Being as innocent as doves, and as shrewd as vipers
When Jesus commissions his disciples, he offers them this piece of advice: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Wisdom and innocence don’t always go hand-in-hand, but Jesus tries to make those near-opposites work together. I love the paradox. I love the mystery of it. I love the impossibility of it too.
The cost of practicality
So often, wisdom, or as the word is sometimes translated “shrewdness,” tends to eschew any sort of idealism, or innocence, if you will. Practical decisions are sometimes driven by principles and ideals, but they are often results-oriented. They aren’t ideological necessarily, they are just based on what works. That’s the basic idea beyond an often-maligned (at least in my circles) idea of neoliberalism. Neoliberals are definitely results-oriented and economically-driven. So they aren’t void of an ideological bias. But they generally hold to liberal democratic values and try to enact them in the world through what they call evidence-based policy. Their intent of results blocks them from believing that humans, on their own volition, can make the world better. They develop market-based or market-driven solutions to the world’s problems because, for them, the human self-interest that is elemental to free market economics is much easier to predict than the human morality that is elemental to an alternative.
Put into a certain context, seen as a sort of concession, I think this mentality is OK and, honestly, quite necessary in our world. Good ideology and pure principles won’t get us very far. We need to do things, and sometimes we have to go and be good enough, as opposed to being perfect. That’s why technocratic neoliberalism might be important to our world; it’s also why any good team needs a technocrat.
But there is a cost to such a practical, or what you might call cynical approach. There’s a moral sacrifice that one makes if all they are is shrewd as vipers. There might be even a soul-sacrifice. We can’t just assume the worst in people and try to accommodate them. We can’t just play politics. We have a greater virtue, not just as humans, but fundamentally as Christians. People can be and do good without being tricked into doing it. They can make a self-sacrificial decision for the greater good that isn’t based on evidence. I’m not suggesting this at a policy level (although I might, if pressed), but rather at a personal level.
Christians need to hold on to hope
In other words, this idea isn’t just a matter of results, it’s a spiritual matter too. Christians need to hold on to the hope of bringing Jesus’ kingdom to the earth. We are restoring creation and participating in God’s world redemption project. That is part of Circle of Hope’s active work in the world; we believe that we can do our part in the Spirit’s work of transforming the world and the people in it. We actually believe this is possible, and can’t reduce our work down to just shrewd practicalities.
Christians need to not only work for this possibility, but spread the hope of it too. We know it to be true because of the transformative work that’s happened in our lives, in our communities, and in our world as a result of Jesus’ love among us. We are constrained by God’s love to advance the Gospel and change the world, and in fact, we’ve organized our lives around it. For me, that’s the best way to enact the Kingdom of God. Christians can’t just succumb their ethical work to mere practicalities just because we live in a world where Jesus is hard to experience and the Kingdom hard to enact. No, another world is possible. Christians need to believe that a utopian option can come from the church, one that makes liberal democracy look like a compromise at best. What we have in the world is not the best of what Jesus is giving us. We need to believe in an alternative, even if we don’t have all the specifics worked out.
Our innocence can become too dogmatic
Jesus changes our vantage point when he transforms us. He gives us the mind of Christ and calls us to be of one mind. So the “innocence” that we receive as being part of the Body sometimes appears similar to ideology. It is often touted as doctrinal even. But if we’re not careful those similar concepts replace the transformation itself. We might just think that all we need to do is think the right things to redeem the world. Our work can just become about ideological purity. I think that the right ideas, spoken loudly, are important. They’re an important part of messaging too. Sometimes, they gloss over nuances and complexities, but they are important in bringing people together. This is why populist leaders, on the left and right (whether it’s Chavez or Trump), collect so much attention. They are ideologically-driven, and it is often easier to organize people around ideas that they agree with than a mission they can move with together. We might just end up collecting people that have the right ideas or are committed to the right processes and never actually get anything done for the Kingdom or for the world.
More than just ideology though, Jesus is concerned with our ethics. That is to say, our informed actions. Doctrine, theology, and ideology that isn’t enacted is useless, I would say. We need to be careful though because those ethical principles even if they are readily enacted can be fundamentalized, too. We can end up making sure everyone just fits into the right thought processes and even the right actions.
What’s more, we can reduce our loyalty to Jesus to tribe too. You might need to be the right kind of person, or the right kind of Christian. You might need to dress or look a certain way. You might need to live in a certain neighborhood, follow the right leaders, or have the right political party. Obviously, the worst way this tribalism expresses itself in the world is through racism. We’ve been so tribalized by race, that the United States’ worst atrocities are centered on racism. Those power dynamics still exist today, and Christians need to fight them. However, tribalism is a problem that extends well beyond race even if it’s manifested in its worst way.
Holding shrewdness and innocence together
Ultimately, I think we need to hold, just as Jesus instructs, shrewdness in one hand and innocence in the other. We can’t just rely on the God-given ethics and principles we have. We can’t just rely on the worldly structures to bring the Kingdom here. We need to believe in an alternative, but we also need to know that, in the here and now, we can do things that actually help people experience God’s love through mechanisms that might seem foreign to us as Christians. That’s not an apology for neoliberalism, but it is an understanding that God will make our work perfect, not us. We can move in good directions, make agreements, things that feel like compromises to even our morals, and God will reconcile it and make it work. I have that faith.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a remnant of hope for something greater. Sometimes that hope for the something better in the world is all we have to hold on to. The world is full of trouble and the existential hope of the belief in something more and something greater might be what gets us through our impossible circumstances. I think people need that idealism. I think Christians can bring that too. We aren’t just going to settle. Similarly though, we aren’t just going to wait until everything’s perfect before we act.