff.

Imagine thinking that you are about to die for this menagerie of crooks, cowards, and clowns.  That image is the seed of Christian gratitude, because this menagerie of crooks, cowards and clowns is a perfect likeness of man.  It is not overdrawn.  In today’s parlance, it is “who we are.”  

Far from being creatures of “infinite dignity,” men and women are corrupted cowards, pious rogues and greasy grafters.  This is the meaning of the words in that morocco-covered book.  This is the taste of the tea in that gorgeous palace.  This is the sour smell of that cave-dwelling dragon’s breath.

14 thoughts on “A Menagerie of Crooks, Cowards and Clowns

    • It is often forgotten that Jonathan Swift was a churchman. Irony was born as a Christian sensibility, as Reinhold Niebuhr explained. There was sarcasm before the gospels, but Christianity discovered the deep irony of the human condition.

      • Interesting idea. I don’t know that I buy it, but I’ll grant that Christianity has broadened and emphasized the examination of man’s inner state and of the human condition’s many problems.

        Recalling the Sage of Baltimore, he certainly had pious forerunners . . . not a few crotchety churchmen like Tertullian and Jerome. I am positively disposed to such fellows, especially in this hour of hysteria, hypocrisy, and histrionics.

      • As you know, I think this hour of hysteria, hypocrisy and histrionics expresses an extremely decadent form of Christian sensibility. My post on the evils of pity describes a Christian virtue in a terminally cancerous state. The same could be said for irony. I think irony arises from incongruities between appearance and reality, and that Christianity made these incongruities central to its doctrine (i.e. blessed are the poor), but the cancerous irony of postmodernity sees everything as absurd. Snark is decadent irony.

  1. Men and women are corrupted cowards?

    In the Passion account you lay out, the women mark themselves as anything but. You already mentioned the attempts of Pilate’s wife to keep him from the evil of an unjust sentencing.

    As we remember in the Way of the Cross, the holy women of Jerusalem meet Jesus on his way to death, presumably to do what they can for him, give comfort if possible. We are certain they would do more if only given the strength and influence of men, the true cowards.

    This is not to gloss over Jesus’ meeting with His Mother earlier in the 4th station.

    Or the corporal mercy shown by St. Veronica in the 6th.

    I will grant you Simon in the 5th, giving his begrudging aid under force. He was a coward.

    The burial and resurrection of our Lord sees the same pattern — the women true, sacrificial, virtuous, and believing; the men false, petty, cowardly, and unbelieving.

    So in this most important of events in all of history we do see the men as cowards, but not the women. What are we to think of this?

    • You are right that women are not conspicuous villains in the crucifixion story, but that may be because they were the conspicuous villainesses in the beheading of John the Baptist. What looms large in that story is sexual immorality, or the misuse of erotic power, by both Herodias and her daughter (normally identified as Salome). Also the fury of Herodias when John condemns her misuse of erotic power. Also, of course, the cucking of Herod when Salome demands the head of John the Baptist. The beheading of John foreshadows the crucifixion of Christ (innocent blood spilt to sustain a sham), but the blood in this case is on the hands of the daughters of Eve.

      I think it is best to see that women have unique moral virtues, and that their unique moral vices are perversion of these virtues. The dance of Salome is a symbol of this truth, since Salome misused her loveliness to do a terrible thing. Women are, for instance, really good at the whole compassion thing, but often go overboard and forget about justice. This generally makes women extremely forgiving of injuries to other people, and extremely unforgiving of injuries to themselves (vide the fury of Herodias).

      Your closing question is provocative. My first response is that, with the exception of the discovery of the empty tomb, women are very minor characters in the crucifixion story. They obviously number among the followers of Jesus, but their roles in the gospel drama are limited to that of Martha (drudgery) and Mary (devotion). They are not conspicuous for courage or rectitude. I would add that what some take as female courage is, in fact, female confidence that the men did not take them very seriously. Female followers of Jesus could be present on Golgotha because Roman and Jewish authorities were only going to arrest his male followers.

      • I would add that what some take as female courage is, in fact, female confidence that the men did not take them very seriously. Female followers of Jesus could be present on Golgotha because Roman and Jewish authorities were only going to arrest his male followers.

        Quite. A good, modern example of this sort of “female courage” might be found in the person of one Maxine Waters. You two recall, I’m sure, that she went about, there for awhile, boldly inciting violence against Trump supporters in her speeches and public appearances. When she was later (half-assedly) called on the carpet for her indiscretion in this matter, she went about boldly proclaiming what a fearless woman she was and had always been. Well, sure, it’s easy to be “fearless” when you already know nothing of any consequence will be done to quell your vaunted “fearlessness.” The same holds for the women of Jesus’s day; they knew nothing would be done to them by the authorities or anyone else. By direct contrast, the men knew precisely the opposite approach would very likely be initiated against them.

        This was a great article, Prof. Smith, btw.

      • Thanks, Terry. Sassy gals are what Laurence Auster would have called an “unprincipled exception” of modern feminism. The sassy gal exploits the protection of a residual chivalry that she ostensibly hates, rejects and defies.

      • It appears that of the male disciples, only John was with Jesus at the Crucifixion. Thomas Browne has an intersting idea about this (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/39962/39962-h/39962-h.htm):

        “Now why among all the rest John only escaped the death of a Martyr, the reason is given; because all others fled away or withdrew themselves at his death, and he alone of the Twelve beheld his passion on the Cross. Wherein notwithstanding, the affliction that he suffered could not amount unto less than Martyrdom: for if the naked relation, at least the intentive consideration of that Passion, be able still, and at this disadvantage of time, to rend the hearts of pious Contemplators; surely the near and sensible vision thereof must needs occasion Agonies beyond the comprehension of flesh; and the trajections of such an object more sharply pierce the Martyred soul of John, than afterward did the nails the crucified body of Peter.”

  2. “Barabbas is his face-saving deal because Pilate assumes that pardoning Barabbas would be much more horrible than pardoning Jesus, and that offering the choice of Barabbas or Jesus therefore gives the Sanhedrim a way to back down without losing face.”

    I’m not convinced of this, so interested in additional thoughts.

    During lent, I was re-reading these passages and came to the conclusion that Pilate had no intention of offering Barabbas as an option for pardon. He may have thought that offering Jesus up for pardon would be a way for all to save face. Convict so the Sanhedrin can delegitimize Jesus, and pardon so that Pilate can deescalate all around. Instead, it seems as if the Sanhedrin and their mob took this offer and spit in Pilate’s face by instead asking for a man that was convicted of insurrection against Rome and murder (likely of a Roman soldier). Pilate feels compelled to grant this request, which is what leads to his response of I have written what I have written when the Sanhedrin objects to the title nailed above Jesus on the cross. Pilate’s middle finger back to the Sanhedrin for the position they put him in.

    Interested in thoughts or holes in this reading of the events.

    • I’m not sure our readings are altogether different. I hadn’t thought how the title on the cross might have been Pilate’s way of saying “I know what you just did there,” but it is certainly plausible. I still think Pilate began with the mistaken impression that the Sanhedrim were amoral bureaucrats like himself. He thought they were trying to manage the wrath of the mob, when the truth was that they were the source of that wrath. Offering them what he thought was a false choice between Jesus and Barabbas gave them a chance to pardon Jesus as the lesser evil, but they threw this back in his face, thereby exposing themselves as fanatics and not amoral bureaucrats. Your reading of the “King of the Jews” plaque can be fit to this reading of Barabbas. The plaque told everyone that the Sanhedrim had craftily changed the charge from blasphemy to insurrection, and it told the Sanhedrim that Pilate knew that they did this.

      • “He thought they were trying to manage the wrath of the mob, when the truth was that they were the source of that wrath.”

        Yes, I think that is the interesting point to me here in terms of the various actors, their motivations, and their perceptions and misperceptions about the other actors. Thanks!

  3. It is worth remembering that it was specifically the party mostly in control of Jerusalem, of the Temple police, and of “the mob” – the corrupt and thoroughly coopted quisling Sadducees – who were utterly destroyed during the Bar Kochba rebellion. The Pharisees – whom we now know as the Jews – and the Essenes – whom we now know as the Christians – lived on.

    NB: the priesthood survived only with the Essenes. Likewise, the sacrifice.

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