Where shall wisdom be found?
The Book of Esther, Ch. 2
A little black girl saved us. When she stood before what we Americans have in place of a king, on Inauguration Day of 2021, a skinny Black girl descended from slaves, as Amanda Gorman called herself, saved us, meaning, saved us white people.
How? By showing Americans a different way to live with our bloodied history. By showing us a way to live together “with harm to none and harmony for all,” a way to go forward without our historical habit of whites oppressing blacks, strong oppressing the weak, rich oppressing poor.
First, she encouraged us to believe that this wasn’t so awful a country, really—"it isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
Second, she redefined democracy—it’s not a thing, it’s a purpose, one which gets worked out in bits and pieces over time. We lift our gaze, she wrote, beyond what stands between us to that which stands before us, ahead in the future we are making.
Third, she pointed out that our country was not a possession to be proud of (like, say, a fancy car) but more like a quality that we step into by the living of which we repair it.
Fourth, she asserted that we live in multiple emotions simultaneously, never just grief or hurt but always also growth and hope at the same time.
Her whole approach was existential, not abstract; she was reality based not vaguely idealistic. And she captured our attention by using all the great devices available to great poetry—she began and ended in classical fashion with the same note about finding the light, which happens to be our own theme in Epiphany. Her repetitions were incantatory, her phrase-making was aphoristic, e.g., quiet isn’t peace, we will never again know defeat/we will never again sow division, while we have our eyes on the future/ history has its eyes on us.
She wrote in couplets that made for punchy points with alliteration and rhymes like chimes. Along the way, she gave her personal credentials and made clear her personal point of view.
She cited her authorities like scripture, societal norms, Lincoln, Hamilton (by inference), and her own self which you could hear in her voice.
Boldly, she tagged that frightening moment when the whole world saw “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” that is, the day of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol where they stood that very moment—the moral she drew however was that democracy may be “momentarily delayed but never permanently defeated.”
Her poetry could rip right along as it leapt and jumped because she kept us with her all the way. She blended biblical style and rap with the particular stamp (aided with gestures) of the particular poet that she is.
Anderson Cooper couldn’t explain why he was absolutely taken with “poetry,” of all things. The answer is, Mr. Cooper: good poetry by a good poet makes a kind of fascinating sense that you can’t quite understand but can’t quite shake off either.
Then there is that other young woman, Esther, who stood before her king to make her own testimony once upon a time. It was a very different time, and from our post-Enlightenment, liberal society point of view, an extremely scary time. Monarchs had absolute power. Over everybody—and with women, they held power over the intimacy of their bodies. The power differential was total.
In a constitutional democracy, we have checks and balances (well, theoretically, at least), electoral brakes, popular opinion, and public ethical norms. No such limits exist if you're king over the empire of 3rd century BCE Persia. If two men in your court plot your assassination, the two can be hanged the next day, and that’s what happened in the Book of Esther. If a woman in the harem catches the king’s fancy, you can make her Queen in place of Queen Vashti whom you just demoted last year--and that’s just what happened to Esther (what happened to Henry VIII’s three wives could have happened to Vashti and Esther).
But Esther had a secret—she was Jewish but had never disclosed this to the king. Then, when the pogrom against the Jews in Persia began, she made it her mission to plead their case, as a Jew herself, in which she ultimately succeeded through a very dangerous stratagem. Esther herself managed, within the limits of power accorded to her as a woman but as a favored member of the king’s harem, to enter the king’s courts and make her case successfully. We are familiar with this predicament through Scheherazade who managed to salvage her own life by telling her husband the king the 1001 tales over the same number of nights.
Esther was plucky, and she is remembered in the Jewish community to this day at the Feast of Purim. However, her people were not only spared but they were given the right to destroy any enemy, and so they proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of their enemies. Clearly, the lesson of mercy was only half-learned. When the Jews of Persia were liberated, they did not extend the same privilege to their enemies. Differences at that time had to be punished with death.
Therefore, whereas they survived by manipulating power (which is supremely important when you're powerless), enmity was not conquered. So, one thing did not change—strangers were forever enemies.
There you have the human situation—the stranger is to be feared—Amanda Gorman and Esther, only because of their extraordinary courage, skill, articulateness, and beauty of person and character were they able to speak truth to power and survive. Amazingly, both Esther and Amanda, despite one being the alien subject of a monarchy and the other a minority citizen of a racist republic, have sweeping effects on their respective native lands.
Different religion, different gender, different ethnicity, different sexual orientation, different race, different language—whatever comes from the outside, has no power inside. Tribal life requires that whatever comes from the outside is to be feared, rejected, exterminated. Tribal life, for the Neanderthal and for the modern teenager, is to protect the Me.
The larger goal of life is to get from Me to We. And once we get to We, then it is time to expand what is meant by We. This only occurs by virtue of a process that promotes the friendship of strangers, a process described by Prof. Danielle Allen of Harvard. Perhaps while Amanda was a student at Harvard, she heard Danielle Allen speak about the friendship of strangers. Amanda hinted at this process when she included a sly little message to the insurrectionists: “We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to each other.”
In sum, Amanda Gorman did not just steal the show, her poetic achievement was to knit together all the parts of that day with the previous two weeks to show how enmity is conquered. With the wisdom of Esther and the wisdom of Amanda Gorman we may yet make our way to a new citizenship.
We must ask, what must our Christian citizenship post-January 6th look like? The church is a citizen in the aggregate—what arts will we employ to make our witness to the world? With every red light at our corner of Centre and Church streets, the number of people stopped outside for 30 seconds exceeds every time the number of our congregation inside for one hour on any Sunday morning. Shall we startle, encourage and inspire them with dance, or with mime, or painting, or sculpture on our front lawn? We now have Amanda Gorman as our inspiration to live up to.
Rev. Richard Chrisman, 01/24/2021
In a time of contagion and lockdown, where shall we turn to find wisdom? In the words of our Poet of the Month, George Walters-Sleyon, ““I must lean on the solace that revives.”
Wisdom brings both solace and instruction, it spans both the practical kind of knowledge, on the one hand, and the cosmic, on the other. Wisdom consoles and also provides insight necessary for physical and mental survival.
In the late Harold Bloom’s 2004 book entitled, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found, his chapters run from the Bible to Christian classics like St. Augustine, from the Renaissance (Shakespeare and Cervantes) to the modern thinkers like Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud and Proust—to such as these Bloom turns for wisdom.
Where do you turn? I asked a friend, and he said, “to poetry”—as it happens, he is a poet. I asked my wife, and she said, Nature—but then, she’s a nature-woman. From the Bible, Bloom chose the Book of Ecclesiastes which we talked about last week, and the Book of Job which has been our focus in this service.
Of the Book of Job, Bloom says, “It offers wisdom, but it is not anything we can comprehend.” He was right about that—the Book of Job almost pushes the reader back with its high-flying emotions and hyperbolic vocabulary.
You know, though, it’s a great romp of a story complete with a Devil, stock villains, vivid bit parts, a larger-than-life protagonist (Job), and a walk-on part for God, the whole tragedy capped by a happy ending of all things! The Book of Job is basically about a man beset by life, by the unpredictable journey that life is. He is successful, wealthy, happy with a happy wife and sons and daughters when all of a sudden all these things are stripped from him, and he falls ill to diseases that disgust his family. The children die, the farm buildings burn, the estate is bankrupted, all but three of his friends desert him, and Job ends up covered with boils from head to toe.
But the whole thing is a set-up—it all comes about for a nefarious reason—in an iconic scene, the Satan asks God if pious Job would be so faithful to God if God hadn’t made his life so cushy—what if God reversed Job’s fortunes, then maybe Job would curse God.
God decides to take up the Satan’s wager, but says, Just don’t kill him—and that’s how Job comes to be naked, covered with running sores and sitting on an ash heap destitute.
How does Job take it? You have probably heard the phrase, “the patience of Job”—well, this cliché overlooks a much more complex figure in the book itself. Job is the antithesis of patience, he is defiant—he endures the suffering, but he howls, he weeps, he inveighs against the Lord.
The abuses heaped upon Job are legendary, and they are inventoried in almost 40 chapters of verse, which are structured as an acrimonious debate between Job and the three lousy friends who come to commiserate with him but repeatedly give him bad counsel.
Ultimately, Job curses the day he was born.
Oh, friends, dear friends, take pity on me. God has come down hard on me!
Do you have to be hard on me, too? Don’t you ever tire of abusing me?
If only my words were written in a book—better yet, chiseled in stone!
Still, I know that God lives, the One who gives me back my life, and eventually he’ll take his stand on earth.
Yes, Job curses the day he was born, but Job does not curse God.
Do we feel like Job these days, don’t we feel we have reason to?—Americans are besieged by a lethal virus, our nation has lost all our friends, and as of last Wednesday, our government is under attack by another infection.
But I’ll tell you who I think can more closely be compared to Job—the African-American of past and present. For, they have endured enslavement, segregation, terrorism, discrimination, impoverishment, malicious belittling, abuse by the American in-justice system, and relentless shunning in this country.
That some have escaped into middle-class security and even wealth—only some—does not change the fact that there are still places in America where they are embraced about as readily as Job when he was covered from head to toe with sores.
And how have African-Americans responded? Their first response, I submit, was the same as Job’s—they sang their plaintive lamentations and they sang their faith in God, in their now world-famous spirituals.
James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, author and composer together of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” compiled two volumes of spirituals in the 1930s.
The Negro Spirituals “were instrumental in the adjustment to being cut off from their native culture, scattered without regard to tribal relations, thrust into a completely alien civilization with a strange language under the harshest of human conditions—chattel slavery.” From these conditions “arose a noble music—the finest distinctive artistic contribution our people have to offer the world—majestic grandeur, exalted, with the dignity imparted by great suffering.”
Johnson asks, “Would they have been able to survive slavery without the [Negro spirituals]?” He wrote, Frederick Douglas once said it was a wonder they are still alive!
In their Spirituals, Johnson went on, “they gave wide play to the imagination, told their stories and drew their morals therefrom, dreamed their dreams and declared their vision, uttered their despair and prophesied their victories, spoke the group wisdom and expressed the group philosophy of life—they are a record and revelation of the deeper thoughts and experiences of the Negro throughout all the years of enslavement.”
Some spirituals are pure, Job-like sorrow songs; others, with a pure faith in God, look beyond the present to the next world, be it in a free America or, failing that, in heaven—you know them:
Go down Moses,
didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel,
no more auction block for me,
nobody knows the trouble I seen,
Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn,
one more river to cross,
ride on King Jesus,
there’s a balm in Gilead,
we are marching to Zion.
Yes, like Job, they complained so, so bitterly to God, and yet like Job they kept faith. Together with the Book of Job, these spirituals constitute a library of wisdom to which many generations of African-Americans took recourse and found solace—and not only African-Americans but many people harassed unto near-death.
How else did the African-American people respond to the Job-level of indignities they suffer in America past and present? In music, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, through the blues—which is a huge subject for another day.
But the day came when they also sent a minister of Love, they sent a representative of God’s love. They sent other kinds of ambassadors, too, but black Americans sent a Christian minister eloquent as the greatest of poets, they sent this winsome, educated, indefatigable minister to the white people and the white establishment and the white supremacy contingent and the white monopolists—they sent Job, in effect, to plead his case with his white “friends,” who gave grudging acceptance and bad advice, telling him to “wait a little longer.”
Martin Luther King was killed because his argument was irrefutable, and he was killed before he got to the Promised Land. He tragically, tragically got Job’s wish to die before God granted him a reprieve. Nor has God even yet granted the African-American people the reprieve that Job got in the end, the reward of his faithfulness being restoration of his family, his wealth, his health and his public standing.
So, whoever sings for the black peoples, be it a Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, or our own Ayanna Pressley, they have a right to raise their complaint all the way up to the skies above, just as Job did in his unabridged keen.
In their great hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, regarded as the black national anthem, James and Rosamond Johnson in the year 1900 managed to combine both sorrow and faith in one song--
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Can we turn to the Book of Job for the wisdom which will inspire and guide us through these two pandemics? The Book of Job is a tough read for people in the 21st century, probably always was—but it will not disappoint the effort—it is where you will learn what faith requires and gives.
To change the course of history that all may be free, keep the dream alive. We will have the victory—just keep the dream alive until the day we can say with Martin Luther King, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last!” Amen.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman 1/17/2021
Eliot Church of Newton