August 16th Sermon at Eldorado: The Wisdom of This World

This morning I want to start with a story from the news that happened last month; you probably heard it at the time, but I’ll go over some of the basic facts.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professors and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was returning home from a trip to China. His front door was jammed; he went around back, opened the back door and tried to open the front door from inside, and then returned outside and tried again to force the front door open. A lady who lived nearby phoned police, reporting a possible break-in (I hesitate to call her a neighbor, because even when I haven’t sat down to have a cup of coffee with my neighbors, I do recognize them by sight). While what happened next is disputed, the officer’s report states, “I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence” –which is to say, the officer admits that he had positively identified Gates, and knew that Gates was in his own home. Nevertheless, the officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

There are a lot more details that complicate matters, but I don’t really want to dwell on the particulars. I realize that this oversimplifies and distorts things, but there’s a dynamic at work here that I find significant.

What I’ve heard throughout is that Gates should not have raised his voice to the officer, that he should not have had a bad attitude. Colin Powell said that Gates “should have reflected on whether or not this was the time to make that big a deal... it's the better course of action to try and take it easy and don't let your anger make the current situation worse." Consultant Al Vivian writes that Gates’ “attitude definitely heightened the situation” and that “it may be unwise to raise your voice at a law-enforcement officer.” Others say, “it would have all been over quickly had Gates not gotten upset..." or "Gates should have been happy the officer came there in the first place to try to protect him and his property ..." But all of this is just to blame the victim: the fact is that a man was arrested in his own home for no real reason. That just shouldn’t happen, especially not in America.
Blaming the victim happens in lots of different circumstances, and although I’ll come back to it, I really only want to use this story to illustrate a broader phenomena and ask the question, why do people blame the victim?
Before answering that—and I do have an answer—I’d like to take up another instance of blaming the victim, one pointed out by Fred Clark in an article online. The man in question was blameless and upright, who feared God and shunned evil.
The Book of Proverbs says,
7 The LORD holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
8 for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. (Proverbs 2:7-8)

This blameless and upright man had seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred she-asses, and a very large household. That man was wealthier than anyone in the East. This seems to confirm Proverbs says over and over: fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and those with wisdom will prosper.

But one day, this man’s oxen and she-asses are carried off by bandits, and the boys tending them were killed. A fire came down from heaven and burned up the sheep and the shepherds. A different set of bandits took all the camels and killed the boys who were tending them. His children were all killed when the house of the eldest son was blown down. All in one afternoon.

Then he is struck with an inflammation which covered him with oozing sores from sole of this foot to the crown of his head.

I assume you know who this is, that symbol of suffering in the Bible, Job. I’ve talked about Job before in this pulpit. Last time I preached on Job, I stressed the ways in which the three friends who come to Job—Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar—really are friends, despite their second-guessing.

Today, I want to focus on that second-guessing, the dialogue which makes up the bulk of this book, in which these friends continue to press him: surely you’ve done something, or forgotten something that you should have done. This is an extreme version of blaming the victim, but as I’ve said, it’s a fairly common phenomenon. Why do people do this? Why would we turn to our friends and look to their faults, real or imagined? In the case of Job, we are clearly told that he is blameless and upright; in the case of Henry Louis Gates, we know he lost his temper—but why do people focus on that, exactly?

The emotion behind blaming the victim is fear: we want to think that this sort of thing could not happen to us. Whether we’re talking about a crime, a disease, a loss, or being arrested in our own home, we want to think we’re immune—it couldn’t happen to us.

We want to see a clear pattern of cause and effect in the world, where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We all know that the world doesn’t really work that way, but in various ways we still try to distance ourselves from the possibility of unjust suffering, and one of the most common ways to do that is to blame the person who suffers. This is the “common wisdom”: people get what’s coming to them, one way or another.

In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” I really like that idea: that what people often take as common sense or accepted wisdom doesn’t really serve us in the end. As people of faith, we need to follow our conscience and do the things that don’t necessarily make sense to others.

I was recently reading about early Spanish exploration of the Americas, and every time they went in with lots of soldiers and guns there were problems; the only times when the Spanish and the Native Americans had good, constructive interactions, at least early on, was when there were very small groups of unarmed explorers. It went against the common wisdom, but it worked.

“The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Paul continues, “For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness.’” Paul here quotes the Scriptures he knew, the Hebrew Bible we call the Old Testament. I’m tempted to agree with this quote, because we see people who think they’re clever getting caught. Bernie Madoff conned people into investing millions of dollars in his fraudulent scheme, and he was caught and sent to jail. You could even generalize that and say that every criminal who gets caught thinks he’s smarter than the cops, but trips up along the way. But of course Paul isn’t talking about the police, he’s talking about God: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” But who is Paul quoting—which part of the Hebrew Bible does this come from? As it so happens, the person who speaks this is Eliphaz the Temanite, accusing Job, and here, it’s Eliphaz who is repeating the common wisdom.

How can we tell the wisdom of God from the common wisdom? Even Proverbs, the book of the Bible which speaks most directly and at length on the nature of wisdom, tells us that it’s difficult to tell them apart sometimes.

In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified, crying aloud in the streets, raising her voice in the public squares, in the busy streets and entrance gates, trying to draw people to her—but too many are unable to recognize her for what she is. We know that she has laid out the feast, prepared the wine, laid the table; and yet the youth cross the street in the dusk of the evening to talk to that other woman, Folly, who is also present throughout the city—now in the street, now in the square—and sways him with her eloquence and her smooth talk… Folly is difficult to discern from Wisdom for the person who isn’t already wise. However, Proverbs gives us a couple ways to distinguish between the two.

First, Folly may start in public but ends by withdrawing, out of plain view, bringing people into secret and furtive relations. There seems to be a link, then, between things that need to be hidden and foolishness: Wisdom can withstand the light of day.

Second, Folly offers things that are tempting, but ultimately corrupting, ending in death: “stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten furtively is tasty”—but, “many are those who she has struck dead, and numerous are her victims, her house is a highway to Sheol, leading down to Death’s inner chambers.” In contrast, Wisdom offers true nourishment. Paul seems to be equating “the wisdom of the world” to Folly, and what appears to be foolish to true wisdom, the wisdom of God.

This finally brings us back to Professor Gates. He spoke what he knew to be the truth, regardless of the consequences, regardless of what common wisdom would counsel. Is this true wisdom? I think so. In talking back to the police, he took a situation which could have stayed private, behind closed doors, and moved it out into the public light. Wisdom doesn’t flinch, and takes us places where the common wisdom might not like to go. Since when is getting arrested bad? Martin Luther King wrote one of his most powerful pieces from the Birmingham County jail. Many Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists have also been either jailed or threatened with jail because they acted according to their non-conformist beliefs. Because of people being willing to stand up for what they believe in, the country has changed. But the changes of the past are not enough.

The other characteristic of wisdom—nourishment rather than corruption and death—also seems to be found with Gates. This incident has provided a chance for a renewed conversation—beneficial even for the police officer.

In conclusion: question the common wisdom. Speak truth to power. Follow your conscience wherever it leads


Another Cartoon based on a movie

Brian's comment about Alec Guinness reminded me how much I like his work; however, it seems he was never in a Hitchcock movie.

I also like Graham Greene, and Guiness was in several movies based on his novels, including this one.