BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Agbaw Ebai

Agbaw Ebai Ashley

The Church and the Clown

Joseph Ratzinger once recounted an incident he had as a young priest in the company of the famous Joseph Frings, Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne. The context was shortly before the German bishops were to leave for the Second Vatican Council. The German episcopacy had decided to meet to harness their thoughts together in the face of a curia of Ottaviani and his likes that were bent on maintaining the status quo. By common consensus, the German bishops asked the most elderly bishop amongst them to speak. What will the Germans talk about at the Council? The response of this elderly bishop never left Joseph Ratzinger: the German bishops should talk about God when they get to the Council. All other topics, yes, but above all, they should talk about God!

As one reflects on the challenges facing the church of the new evangelization in Cameroon, the question about what the church is all about cannot be avoided. The church must concern itself with all it has been doing for the betterment of our Cameroonian society, in the areas of health, education, poverty alleviation, youth formation, et cetera. But is the church in our country “talking about God?” The obvious answer will be yes. Sunday after Sunday, priests are preaching in the churches, breaking the word of God to the people. Our liturgies and pious practices are growing. But historians tell us that such was the case with the pre-Vatican II German church. So why was Ratzinger surprised by this exhortation to talk about God by this retired bishop?

Perhaps we can get a glimpse by looking at the question from another angle, from the angle of God. In his classic text Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger cites Kierkegaard’s famous story of the clown and the burning village, worth quoting here at length: “According to this story, a travelling circus in Denmark caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighbouring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stublle and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help out to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that this was no stunt, that he was not pretending but was in bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly – until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help, and both circus and village were burned to the ground” (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 39-40).

Stretching this story as an analogy of God and the church in Cameroon today, one could say that talking about God is like responding to the clown in the costume. Irrespective of how much earnestness God displays in appealing to us, we laugh away because we already know the message. We already know who is behind the costume. We are already familiar with what God is talking about, so we don’t bother taking him seriously. After all, he is God. We are too busy with ourselves now, with our immediate concerns, with our strategies and calculations, our gains and our politicking. We know these earthly realities of the 21st century post-modern world more than God and his jokes. May be as preachers of the word of God, we can listen to it and preach on it Sunday after Sunday, without taking it seriously. After all, he is God! We already know who he is!

But the story does not end there. There is the fire that finally consumes the circus and the entire village. May be the only wise man in that context would have been the clown, who could see the reality of the fire coming, and had the unfortunate destiny of not being listened to, which is the lot of all clowns. And yet the fire came!