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Politics of Scripture

Wisdom’s Warning to Lovers of Death

I believe the recognition that wisdom and love go hand in hand cannot simply be abstracted as some general and vague love for the world and its persons. It is, in fact, a general and abstract love that often becomes complicit in ways of death.

Wisdom has built her house,
     she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
     she has mixed her wine,
     she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls,
     she calls from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
     To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
     and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
     and walk in the way of insight.”

Proverbs 9:1–6 (NRSV)

Wisdom is not elusive in Proverbs 9:1–6. Wisdom has “built her house” with very prominent markers (how can one miss seven hewn pillars?), announcing an open welcome—“turn in here!” (verse 4) and “come, eat” (verse 5)—to all. Wisdom offers free and public service. Wisdom, however, does not mince words. Proverbs 9 is better understood in the context of the preceding verses in chapter 8. The verse that immediately precedes Proverbs 9 plainly states, “those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (8:36). This judgment stops us in our tracks, doesn’t it? Who among us wants to be perceived as a hater of wisdom and lover of death? The theological and political force in the text is arresting. It is one of those moments when the text begins to read the reader. 

Wisdom describes her own role during creation by using these words: “I was beside him, like a little child; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:30–31). Wisdom rejoices in the world and delights in human persons. In other words, because Wisdom loves the world and its peoples, Wisdom hates lovers of death. An essential part of seeking Wisdom, therefore, is to recognize that a deep disregard of human persons is an ever-present danger that leads to death and the love of death.

Lovers of death. On the one hand, that phrase is like a wet blanket. No one really wants to clothe oneself with that phrase. On the other hand, however, it captures a cruel but common reality.

August 15, the date around which the lectionary texts are introduced, is celebrated as India’s Independence Day. While the day is supposed to represent India’s independence from British colonialism in 1947, ironies, nevertheless, abound. India continues to use discriminatory legal frameworks inherited from colonial law codes against its own people. Critiques of oppressive state power are often termed as “anti-national” under “sedition” laws. Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who stood in solidarity with India’s Indigenous people, was arrested under such draconian laws that allow for indefinite detention without bail. While rejecting bail to Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who stood in solidarity with Indigenous people, the National Investigative Agency (NIA) special court judge held that the “collective interest of the community would outweigh the right of personal liberty.” An underlying question that is mostly assumed and underarticulated is simply, whose “collective interest”?

Unless the collective interests of those on the margins of society are privileged and made front and center in political and theological discourse, I am afraid that complicity in violence is only half-a-step away. Those who manage states and state power and those who vote for those managers are to be acutely mindful of this danger.

While the question of “collective interest” continues to be debated in democracies, death and murder abound. Isn’t that a mechanism of today’s lovers of death? Stan Swamy suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied bail by a state “for the people.” He languished in India’s jails where he contracted COVID-19 and subsequently died on July 5, 2021. Stan Swamy now rests with several other Indigenous persons with whom he stood in solidarity, lives taken before their time.

Wisdom’s words in the last verse of chapter 8 announce, “Those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” How do we “miss” Wisdom? The words present in the verses leading to chapter 9—“listen,” “hear,” “watch,” “wait,” and “find”—capture an intentionality that is to be present in persons seeking Wisdom. Wisdom offers free and public service, but it certainly does have a moral and ethical cost.

I believe the recognition that wisdom and love go hand in hand cannot simply be abstracted as some general and vague love for the world and its persons. It is, in fact, a general and abstract love that often becomes complicit in ways of death. God’s “wonderful deeds” (Psalm 111:4) are often remembered in scripture as those deeds that privilege those on the margins of society. Love for the world is to be seen in concrete relation (for one example, see Jennifer Owens-Jofré’s 2019 essay) to people that scripture broadly includes under “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” Without such concrete relation to the world, both love and wisdom are missed and lost.

When the prophet Nathan confronts King David (see Timothy McNinch’s July 2021 essay) on account of David’s crime of planning (Bathsheba’s husband) Uriah’s murder, David is shocked twice. When David hears Nathan’s description of a rich man, who instead of preparing a meal using one of his many flocks and herds, instead took the only ewe lamb from a poor man for whom that lamb was like a daughter, David is shocked and enraged on behalf of the poor man. David says to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5–6). However, David’s sense of shock is in the abstract, and he does not recognize his own complicity in the ways of death. So, Nathan presents David with a more direct accusation, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7). This is when David is shocked for a second time.

Part of David’s trouble is that he was happy to be enraged on behalf of the poor in the abstract. What I mean is that David, like many of us moderns, could be angry at injustice and yet fail to recognize structures of injustice and one’s own complicity (and culpability) for upholding those structures. Abstraction and intellectualization, in this way, enable complicity in social violence. Complicity in violence can endanger individual persons and particular societies. And, as in the example from India above, such complicity seems to be a pressing danger that disproportionately affects nation states. 

A look at King Solomon in the lectionary text from 1 Kings 2–3 might be helpful here. When God asks Solomon what he wants, Solomon asks for wisdom. Aha! Solomon requests (presumably with some humility), “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9). While Solomon’s request pleases God, God slips in an “if” in fine print under what might be termed as a theologically inflected “terms and conditions apply.” “If you will walk in my ways” is the theological condition that determines the future. With such a condition in place, Solomon’s future use of his own people for forced labor to build the emerging kingdom becomes suspect. One might expect that a king who asked for wisdom would be attentive to walking “in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6). 

Desire for state power often comes at the cost of evading the needs of concrete suffering persons within the state’s jurisdiction. State power is deceptive. Love or freedom (or wisdom!—lowercase, though) can easily become coopted by state power when the names, faces, and stories of suffering others are evaded. Such cooptation is vital to recognize as it is often in the name of “wisdom” that state power operates. Wisdom highlights these  hypocrisies and cruelties. 

Stan Swamy, I believe, drew directly from this venerable Wisdom tradition and highlighted the cruelties of the Indian state. Arul Mani’s commentary on the proceedings of the condolence meeting for Stan Swamy is helpful in lifting up his Wisdom:

Sometimes when a powerful state trains its big gun on a man who is content to be small, content to labour on the small task he has chosen for himself, that gun can misbehave, and become a telescope, and magnify that person, and cause everybody to see him clearly, and feel their souls fill with wonder, and see in him something they hope will be possible for themselves tomorrow, if not today. Maybe that was what brought some of us to that condolence meeting. Sometimes that small man may step up and press an eye to his end of the barrel, and then the telescope may swing around magically but internally, and we will see what he sees. Not a majestic state, but a bug-eyed, beady-eyed one, magnificent in the smallness of its imagination. Maybe it was this vision which fetched us.

When the poor are visibilized and when their names, faces, and stories are made concrete, complicity in ways of death can be identified and named. Stan Swamy embodied such a way of insight. Love for the world flows from a heart that beats for concrete flesh-and-blood persons on the margins. Perhaps such a vision could “fetch us” by saving us from our complicities and inspiring us into “making the most of the time” (Eph 5:16). As we eat of Wisdom’s bread and drink of the wine Wisdom has mixed, may our hearts be filled with such visions.

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