|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
August 28, 2011
a story from Jewish folklore of a couple who go to their local Rabbi to
settle a disagreement that has been eating away at their relationship. The
man explains the situation and argues his case to the Rabbi, who listens
carefully and then proclaims, “Yes, yes, you are absolutely right.”
The wife is incensed and says, “Wait, you haven’t heard my side
of the story,” and she proceeds to lay out her case. The Rabbi again
listens carefully, and when she is done, says, “Yes, yes, you are
The husband throws up his hands in frustration. “Wait a second. First you said I was right; then you said she was right. Well, which is it? We can’t both be right!” The Rabbi nods his head slowly and says, “Yes, yes, you are absolutely right.”
Proverbs 26 sounds a bit like this Rabbi. In verse 4, we are told that
if you try to answer fools you will become a fool yourself, but then the
very next verse tells us that we should answer fools because if we don’t
they will think themselves wise. In other words, Proverbs says, “If
you try answering a fool, you’ll just end up looking foolish but
if you don’t answer a fool, they’ll end up looking wise.”
The seeming contradiction of these two verses was unsettling enough to
almost prevent the Book of Proverbs from being included in the canon.
So, what is the Bible telling us? Should we speak or not speak? The answer is a resounding, "It depends."
Before we look more at what that answer means and what it tells us about the proper way to answer fools, I want to back up for a second and ask, "Who is the fool we are talking about?" How does the book of Proverbs define a fool? The word "fool" occurs 72 times in the book of Proverbs and it's only 31 chapters long so Proverbs is clearly obsessed with fools. If you read through all of those passages, what you will discover is that according to Proverbs, a fool is anyone who refuses to increase their knowledge of God and fails to live an upright faithful life. In other words, a fool is someone who doesn't practice religion the way you do. And while we might not be so blunt about it today, that's an accurate description of how a lot of people still think.
Last week, I spoke at the training session for Alfred University RAs, giving them some direction on how to handle religious conflicts that arose between students living in the dorm. Afterward, Kathy Woughter, the Vice President of Student Affairs told me that this was the first time the RA training had addressed issues of religious diversity.
"We immerse the RAs in diversity awareness over matters of race, sexuality, and ethnic issues and just hammer away at them," she said, "but the two areas we have never covered are religion and politics so this was very helpful." She laughed and added, "I doubt we'll ever tackle politics."
Discussions of religion can be contentious because our religious views form a sense of our identity -- of who we are -- just as strongly as our ethnic, sexual, or racial identities do, but unlike our race or our sexuality, our religious beliefs are seen by others as a matter of choice. In other words, even a racist doesn't say to a Black man, "You are a fool for being a Black man." A racist may say a lot of other bigoted things to him but wouldn't try to argue him out of being Black as if he got up this morning and foolishly chose to be Black instead of White because he wasn't willing to listen to the racist's persuasive arguments. We reserve the word "fool" for those people who choose to believe something that we don't believe, or who choose not to believe something we do.
Now, that belief or non-belief that we have characterized as foolish
may be a very important part of that other person's identity -- a fundamentalist
Christian may identify herself primarily by the fact that she is saved
by Jesus Christ. A Muslim may identify himself primarily by the prayers
he says five times a day. Our religious beliefs make us who we are just
as profoundly as the color of our skin or our sexuality determines who
we are, and so discussions of our religious beliefs are deeply personal
and as a person who tries to be respectful of other faiths and practices,
I am uncomfortable accepting the way that the book of Proverbs labels
those who believe differently as fools. No matter how vehemently I may
disagree with a fundamentalist Christian who tells me that I am condemned
to hell because women don't belong in the pulpit, I am not going to call
that person a fool. That said, however, in spite of its strong language,
the Book of Proverbs does raise an important question: "When someone
confronts you with a belief that is contrary to your own, do you answer
them or not? When a fundamentalist Christian tells me I am destined to
hell for preaching to you on Sunday mornings, do I answer her? When an
atheist tells you that you are irrational for believing in God, do you
answer him? When a Jehovah's Witness knocks at your door, do you answer
it? Though the book of Proverbs phrases it differently than we might today,
the dilemma it describes is the same, and its advice -- "it depends"
-- is dead on.
A teacher once asked her ninth graders what was the most important thing they had learned. One student, Michael, answered, “When your dad is mad and asks you, 'Do I look stupid?' don’t answer him.”
Likewise, when a person asks you, "Brother, are you saved?" the question may, in fact, be just as rhetorical. Like a telemarketer, they are there to sell you their religion and if you are not interested in buying, the best thing to do is to say, "Thank you, but I'm not interested" and walk away politely.
When I was in college, I visited New York City with my sister and a college friend, and one day as we were touring the downtown area, two young women approached us and asked us if we were saved. I'm sure they had asked a hundred people the same question and had given their salvation speech a hundred times but what they didn't know was that this time, they were talking to three people who would eventually all end up in the ministry and consequently we were more prepared than most for theological debate. In fact, by the time we were done with those two girls, they were in tears, literally shaken by their own sense of inadequacy in the face of our brilliant biblical scholarship and doctrinal knowledge. As they beat their escape, we were pretty darn proud of ourselves for having successfully won the encounter but looking back on it now, I suspect that the only thing we accomplished by our skillful arguments was to send the two girls back to their Bibles determined to improve their chances of winning the next round.
Jesus knew that sometimes the only way to win is to refuse to play the game. There were many times Jesus walked away from his detractors to leave their taunts unanswered and he told his disciples that the best response to a slap in the face is to turn the other cheek, to refuse to slap back. Likewise, when someone tries to engage you in a religious discussion or when someone makes a religious claim that you disagree with, you have to weigh whether or not the person is really interested in your opinion.
If it is a friend wanting to mull over questions of belief, then go ahead
But if you think that the other person's statement is just the opening move in a game that can only end with a winner and a loser, the only way to win is not to play. Walk away (or if you are on a plane, smile politely and plug in your iPod). In the words of Proverbs, "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself."
To engage fools in argument is to become a fool yourself, Proverbs says,
unless.... it goes on to say, .... unless remaining silent will make them
appear wise in which case you should reply, "Bring it on."
Did you ever think about those stories in the Bible where Jesus tries to teach people something and they walk away unchanged? Did you ever think, "What a shame that no one listened to what he had to say?" But someone did listen, because the story was remembered and passed on and written down and here we are reading it 2000 years later. Often, the gospel that we remember is not the gospel that is preached at us but is instead the gospel we overhear. It is the soft spoken words of conviction that make sense to us even if the person they are spoken to rejects them. It is the quiet act of generosity shown toward another that makes us want to know that same capacity for generosity in our own hearts. It is the story we hear of someone else's encounter that makes us re-think our own beliefs.
I knew I wouldn't convince that 16 year old that night that there may be room in Christianity for beliefs different than her own, but the manner in which I handled myself, the thoughtful answers I gave, my understanding of the Bible, my constant assertion of deep faith, yet my insistence on respectfully disagreeing with her beliefs made sure that the other 19 girls knew that her's was not the only way to worship God and serve Christ.
To speak or not to speak; aye, that is the question. And Proverbs' answer:
A definitive, "It depends!"