I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Preached at St. Michael’s Trenton, 2015
Today’s story about King Soloman is meant for presidential candidates and politicians. The punch line is that they should want to begin like King Soloman. They should not enter the race unless they long to become good shepherds of a great people. They are not fit to lead unless they realize how hard that is, unless they have the humility to beg God for an understanding mind, a heart of wisdom. So far as I know, no one here is about to join the ranks of the presidential contenders. All the same, today’s story is meant for us, too, because in a democracy it is important for not only the candidates but also the voters to be wise.
People get into politics for lots of reasons. Today’s story mentions two that loom large. High office puts people in a position to get rich. They can broker their power for kick-backs. “I can get you an immigration visa, if you treat me to a luxury vacation or give my ne’r-do-well son a job.” “I sponsor bills that benefit your business, and you make large donations to my campaign.” And these are just the things we read about in the newspaper.
High office also brings power and notoreity. These can be addictive. Desperation to stay in office drives some of the more perverse dynamics of American politics today. Karl Rove was explicit: running for office is an advertising campaign. To market your candidate, you take polls to sample the hopes and fears and biases of the electorate. Then you tailor the candidate’s speeches and tv ads to pander to their prejudices and play on their fears. Even leaving Trump out of it, try these recent samples: “If we don’t close the borders, they’ll take away your jobs!” “Terror has become a way of life!” “The Islamic state exists because they hate everything we believe in.” “Our constitution makes clear: there’s no place for gays or atheists in America.” Or that West Virginia election flier a few years ago: “if the liberal establishment passes gay marriage, they’ll take away your bibles next.”
When God appeared at the sacrifice to grant the new king a wish, Soloman didn’t ask for riches or honor. He acknowledged his inadequacy before the task, and begged God’s help. Wise voters demand nothing less of candidates: to win our support they need to give evidence of an understanding mind and a heart of wisdom.
Wisdom means centering on the right values. Worthy leaders are dedicated to pursuing the common good. King Soloman has inherited the job of ruling “a great people.” Wise leaders are realistic. A great people is not just a lot of individuals “doing their own thing.” Government expenditures are not just waste or robbery. They fund the infrastructures needed to organize large populations, to make life together–private projects and corporate ventures–possible. Roads and trains, post office and telecommunications, hospitals and schools are conditions of the possibility of creative entrepreneurship and cultural expression. Wise voters demand leaders who are inventive to build up and maintain those infrastructures that support our common life.
Wise leaders have a passion for justice. The bible teaches: justice is what love looks like on a communal scale. Our founding fathers speak of “equal opportunity.” However difficult that is to define theoretically, we all recognize when it isn’t there. America is a democracy. At least since 1965, we were supposed to be committed to equal opportunity to vote. It is revolting to learn how politicians have schemed and connived for decades to undermine it. They had minds to calculate means to unjust ends, but they did not have a heart of wisdom.
Equal opportunity is just beginning to mean equal access to health care. The president himself admits: Obama Care isn’t perfect. Wisdom’s challenge is: then come up with another alternative that will get as many covered and more. Jesus Christ healed the sick. What excuse do politicians have for not wanting to expand Medicaid? Or invent something better! Wise voters demand leaders with compassion.
Martin Luther King appealed to the American dream. Some of us here are old enough to have participated in it. Wisdom doesn’t have to reach for the Golden Rule. “Do as you’re done by” will get us there. If we have profited from institutions and policies that gave us a chance to make something of ourselves and to become people who could make a contribution, then we have a responsibility to pass it on. All but the native Americans are immigrants. How could wise voters buy this politician’s explanation: “when my forbears came, the economy could absorb more workers. But that’s changed. So we should close our borders and deport those who try to sneak across now”?
In a “great society” citizens need education. When Bob and I moved to California in 1972, community colleges were free; the state college system charged about $100 per semester; and the university cost roughly $600 per year. Most first generation college students don’t come from private day schools, and they can’t afford the Ivy’s. Universal education was part of the great American experiment to level the playing field. Wise leaders work overtime to build up institutions that expand a great people’s horizons. Wise voters do not fall for the anti-intellectualism and tax moratoria that dry up scholarships and erode our public schools.
Wisdom integrates core values. And wisdom is intelligent. Wise is the opposite of foolish, the contrary of stupid, idiotic, and ignorant. Wise voters will not be satisfied with negative campaigning and name-calling, with sound-bites and slogans. Wise voters demand substance: leaders who will analyse social problems, brain-storm strategies and work out solutions. Wise voters will not be entertained by debates that “one-up” without confronting nitty gritty issues and weighing honest options.
Wise voters demand leaders who dream dreams and see visions… leaders who are so convinced of the dignity of every human being, who so believe in our collective creativity, that they will be able to inspire us, to recall us to our higher selves. Some of us remember an inaugural address in which the new president challenged: “ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Some of us remember how another president made bold to delcare war on poverty. We have also lived through presidents who preached a different gospel: (I heard it with my own ears) “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourself!” Now we can’t even get congress to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans. After all, “it’s not a crime to be successful!” “We have a right to keep what’s ours.”
America is “a great people.” But history records: all societies rise and fall. They begin with energy and determination organized around a dream. The lure of “yes, we can” keeps us scrambling, working, daring and risking to make our dream come true. When it becomes a reality for enough people, enthusiasm calms. The situation stabilizes. The economy grows. And the infrastructure gets developed. Stagnation sets in when the society loses its flexibility, its willingness to keep making midcourse corrections until the dream is realized for everybody.
King Solomon began well, but he did not end so well. He gave in to us versus them: a member of the tribe of Judah, he imposed forced labor on the northern tribes. He relied on marriages to make alliances and expand borders, and built temples for his foreign wives’ gods. Borders were enlarged in his life time, but the kingdom was divided in the next generation and eventually conquered.
America’s joints are stiffening. So many politicians try to hold onto their positions by pandering to the worst in us. We need wise leaders who will bring out the best in us. Wise voters will demand leaders who aren’t afraid to insist on a course of physical therapy, to put America through some pain to get it moving again towards liberty and justice for all.