On Political Wisdom
A Sermon on 1 Kings 2: 10-12; 3: 3-14 & Psalm 111 by Dr Mark Brett, 17 August 2003

What does it mean to be politically astute? These days, it seems, political wisdom implies that you can’t be entirely truthful, because that might undermine your position. You can’t be too compassionate, because that might lead to policies which are not economically sustainable. But the trick is that you need to create the appearance of being truthful and compassionate, while carefully protecting your political and economic interests.

So, for example, you might fabricate some reasons for going to war against Iraq, creating the appearance that you are compassionately concerned about the injustices which have been perpetrated there. You might add a dash of fear about weapons of mass destruction, to create the impression that we all have interests to protect, not just oppressed Iraqis. When it turns out, after the war, that no one can find these weapons, then you might say that military intelligence is not an exact science, but now that Iraq is liberated, all Iraqi refugees can go home, and everyone is better off. Truth and justice has apparently been served, and if a few big companies happen to make a great deal of money out of rebuilding Iraq and managing its oil resources, then that’s just a fringe benefit of the military operation. In this fictional scenario, political wisdom in a country like Australia might include co-operating with American interests, because there would be some benefits in being aligned with the world’s most dominant economic and military regime.

Let’s just imagine that there might be some analogy between our world’s most dominant economic-military complex, and the empire of Solomon who, we are told in 1 Kgs 10, became ‘greater in riches and wisdom than all the others kings of the earth’. In our lectionary reading for today, Solomon asks for wisdom in a dream, and because he was so good at getting his priorities right, the text suggests that God gave him a great deal of wealth as a fringe benefit. The whole earth sought out his wisdom, we are told, and they just happened to bring with them gifts of silver and gold, horses and weapons, clothing and spices. Solomon also used forced labour to build a few nice buildings for himself, and a temple for the God who gave him all the wisdom and riches. And when they consecrated the temple, they sacrificed ‘so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted’ (1 Kgs 8.5). Back in Gibeon, when he first asked for wisdom, the sacrifice was still countable: Solomon made a thousand burnt offerings on the altar (1 Kgs 3.4).

When Solomon died, and his son Rehoboam tried to succeed him, he was a chip off the old block: the northern tribes of Israel were considering their position, and they brought up the question of forced labour with Rehoboam. His reply? ‘My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions’ (1 Kgs 12.11). Big mistake. Rehoboam lost the appearance of wisdom and justice, and thus he lost power. The northern kingdom separated itself off from the south, and Rehoboam’s southern kingdom was left with only two tribes out of the twelve. And thus is illustrated an iron law of politics: always keep up appearances.

Clearly, Rehoboam did not possess the political wisdom of his father, but did Solomon really get away with all his excesses? If we read on in 1 Kgs, there is some concern expressed about the number of wives which Solomon acquired, including a daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh who is said to be one of 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs 11.3). The forced labour was also obviously an issue for the northern tribes, yet the narrative in Kings does not seem to object too strongly to all the wealth and military might. We are calmly told that Solomon accumulated chariots and horses – fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses – and ‘he made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones’ (10.26-27). This is mentioned apparently in the same tone as the description of his intellectual capital – the wisdom that the world came to see at work.

But elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible there are some other perspectives on how a king should behave. For example, Deuteronomy 17 says this: ‘The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself, or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them… He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold’ (17.16-17). If there was one king in Israel who broke this law, it was Solomon. Clearly, the book of Kings has a slightly different set of concerns to the book of Deuteronomy: Kings expresses doubts about the wisdom of keeping of many wives and many gods, but it is strangely acquiescent on the issues of wealth and military power. Deuteronomy has a broader perspective that will not let the accumulation of wealth and power off the hook. Like some of Psalms which come from Jerusalem, Deuteronomy measures regimes not according to their wealth, but according to their justice – according to their capacity to hear the cry of the needy and of the afflicted (e.g., Ps 72.1-4,12-14).

When Solomon asked for the wisdom to distinguish between good and evil (1 Kgs 3.9), he uses words that echo the getting of wisdom in the Garden of Eden. The knowledge of good and evil is seen as a dangerous and corrupting thing in Genesis 2, a kind of wisdom that leads to alienation and distortions. A similar tradition appears in Ezek 34, where the king of Tyre is also said to have been ‘full of wisdom’ in ‘Eden, the garden of God’ (34.12-13). Yet his wisdom was corrupted by dishonest trade and violence (34.16-18), and so he was alienated from God. This king of Tyre illustrates the same point, we could say, as the life of Solomon: when political wisdom uses wealth and power to hide injustice, the outcome is a disaster. Or to put it another way, when economics become detached from questions of value and justice, then that is a recipe for trouble.

I recently came across a quote from one of the leading theoreticians of global capitalism, George Soros, in which he makes this crucial concession:

International trade and global financial markets are very good at generating wealth, but they cannot take care of other social needs, such as the preservation of peace, alleviation of poverty, protection of the environment, labour conditions, or human rights – what are generally called ‘public goods’.
On Globalization (2002, p.14).

In short, global financial markets are very good at wisdom in the Solomonic sense. They are good at making international alliances, like the Solomon’s foreign marriages. They are good at using military solutions to shore up financial power blocs. They are good at making gold and silver for the Jerusalems of our day, but not so good at keeping the rest of ten tribes happy. Where are the Jerusalems of today? The assets of the world’s three richest billionaires were recently calculated to be more than the combined wealth of 600 million inhabitants of the world’s weakest economies (Held and McGrew, The Global Transformations Reader, 2000, pp.242-43). When we hear such a statistic, how are we to respond? Whatever we do, I suggest that would should follow the leading of the book of Deuteronomy and not let the question of distributive justice disappear.

We need another kind of wisdom – the kind that teaches us the way of peace, justice for the poor, care for creation, compassion for all of humanity. Where are we to find that kind of wisdom? According to Ps 111, the beginning of wisdom is found in reverence for God – the one who made heaven and earth, whose justice endures forever, the God who is gracious and compassionate. Any political wisdom which has lost touch with the values revealed to us in the character of God is on the road to disaster. It is not wisdom at all; it is just the mouthings of wealth and power.

I am not suggesting that we should fantasize about what the world would be like if everyone just became Christians; on the contrary, that solution has a dangerously imperial or Solomonic ring to it. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book The Dignity of Difference, has urged us to think about the righteousness of God in a more gracious way. If we are to avoid the clash of fundamentalisms, he argues, we need to work towards a vision of the God of justice who stands above us all, ‘teaching us to make space for one another, to hear each other’s claims and to resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent… capable of being comprehended in any human language, from any single point of view’. ‘Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others’ (pp.65-66). In this time of great insecurity, we need the kind of trust and confidence which only the wisdom of a transcendent God can give. We cannot afford the kind of narrow, nationalist political wisdom which can only see the world through lens provided by national interest. We need the kind of divine wisdom than transcends national borders not through military aggression, cultural superiority or economic heartlessness, but through the grace and justice of a God who longs to liberate all of creation.

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111.10)