How the Bible Helps Us Do Politics

“Many solicit a ruler’s favor, but judgment for a person comes from God.” Proverbs 29:26

 

In this last of three Proverbs-based reflections on our society’s problems, I want to focus briefly on our role and responsibility in the world of politics.

First, let’s look at the surface meaning of the verse. We do often turn to powerful officials with requests. Sometimes we seek a favorable legal judgment. Sometimes we seek a favor or an appointment. And sometimes we seek action that squares with our view of how government ought to act, based on our values.

There’s nothing wrong with our petitioning government officials in any of these ways. In fact, often, we’re bound to.

The issue here, fundamentally, is whether our soliciting the ruler’s favor is in sync with God’s expectations. This is so because, for religious people, it is by God’s standards that we are judged in all we do.

Well, then, how do we know what God’s expectations are for us?

People of faith begin with the idea that we get significant direction from God’s words in the Bible. We get further guidance from sages and wise people who have lived, studied, and written about the meaning of these words. Finally, we get instruction from Proverbs and other texts on the ways we can teach and learn the wisdom that helps us in the knowing.

This business of knowing what’s right to do isn’t easy. Sometimes we have to act so quickly we don’t have much time to think about it.  But, generally, we have time before we act, to deliberate and come to understand the wisdom upon which we can base action.

A friend of mine lovingly accused me recently of instinctively urging a “rush to learn” before one starts up a “rush to act.” I plead guilty to that.

Now, what does all this have to do with politics?

Let’s begin, illustratively, with observations I’ve made in recent days about certain unfortunate ways in which the sensitive political matter of immigration has been handled.

Folks from both sides 1) have selectively pulled quotes from the Bible, mostly out of context, to justify their own political viewpoints; 2) have looked at pictures and news stories, sometimes fake, and developed full judgment about what’s right and wrong; 3) have come to black or white, one-sided views that cast the other side as unworthy, even evil; and 4) have either assigned total blame to the other side or grotesquely likened them to the most awful characters in history, such as Hitler and the Nazis.

Where’s the resort in any of this to the Bible’s truths, which, as in Proverbs, are usually complex and multi-dimensional? If the partisans had actually given it an objective look, they would have found a call BOTH to “love the stranger” AND to expect the stranger to live in accord with the community’s rules and laws. Wow. There might actually be some evidence here of the basis for God’s judgment and a path forward for us. But, since the answer is difficult and not fully in tune with any ideology, sadly, I’m guessing few will be interested.

What happened to following Proverbs’ instruction to work diligently to find guiding wisdom? “Heck,” some will say, “I can’t wait to study the issue. I’ve seen a horrible photo, and the time for a righteous statement on social media is NOW. Plus, I already know what’s right!”

And, what happened to the love and respect we’re supposed to show our fellow citizens in political dealings? When one side blames the other entirely for the problem, and the other side compares the one to Hitler, how can the God who has called us “to love your neighbor as yourself” do anything but cringe?

We can be involved in politics; indeed we should be. We should seek what is good and right from government. But, we must do so, willing to take on the demanding work of solving our problems in a just and compassionate manner. We must, also, do so with respect and equanimity for others in the process, including our political opponents.

For it will be then, and only then, as the Proverb teaches, that we will sense God’s favorable judgment and blessing.

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Wordsworth’s Most Glorious Verses on Religion

Today we examine beautiful expressions in poetry of the sublime religious views of the fine English poet, William Wordsworth.

You are probably wondering why I’ve chosen Wordsworth. He is neither a Jewish sage nor a scholar, nor a person particularly known for a religious focus in his work. Yet, he is a profound thinker who developed extraordinary religious ideas along his remarkable path, and we have the benefit – in reading him – of understanding how one of the world’s greatest poets expressed such ideas in verse.

I. One of Wordsworth’s first significant explorations of the Divine came in “From Things Eternal.” Here he exquisitely describes God’s eternality and a lovely sense of our nearness to the Divine. Look especially at the poet’s account of the daily miracle by which God restores us upon awakening to the “powers of sense and Reason’s steadfast rule:”

“…Above our human region, or below,

Set and sustained; thou, who didst wrap the cloud

Of infancy around us, that thyself,

Therein, with our simplicity awhile

Might’st hold, on earth, communion undisturbed;

Who from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,

Or from its death-like void, with punctual care,

And touch us as gentle as the morning light,

Restor’st us, daily, to the powers of sense

And reason’s steadfast rule – thou, thou alone

Art everlasting, and the blessed Spirits,

Which thou includest, as the sea her waves:..”

 

II. In the same poem, Wordsworth writes of the Enduring God. Here, pay close attention to Wordsworth’s description of that which endures: “the motions of thy will” and “those transcendent truths of the pure intellect, that stand as laws…even to thy Being’s infinite majesty:”

“For adoration thou endur’st; endure

For consciousness the motions of thy will;

For apprehension those transcendent truths

Of the pure intellect, that stand as laws

(Submission, constituting strength and power)

Even to thy Being’s infinite majesty!”

 

III. The poet succinctly, yet elegantly describes prayer’s power in a poem of self-same name:

“Oh! there is never sorrow of heart

That shall lack a timely end,

If but to God we turn, and ask

Of Him to be our friend!”

 

IV. What is our obligation to God and our fellow human beings? Wordsworth answers: duty! And his characterizations of duty are sublime. While “possessions vanish and opinions change,” and passions “hold a fluctuating seat,” we find comfort and strength in the gift of duty that God grants as an everlasting blessing, “From Things Eternal:”

 “Possessions vanish, and opinions change,

And passions hold a fluctuating seat:

But, by the storms of circumstances unshaken,

And subject to neither eclipse nor wane,

Duty exists; immutably survive,

For our support, the measures and the forms,

Which an abstract intelligence supplies;

Whose kingdom is, where time and space are not.”

 

Also, from “Ode to Duty:”

“Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!

O Duty! if that name thou love

Who art a Light to guide, a Rod

To check the erring, and reprove;

Thou who art victory and law

When empty terrors overawe;

From vain temptations dost set free;

From strife and from despair; a glorious ministry.”

 

V. Nowhere does Wordsworth write more powerfully of how to live true to this call of duty than in the tribute he wrote upon the news of the death of Lord Nelson. (Don’t fret the verses’ length. They’re very accessible.)

“Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

“Whom every Man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:

Whose high endeavors are an inward light

That makes the path before him always bright:

Who, with a natural instinct to discern

What knowledge can perform, is diligent to perform, is diligent to learn;

Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,

But makes his moral being his prime care;

Who, doom’d to go in company with Pain,

And fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!

Turns his necessity to glorious gain;

In face of these ditch exercise a power

Which is our human-nature’s highest dower;

Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves

Of their bad influence, and their good receives;

By objects, which might force the soul to abate

Her feeling, render’d more compassionate;…

 

‘‘Tis he whose law is reason; who depends

Upon the law as the best of friends;

Whence, in a state where men are tempted still

To evil for a guard against worse ill,

And what in quality or act is best

Doth seldom on a right foundation rest,

He fixes good on food alone, and owes

To virtue every triumph that he knows:…

 

“And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause;

This is the happy Warrior; this is He

Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.”

 

VI. Here is an apt concluding idea from Wordsworth:

“We live by Admiration, Hope, and Love;

And, even as these are well and wisely fixed,

In dignity of being we ascend.”

Our Society’s Problems, Part 2

“Scornful men inflame a city, but the wise turn away wrath.” Proverbs 29:8

 

In this second of a series of blogs on lessons from Proverbs related to our society’s problems, I hope to shed some light on the profound wisdom in this proverb. But, to do so, we need to go deeper into the meaning of certain key words. Be patient. Exploring the vocabulary is a short, but essential detour.

At the outset, we encounter the idea that scornful people inflame a city. Who are these “scornful men?” What are they like? What is meant by the word, “scornful?”

If we were to rely only on the dictionary definition, we might be satisfied thinking merely that these are people who are derisive, contemptuous, snide, or disparaging. Close to that, the Hebrew word, latson, means one who scoffs, mocks, or scorns.

Well – that’s good, but I think it’s thoroughly insufficient for us to garner a proper understanding of what the Bible is worried about here. Indeed, it may lead us in the wrong direction.

There is another prominent place in the Hebrew Bible where we find this word, latson. It’s in Isaiah 28:14-15. Let’s see if we can attain a surer sense of the meaning of “scornful” by looking at these verses.

The prophet here is criticizing those “who rule this people in Jerusalem” for creating “a covenant with death” by which they will be protected from the upcoming scourge by making “a lie their refuge” and “falsehood their hiding place.”

So, based on this account, especially as it’s fleshed out, we shouldn’t be surprised that commentators on Isaiah have come to see scornful people more particularly as those who:

 

  • Are addicted to sophistry and deceit;
  • Are sharp but turn dexterity to cunning and hypocrisy;
  • Are puffed up with false belief in their own wisdom and rightness;
  • Are destructive and excite others to scorn and wickedness;
  • Dazzle others who are less clear sighted;
  • Blind others and inspire them to despise God and ridicule Divine doctrine;
  • Are ingenious in seeking to overturn religion;
  • Hope through witty devices and wicked practices to escape God’s judgment;
  • Have false confidence and vain hopes in their safety and wellbeing; and
  • Imagine their political schemes have given them immunity from the oncoming disaster

 

Now, let’s return to the proverb with this understanding of scornful people in mind. We’re taught next that one destructive deed of such people is to “inflame a city.”

Well – what does that mean?

Interpreting from the root word, puach, “to blow,” we can ponder several possible ideas – it may be to stir up a city, or set it aflame, or turn it into a snare. Many translators have settled on “inflame a city.”

Okay, now we come to that space in the blog where I invite you to think about what all this means to us in our modern society.

I suspect that many of you on the left will rush to assert that these words are perfectly descriptive of the ways of Donald Trump and his “hateful,” “ignorant”, and “insensitive” supporters. I am equally confident that many of you on the right will insist that these verses couldn’t more aptly describe the “irreligious,” “constitution-threatening,” and “culture-diluting” ways of those on the left and their leaders.

In these comments, I do not mean to opine about the relative worthiness of either side’s views. We know that some views are more just; some are less; and many are in the in-between. Further, all of us have, and are entitled to, our own views; I have mine. But, before we rally too boldly to the views of our own group, swearing all would be well with the world if it weren’t for our opponents, let’s take a look at the proverb’s last words: “the wise turn away wrath.”

Those wise in the ways of God do many things, but the teaching here is exclusively about the good work they do to soothe public passions, turn aside anger, bring on calm, and, thus, pave the way for the possibility of consensus, solution, and harmony.

So, instead of standing on the side of our own group too sanctimoniously, perhaps we should seek instead, in our inflamed city, to help turn people away from strife and back to each other. For it will be there that we have the best chance at justice, righteousness, kindness, and mercy.

Our Society’s Problems – a Cause and a Cure

“For the transgressions of a land, its princes are many, but through a person of understanding and knowledge, established order shall long endure.” Proverbs 28:2

I believe this very rich proverb can teach us much about the cause of our contemporary problems and offer possible solutions to them. Let’s take a look.

Our review requires an understanding of the Hebrew and a little patience. But it will be quick, I promise.

The root word of transgressions, pesha, can mean both transgressions and rebellious acts. Thus, we’re considering acts in the land, by its people, that are reflected in a culture characterized by wrongdoing, bad faith, and rebelliousness.

What makes the proverb especially interesting is its claim that this unhealthy rebelliousness coincides with a certain sort of anarchy. This woeful condition of pesha is associated with there being many princes, many factions, which, in turn, likely portends grave deterioration ahead.

Do we recognize the process described here? Haven’t we seen it in history? I can think of several examples of societal decline in which wrongfulness and division led to anarchy and finally to breakdown. I don’t believe our modern-day society is far down any such path yet. But shouldn’t we at least be somewhat concerned with our progression to increasing levels of fractiousness?

Don’t we, in social media, culture, and politics, also, have “princes who are many?” I am not thinking about active citizens who speak out and exercise positive leadership. Rather it’s about people who, in service of demagoguery, abuse of power, and other destructive endeavors, add to chaos, muck up consensus-building efforts, and tear down others who are trying to lead in reasonable directions.

Consider this hypothesis and see if you find it to be true: In better times, we have fewer, but truer leaders and good followers; while in troubled times, we have more, but poorer leaders and less constructive followers.

Is it possible that the pesha of our times, the breaches of trust caused by our divisions and factions, has given rise to an abundance of ill-suited people who appear as “leaders.” And isn’t this one of the most serious threats of further decline in our society?

One gets a sense that that this condition is what prompted God’s reaction in Hosea 8:4: “They set up kings, but not by Me. They made princes whom I knew not.”

Yet, happily and typically, Proverbs offers solutions to the problems it identifies. While our proverb is likely speaking more directly about the sort of person who can lead a nation away from pesha, I suggest it has other messages as well.

As individuals, we may not be able to fix our culture or our society all at once or in one stroke. But there are amazing things we can do. We can each determine who we are to be and how we are to act, and we can contribute beneficially through how we choose to live.

The proverb identifies two particular qualities – knowledge and understanding – that are absolutely crucial. The Hebrew words are yada and bin. As to yada (to know), it’s having and exercising more consideration, investigation, awareness, and assured knowledge. As to bin (to understand), it’s more discernment, diligent consideration, and understanding that lead to wise action.

Each and every intelligent ruler who operates with such knowledge and understanding can reduce chaos, promote true stability, heal through greater righteousness and justice, and prolong a sense of community so a people can better endure.

One person can reverse a trend. One person can lead a community forward. And, of course, it’s one such person we individually can decide to become. So, Proverbs seems to be teaching here: you, reader, you, at least you, should be that person of knowledge and understanding. You can change the world!

Ah, the Beauty of Work

“Know well the appearance of your sheep; give thought to the herds. For wealth is not forever, nor does a crown endure generation after generation When grass disappears and verdure appears, and the grasses of the hills are gathered, there will be sheep for your clothing and goats – the price of a field; and enough goat’s milk for your food, the food of your household, and provisions for your maidservants.” Proverbs 27:23-27

 

I know of no wisdom saying that better describes the nature and value of work than what we find in these verses. Let’s look at them and see if you agree.

I propose we begin by reading the account here of animal husbandry -metaphorically. It could indeed be about managing animals. But it could also be about business, or writing, or medical service, or, really, any other profession or enterprise.

The wisdom says first we should become so deeply engaged in our work that we know its ins and outs. And, further, we should use that knowledge though constructive thought to plan and execute effective action.

At the surface, it may take the form of noticing whether the animals are sick or well, or whether they need further growth or are ready for market.

In business, it may take the form of ascertaining the needs of our customers and giving solid, creative thought about the merchandise that would best meet those needs.

In professional writing, we would want to know the appearance of our words and then give creative, precise thought as to how they best assemble as “healthy herds” in the piece we create.

As doctors, we would want to pay exceedingly close attention to the details of our patients’ condition and summon up our best judgment and wisdom so as to bring healing.

OK, but what’s the meaning of the verse about wealth and the crown? I see two very different possibilities. Perhaps we’re being taught to take great care in the stewardship of our resources because maintaining the wealth they make possible is never assured, nor is success likely beyond the first generation that lacks a strong work ethic.

The next verse could be read to carry the challenge a step further. The grass that the sheep depend upon for food could, and indeed sometimes does, disappear.

The beauty of Proverbs is that so many meanings are frequently possible.

Though there’s truth in seeing this “minor chord in the music” in these verses, I prefer a more uplifting reading.

God blesses us with the wherewithal to sustain our work and its fruit. In the case of our tending sheep, in addition to the close attention and thought we give, there’s the grass that we use to feed the sheep that grows seasonally and is regularly renewed. Certain resources that help all workers be productive are also often renewable. The barber, the dentist, and the newspaper’s reporters are good examples of workers who, in the ecosystems of their endeavors, can typically count on a steady renewal of “feeding.”

With few exceptions, the net proceeds of our work provide what it takes to keep working and meet the needs of our families, those who serve us, and those in the community we should serve.

This is all well and good, but let’s go deeper.

I think these verses also teach us about the nature of leadership. Good leaders tend to their “flocks” as does the shepherd to his sheep. Good leadership is not about attaining wealth and power for oneself, the “crown” for its own sake. Rather it should be about devoting attention to, and effectively meeting, the needs of the people leaders serve. It treasures and values God’s blessings. And it imposes real accountability on leaders to provide for the objective and measurable wellbeing of the whole community.

These verses might also speak about the teacher who tends to students, the parent who tends to children, or the advantaged who can help those in need; or it could very well be about God and all the ways in which the Divine attends to our needs.

Let’s close our analysis by appreciating the deepest point of all. The real discovery here is that we can find and feel moments of sweet eternity in the day-to-day of our lives. It’s not in wealth or crown. Rather it’s abundantly found in the duty of work and the doing of work with care and excellence. There we find sustenance and joy. There we find purpose and wholeness.

What a Godsend.

Let’s Talk Shavuot and Pentecost!

 

Here’s something that I hope will be a treat for you.

In just a few days, Jews will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, and Christians will celebrate Pentecost.

Mark Charbonneau and I have devoted our podcast this week on A Shared Word to a discussion of these special, holy days.

What are they? Why are they so important? How are they distinctive, and, yet, what do they share that could bring people of both traditions together?

Perhaps, even more important, what great value and meaning do they bring to us in the conduct of our modern-day lives?

Finally, we both believe and discuss our view that it’s unfortunate so many Jews leave off the experience of the sacred in the time after Passover and so many Christians do likewise after Easter. This week offers us all a chance to re-capture and experience the joy and purpose of these remarkable holidays.

If you’re interested in a lively discussion of Shavuot and Pentecost from a Jewish, a Christian, and a shared perspective, download and enjoy our 20-minute dialogue on your laptop or computer. (If you want to listen on your IPhone, do so by searching for A Shared Word on your Podcast app and clicking on the SPECIAL EPISODE.)

You can get to it by clicking on the link below; then, when you’re on the ITunes Preview Page, by clicking on “View in ITunes” next to the SPECIAL EPISODE; and, lastly, once on A Shared Word, by clicking the number 1 next to SPECIAL EPISODE – Pentecost and Shavuot.

(Don’t be put off by the techno-jargon. Follow the steps. If I can get there, I know you can!)

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-shared-word/id1375838631?mt=2&i=1000411690451

From Face to Face and Heart to Heart

 

“As in water the face is to face, so the heart of man to man.”     Proverbs 27:19

There are so many levels of beauty and meaning in this verse. Let’s begin on its surface and then go deeper to its heart.

When we see our reflection in water, we see our face. And, usually, on that face is “written” much about our attitudes and emotions. Are we joyful?  Are we angry? Are we in love? We can read a lot into the look of a reflected face.

The same is true with the heart. If one loves, despises, or has any sort of emotion or feeling toward another, it likely shows not only in the face but also in the many expressions that come from the heart.

It is also true that emotions can change. This truth is reflected in the ephemeral nature of seeing a face in water. We see it, but then, after departing, we don’t. So, the proverb may also be teaching us about the impermanence of emotions.

But let’s explore the more important question: is it merely the reflection of one’s heart that is at issue here? As we’ve discussed, it may be. At the simplest level, one’s heart reflects certain attitudes, as does one’s face.

Or, is this more about the relationship between one’s heart and that of another? If one person, for example, loves another person, the heart of the first may experience the heart of the other, in returned love.

Let’s explore this possibility a bit further; but, again, in the context of the face.

Recall that when we see the Hebrew word for face, “panim,” it should, if you’ll pardon the pun, bring us face to face with other important verses in the Bible.

Though Moses could not see God’s face, God did speak to Moses “face to face as a person does to a friend.”

When Jacob saw Esau as they approached possible reconciliation, Jacob said, “When I saw your face it was like seeing the face of God.” This is crucial because it was just moments earlier after Jacob was wrestling with God (or an angel or a man) that he named the place, Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.”

Seeing and speaking with another, face to face, connotes relationship. We know truths about another when we see the other face to face. And we’re drawn to support both the other’s interest as well as our own.

It may be to wrestle through to a deeper understanding of who we are. It may be to secure peace. It may be to forge a deeper partnership for the future, or it may be merely to achieve the best sort of reconciliation that is possible.

As to the proverb, here’s my main point: I think that seeing the reflection of our own face in God and the face of others makes possible a knitting together of hearts.

I believe this idea is core to what Martin Buber taught about I-Thou relationships. We look at each other, face to face, trying to create a relationship as we would with Thou. In the case of Jacob and Esau, their positions had previously been uncaring, selfish, and manipulative, I-It, if you will. Now, face to face, if perhaps only for a moment, the brothers struggled to create an experience of mutuality and shared interest.

Here are words of Buber: “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” “He is no longer…a dot in the world grid of space and time – nor a condition that can be described…(H)e is Thou and fills the firmament.”

Perhaps the proverb may best mean: face to face with others, we can grow heart to heart, in pursuit of Thou.