The Wisdom to Govern

Proper 20,  August 16, 2015

1 Kings 3:3-14

I don’t know whether you have noticed, but there seems to be an election campaign on.  At least, that’s the rumour I’ve heard, and the campaign signs sprouting up like weeds would seem to confirm it.  Once more we Canadians are being called upon to have a voice in the future of our country, to make a decision about our priorities and our values.

It strikes me that it might be worthwhile to ask what insights our Old Testament reading might have.  After all, the passages we have been reading all summer from the story of the first kings of Israel are not just long ago history, and not just good yarns, but they are also part of a sustained reflection on politics from a faith perspective, on the question of how best to govern a civil society.

Now we might wonder, how can these ancient texts have anything to say to us today: they are about warrior kings; we are a modern complex democracy.  Two words: Donald Trump.  The brash, vulgar, ignorant, but very rich buffoon, who is apparently leading the race to become the Republican candidate in the next US election.  Extreme case – things aren’t quite as bad in this country – nevertheless he stands as a powerful symbol of a sickness infecting modern democracy.  On the one hand, the Donald; on the other, we hear about Solomon’s prayer for wisdom as he takes on the responsibility of governing his people.  Are we still so sure we have nothing to learn from these 3000-year-old texts?

Ιn this passage, we find Solomon a young man, just come to power through a complex and dangerous political cat and mouse game, directed mainly by his mother.  And now, we are told, he has a dream, in which God appears before him like a genii in a lamp and says, “Αsk what I shall give you.”

What wish does he give this genii in a bottle God?  Not wealth, or honour, or long life, or the lives of his enemies, none of the things the childish, selfish brain clamours for.  Not power or prosperity or the respect and admiration of others for being a big man.

We might think of Solomon’s own son: when the people complained about the burden they were bearing, gave the answer: “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.”  A big man with a swagger.  And for his childish arrogance he ended up losing half his kingdom.

But Solomon’s prayer is different:

And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 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?’

“I am only a little child” – actually, this is the prayer of an adult, of a man who is conscious of his responsibilities, and has the good sense to be terrified by them.

What is this thing “wisdom” that he prays for? Most simply, it is about the responsibility to govern well. It is not about him, about how popular or honoured or feared he is, about how much power he should have. It is about the people, the nation, and how he can best serve them.  That, surely, is a minimum we should be demanding from our politicians.  And yet the example of Donald Trump (and he is only the loudest and most obnoxious of many) suggests we are not demanding that.

There is a bit of an irony in Solomon’s answer, by the way.   I don’t know if you noticed it: by asking for wisdom, Solomon is showing that he actually already has it.  Wisdom is not about knowing all the answers – those will come –  but about having the humility and self-knowledge to know that you don’t know it all, that you have to keep seeking more knowledge and insight, listening to others.

That, surely, is something we should be demanding of our politicians: the humility to be guided by others, to listen, to be informed by facts, by reality – not by ideology, not by special interests, not by the prospect of short term gain.

We had an incident just this past week in the election campaign, when one politician (it doesn’t matter from what party) tentatively suggested that if the planet is to survive, some of our oil will need to be left in the ground.  And immediately all hell broke loose, politicians from the other parties piling on to denounce this callous disregard for jobs.  And yet, if we look past the heat of the political games, there is nothing remotely contentious about that claim.  It is the consensus of practically every climate scientist (who aren’t being paid directly by the oil industry); what is more it is something we all know to be true.  But like the emperor’s new clothes, it is apparently something we are not aloud to say out loud, at least not if we are running for office!

Instead of punishing our politicians for saying the truth out loud, surely we should be demanding it of them.  Surely that is the very minimum: the wisdom to want to be informed, to encourage and listen to scientists, because they keep us in touch with reality, not to ignore or suppress or defund them.

Wisdom is about looking to the future, about governing not just for short-term gain or advantage – whether for themselves or even for society in general – but rather governing with our grandchildren in mind. That surely should be another minimum requirement.

When I think of wisdom in leadership, I am reminded of a friend of ours, a retired RCMP officer, highly respected in the community. A quiet, unassuming, but totally effective leader.  What makes him that?  Well, probably the same thing that made him a quiet, unassuming and effective policeman.  When he talks about his time with the RCMP, he says: “I tried to show people respect.”  In general, and especially in crisis situations, when people are riled up and out of control.  In 90% of cases, a bit of respect is all that is needed to defuse a tense situation.

Again, surely a minimum we should be demanding of our elected officials, that they show respect: respect for the people of Canada, for the experts, for their colleagues on all sides of the house.  That they put aside their jealous ambitions, and put their heads together for the good of the country.

There is, of course, one big difference between our day and the day of Solomon.  We are a democracy.  We elect our leaders, they don’t come to power by birth or by palace coup.  And so we are responsible for them.  The leaders we elect are a reflection of us.  Ultimately we are the ones who need to exercise wisdom.