Thanks to the most excellent inter-library loan services of my local library, I have just started reading The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, a popular, and classic, sociological study of con men by the David Maurer. Until his death in 1981 Maurer was a linguist and professor of English at the University of Louisville.
Maurer argues that confidence men “are hardly criminals in the usual sense of the word, for they prosper through superior knowledge of human nature.” (p. 3) He continues that unlike violent criminals or common thieves, the con man is “sauve, slick, and capable” who “prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim. . . . Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’” (pp. 1-2)
What I find most arresting in Maurer’s take on the con man, however, and where his work converges with what we read in Job, is his assertion that in their methods, confidence men “differ more in degree than in kind from those employed by more legitimate forms of business.” (p. 3)
It has always seem to me that there is something very much like the con man in every priest. Or if not exactly a con man, then that more archetypal figure, theTrickster. While sometimes malicious—even if unintentionally so—the trickster breaks the rules of conventional behavior and socially constructed morality in the service of a greater good. Within the tradition of the Orthodox Church there is I think a parallel between the various mythological figures of the trickster and the “fool for Christ.”
The fool for Christ is a class of saints whose ascetical witness includes the performance of odd, even bizarre, actions.
One form of the ascetic Christian life is called foolishness for the sake of Christ. The fool-for-Christ set for himself the task of battling within himself the root of all sin, pride. In order to accomplish this he took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others. In addition he exposed the evil in the world through metaphorical and symbolic words and actions. He took this ascetic endeavor upon himself in order to humble himself and to also more effectively influence others, since most people respond to the usual ordinary sermon with indifference. The spiritual feat of foolishness for Christ was especially widespread in Russia. –(Excerpted from The Law of God, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY: 1993)
But there is in the Fool, the constant temptation to the very sin of pride he is trying to root out. While demonstrating the limits of this world and of mere social conventionality, the Fool is always at risk of serving his own ego under the guise of something greater.
In a similar fashion, I think, the priest always risks becoming merely a con man. Our tools are primarily persuasion and a working knowledge of human nature. The confidence man appeals to my basic dishonesty to “inspire” me to do the evil I do not have in myself the courage to do. The priest, on the other hand, appeals to my basic goodness and again to inspire me to do the good thing that I do not have in myself the courage to do. In both cases though, I am “conned” or “tricked” in to doing or being something that is just outside the limits of my everyday way of being.
The difference between the confidence man and the priest is found in Zophar’s words to Job that I quoted at the head of this post. Both the priest and the con man are tricksters, they do their best work by flipping our ordinary ways of thinking and acting. And while both use words and ideas as their stock and trade, for the later, his words conceal what is evil and base in him even as it evokes what is evil and base in me.
Commenting on the book of Job, Origen says of heretics (another form of the trickster), “They have theories that are not sweet but as the gall of asps, that is, evil” He continues, “The gall of asps is in the belly of the heretics and those who declare impious dogmas contrary to truth.” (“Fragments on Job,” 14.41, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 109) While Origen is certainly correct in his assertion, if the priest is doing what Christ requires of him, his words will sometimes sting and leave a bitter taste.
The confidence man, the heretics, and the negligent priest, all play on our initial distaste for the truth and our preference for, well, heresy (that is, our own will). It is somewhat sobering to me to realize that just as the difference between the honest business man and the con man is one of degrees (or I maybe better, goal) so too the difference between the priest and the con man, between the sermon and the con, is narrower than I might like to think. How easily the skills of one can serve the goal of the other even as, again and again in Job, his accusers speak the truth, but not in love to liberate, but in envy to condemn.