Comedian Michelle Wolf’s condescending and caustic remarks at the White House correspondents’ dinner are merely the tip of the iceberg. We’ve turned upside down what the Apostle Paul meant about “suffering fools gladly.”
Politics today is a rather humorless affair. The latest gutter fight occurred at the White House correspondents’ dinner. Here’s a link to Michelle Wolf’s so-called funny speech. If you’re easily offended, don’t read it. It’s profane, insulting, demeaning.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Trump is profane. He’s condescending. Ever hear him tell a funny joke? He’s not alone. Today’s political figures tend to be condescending (Hillary Clinton, Obama) or angry (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). Don’t worry—it’s a bipartisan plague. Few politicians have a funny bone. Instead, these folks are rather proud they “don’t suffer fools gladly.” It’s a badge of honor.
They misunderstand the Apostle Paul. In William Tyndale’s 1534 translation of II Corinthians 11:19, Paul writes, “for ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” Note three things. Paul says the Corinthian church did suffer fools. Second, Paul is the fool (c.f., I Cor. 4:10; II Cor. 12:11). Third, the Corinthians suffered Paul gladly.
Paul is using self-deprecating humor to make a point. He’s not saying the arrogant Corinthian church was better. He was using satire to say “thank you for putting up with an old fool like me.” The closer you are to Christ, the bigger the fool you see you are. That’s why Paul used what is called satire, or self-effacing humor.
This sort of humor is a check against megalomania. The more successful you are, the easier it is to see yourself as superior. The more famous you are, the harder it is to imagine you’re a fool. The best antidote is self-deprecating humor. “Laughter was always a favorite device of ancient monarchs,” writes Mary Beard. “The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death.”
Augustus’ tolerance is largely absent today. Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Humor makes all things tolerable.” When you set yourself up as the fool (and mean it), listeners are more likely tolerate hard truths, even about themselves. Hence, the Berean Bible renders II Corinthians 11:19: “For you gladly tolerate fools.” In King Arthur’s Round Table, the playful fool was the court jester, the prophetic voice who told the roundtable some uncomfortable truths.
Ronald Reagan is perhaps the last President to use self-deprecating humor. When he took criticism for nodding off at the White House during the day, he poked fun at himself by saying, “I’ve given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world’s hot spots, they should wake me up immediately—even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.” At the correspondents’ dinner in 1987, Reagan said he and House Speaker Jim Wright “agree that there are three things we must do to balance the trade deficit. We can’t remember what they are.”
Reagan also understood this was an effective way to help others see painful truths. When he first met Gorbachev, Reagan told a joke about an American and Soviet arguing about which country is better. The American: “I can march into the oval office, pound the President’s desk and say ‘Mr. President I don’t like the way you are running this country.’” The Soviet replies, “I can do that too. I can march in to the Kremlin, pound the General Secretary’s desk and say ‘Mr. Gorbachev, I don’t like the way President Reagan is running his country!’”
Reagan played the foil, the fool, in his punch line. The power in his joke is that Gorbachev recognized Reagan was right—Russia was not an open country. By using self-deprecating humor, Reagan and Gorbachev became good friends.
G. K. Chesterton understood suffering fools gladly. He put the emphasis on the gladly. He wrote that a husband and wife could not live happily together without enjoying “an everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool.” This playfulness, or “gorgeousness of folly,” is “the one enduring basis of affection and respect.” This playfulness was played out when a newspaper asked Chesterton this question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” He wrote a brief letter in response:
G. K. Chesterton.
Isn’t it odd that we live in a day when tolerance is supposedly the highest virtue yet it’s in such short supply in Washington? Michelle Wolf and Washington politicians don’t seem to see themselves as fools. So they don’t gladly suffer the biggest fool—themselves. Ronald Reagan did.
 Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), 55-61.