‘Shrewd as serpents, simple as doves’

Friday July 15, 2016 Written by Published in Church Talk
American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King JR was murdered as a result of standing for his cause. 16071419 American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King JR was murdered as a result of standing for his cause. 16071419

BEHOLD, I am sending you like sheep among wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt 10:16).


Last week I wrote on the expression, “Enter by the Narrow Gate.”

This week I take another of these expressions of Jesus that would have been well known to the Jews of his time. We must note that in these words Jesus was making use of ideas and pictures which were part and parcel of Jewish thought.

Looking at history, the advance of truth and justice is best accomplished by those who are just and truthful.

The struggle for independence so many years ago in India modeled this strategy under Gandhi, who knew well that violence breeds violence, even justifies it, whether this comes in the form of official repression of protest, or wars of revenge that spiral out of control.

Recent newspaper articles would have us believe that the former UK prime minister Tony Blair has not come out well in the scathing report recently published on justifying the UK’s entry into war with Iraq.

But this approach is not without victims. Gandhi spoke the truth and refused to comply with unjust laws, and he was imprisoned for it. Other nonviolent protesters, like Steven Biko in South Africa and Dr Martin Luther King Jr who was heavily involved with the civil rights struggle in the US, were murdered. Jesus himself, the great historical mentor of nonviolence, was excommunicated by the religious establishment and executed by the empire.

What must the disciples of Jesus have thought when he told them he was sending them out like “sheep among wolves?”

They are told to take no resources, no means of personal defence which apparently was the purpose of a walking stick. And not even sandals to protect their feet on the rough roads. Their vulnerability in a hostile world was a way of disarming opponents by showing they came in peace.

In a similarly strange instruction, he told them to turn the other cheek if struck; to walk an extra mile if forced to carry a pack for a Roman soldier. To affirm that this nonviolent approach was a conscious strategy and not foolish naivete, Jesus added, “Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

The world, then as now, was hostile to believers. Wolves are intentional about the harm they inflict upon sheep. In such an environment, the question becomes “how can we advance the kingdom of God effectively without becoming predatory ourselves?”

Jesus taught His followers that, to be Christ-like in a godless world, they must combine the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove.

In using these similes, Jesus invokes the common proverbial view of serpents and doves. The serpent was “subtle” or “crafty” or “shrewd” in Genesis 3:1.

The dove, on the other hand, was thought of as innocent and harmless. Doves were listed among the “clean animals” and were used for sacrifices (Leviticus 14:22). To this very day, doves are used as symbols of peace, and snakes are thought of as “sneaky.”

What we have been looking at on our television screens over the past week coming out of the US gives us plenty to think about.

The cocktail of social, racial and economic tension and easy access to weapons is carrying the American nation into a season of growing violence. Fear of the foreigner, fear of one another, fear of those appointed to protect and serve the communities of the nation, is now being fueled by the extreme rhetoric of political campaigns. Is the exposure given by the media, encouraging more violence?

One has to ask who will bring truth and fairness in a way that Ghandi, Biko, Mandela or King did to previous generations?

Jesus proposes the greatest power of all: Not more lethal force or threat of vengeance, but the integrity of goodness, honesty and the courage to address the causes of hurt and division. Crisis is forcing us to choose between chaos and community. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves, still is very relevant as a way forward.

Does this have any application to the Cook Islands? I recommend just taking the time to look at how issues are handled in this country. Have we overall maintained an ability to address real issues in a civil way on talk back radio and in the newspaper? Taxing the New Zealand pension, purse seine fishing, the new wall at the market; wearing of motorcycle helmets; the recent challenge by the opposition to become the government. Has the language used been respectful? How tolerant are we towards those who hold an opposing point of view? Am I open to give and take? Open to backing down if a better argument is presented? Can disarming innocence and goodness work together with ingenuity, shrewdness and strength to achieve a common good? Can two seemingly opposing points of view be necessary for a better understanding of an issue?

Somehow, the dove and the serpent have to make room for each other if they are not to stay in their own limited world view. Each has qualities and strengths that the other might lack.

When the best qualities of each are refined and sharpened by the other, the serpent and the dove can be a force to be reckoned with.

                (Sourced from Pat Marrin Celebration.)

                Bishop Paul Donoghue,

                Catholic Church

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