Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Proverbs 23) transports me to January 20, 2009, Washington, DC, when the inauguration of President Obama was bookended by two prayers. Mega church pastor and Purpose Driven author Rick Warren got a lot of press and got into hot water with conservatives when he invoked the God of different religions. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference got less press, but he did get some heat from conservatives for paraphrasing an old blues lyric from Big Bill Broonzy to close his benediction, longing for a day when black would not have to get back and white would embrace what is right. The odd inclusion of the blues notwithstanding, I thought Lowery’s prayer was the highwater mark of the event. It was an incredibly eloquent, poetic, and prophetic prayer for leadership, both for the President and for our nation. I especially love how Reverend Lowery began his prayer, by quoting the third verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Negro National Hymn: 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.
Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs as something of an inagural address for emerging leaders. The chapter today has the ring of Lift Every Voice to it, especially the line lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world we forget Thee. The proverb speaks to many ways the world’s intoxicating elixirs can numb our minds and spirits. Addiction to alcohol is an obvious threat to good leadership. But the proverb begins with a warning against a different kind of substance abuse, the allure of wealth and privilege. Put a knife to your throat if that’s what it takes to stem your appetite for rich and delicate food, Solomon says. Be wise enough to resist wealth, he goes on. Avoid the bread of the greedy; I love his imagery here – he says that what they offer will wind up feeling like you have a hair in your throat! Avoid the exploitation of the poor, and be sure to discipline your children (I think it’s safe to say we have found better methods than his suggestion to beat them with rods, but the wisdom here is aimed at strung out and self-centered parents who care so little about their young that they neglect and ignore them, even when the kids are engaging in self-destructive behaviors).
It was this kind of poor leadership Solomon warned against. It was the kind of leadership demonstrated in the 19th century’s “Gilded Age,” an age that fostered greed, concentrated wealth, addiction, and neglect of children, an age that led James Weldon Johnson in 1900 to write his lyrical prayer, God of our weary years, God of our silent tears. . . He wrote the poem when the “reckless decade” of the 1890s proved that the country needed stronger and wiser leadership. It was his observation of a culture addicted to riches, to power, as well as to mind-numbing and spirit-numbing substances, that led him to write lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee. One hundred years after Johnson wrote that song, people were speaking and writing of America’s new Gilded Age, marked by incredible concentrations of wealth and power, and an ever growing gap between the rich and poor. Many of the progressive regulations that were put into place at the end of the original Gilded Age, such as those in the banking industry, had been swept away to allow for this new age to flourish. We experienced our own reckless decade, and are now suffering the consequences. And yet so many of our leaders remain addicted to the wine of the world, the concentrated wealth of corporate power. The hopeful side of me hears an echo of Solomon and James Weldon Johnson in the current movement to occupy Wall Street, in the coughing and spitting against an addiction to concentrated wealth and power that has stuck in our culture like a hair in the throat. The cynical side of me hears an echo among many of our politicians of what Solomon heard in response: They struck me but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.
How about you? Where does this Poetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.