The Politics of Public Wisdom—Proverbs 1:20-33 (Richard Davis)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Wisdom’s publicly raised voice challenges the simple ones, who love being simple; the scoffers, who delight in their scoffing; and the fools, who hate knowledge. The reproof of Wisdom is especially relevant in the contemporary political world, where so many of our leaders and politicians thrive upon such popular attitudes.

20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.

21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?

23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,

25 and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,

26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,

27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.

28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.

29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,

30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,

31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.

32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;

33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Wisdom is on the loose. In the street, in the squares, at the busiest corner, and at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks and cries out. Wisdom’s proactive, public voice addresses the public in public. This is not a polite, reasoned speech, but one driven by emotion and distress at the coming fortunes of the city and the plight of its people. It is God’s voice of judgment and promise, containing both a public and a political theology.

Wisdom is among the people. This does not mean that the people are wise in ways that the rulers are not, which would mean that wisdom is to be found in groups alone (although such claims are intriguing suggestions). No, Wisdom is among the people just as God is among the people. And God’s message is for the people, even when it concerns the matters of politics.

Wisdom addresses the people in general (for who can avoid this public style of speech), but specifically targets a few highlighted groups. These three groups are: the simple ones, who love being simple; the scoffers, who delight in their scoffing; and the fools, who hate knowledge.

In modern politics these words can also be used to identify politicians. For what else sounds like modern politics than politicians who make careers out of appearing simple, scoffing at reason, and despising learned opinions and even facts that disagree with their preferred ideologies? Sadly, this group sounds like many leaders of the Western world.

Who in the present Australian government does not delight in scoffing at reports of climate change, ignoring evidence-based scientific advice, and promoting more and larger coal mines? Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, famously said in 2014 that coal, a known cause of climate change, is good for humanity, and just this week his Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, laughed at those affected by sea-level rise. In New Zealand, the present Key government scoffed at the tens of thousands of protestors who marched against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), with the Prime Minister rejecting their concerns and calling large groups of inter-generational and multi-ethnic protestors “rent-a-crowd”. And in the USA Presidential hopeful Donald Trump claimed to know nothing about the Black Lives Matter movement. One could find such examples from around the world.

Such politicians often play up their simpleton image, scoffing at elites who have informed opinions: “Scientists? What would they know?” They scoff at knowledge and reason, believing that their opinions are as good as anyone else’s, even specialists who devote years studying and researching topics of public interest. These politicians carefully groom a simple guy or gal image so that they will appeal to ordinary voters. They might be millionaires or billionaires, but they try to appear like plain folks. These politicians become the ones who hold our prejudices and who we’d like to watch the ball game with. But these politicians are not simple; they spend millions of dollars on media minders and image consultants who carefully groom their image, crafting a persona that they believe a majority of voters will endorse. Citizens in the streets can be lured into repeating these pre-packaged messages that trickle down from the top, shaping public opinion.

Public theology sometimes takes the form of quiet diplomacy between church leaders having a quiet word over a cup tea with a seemingly benign and well-meaning politician open to being influenced. Wisdom’s model is different; she does not address leaders, she addresses the public. She is not in the lobbying business. She is in public, on the streets with the people, shouting out to be heard above the noise of the market place and seeking the attention of the people going about their business. Wisdom urges the people to shed their ignorant foolish scoffing ways and follow the counsel of Wisdom.

Wisdom addresses the simpletons and scoffers in the public because this is where real political power lies. The people on the streets are those who can effect change. The scoffing and foolish leaders know this and take their lead from public opinion, while at the same time trying to shape it to suit their ends. Sadly it is the scoffing, foolish, ignorant public that provides the platform and voter base for our political leaders.

Some might say that we get the simple, scoffing, foolish leaders that we deserve. Certainly in democracies we elect our leaders, often because we believe that they share our values. But many leaders seek their own desires instead of the common good, and encourage selfishness among citizens too. Evidence for our selfish, scoffing public can be found anywhere on social media that discusses the present refugee crisis, child poverty, or climate change. Sadly, self-advancing greed is what often guides our politics and economics in this cruel world. But Wisdom warns that those who follow their own way “shall eat the fruit of their way; and be sated with their own devices.” Calamity awaits those who ignore Wisdom, as verse 32 says: “the complacency of fools destroys them”. Having sown the wind they will reap the whirlwind, and be engulfed by anguish and disaster.

This public theology does not simply suggest that all must become Christians to be good rulers or even good citizens. Such a position is unreasonable in our religiously pluralistic age. Yet Wisdom’s voice can come in many ways, such as one’s conscience, or the prompting of others. For politicians it could be found in the wise, informed counsel of advisors and the public who have heeded Wisdom’s voice. Both the wise ruler and the wise citizen attend to the voice of Wisdom for guidance. But this requires a listening ear and an open heart, for as Wisdom promises:

I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

Here Wisdom offers counsel that Wisdom is there to guide us in the public she occupies. People power guided by Wisdom can cause governments to topple and change direction. Let us lend an ear to Wisdom and follow her guidance, rather than that of our politicians and their media lapdogs. Then we might see real bottom-up change, by the people, for the people, under the guidance of God’s Wisdom. God’s promise is that that is where political security and a life at ease will be found.

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