“You Lose; You Lose; You Lose; You Lose, and then You Win”: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for Trinity Sunday: Prv. 8: 22-31; Ps. 8: 4-9; Rom. 5: 1-5; Jn. 16: 12-15. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/052613.cfm

As I was preparing this week’s homily, I thought I would focus on a piece of good news for people of faith. For me, that would be a change of pace, because the pages of our newspapers are daily filled with such bad news. At last, I thought, there was something good to report – and related to this morning’s liturgy of the word and its surprisingly indigenous and tribal themes about Wisdom, the Great Spirit and their manifestations in God’s creation. Unfortunately my piece of good news did not stand up to history’s harshness to indigenous people and to the rest of us who are not rich and powerful.

I’m referring to the recent conviction of Guatemala’s ex-president, Rios Montt on charges of genocide. As a frequent visitor to Guatemala along with my students, I’ve followed closely efforts by Guatemala’s Mayan population to bring Montt to justice.

General Efrain Rios Montt was the U.S.-supported dictator who took power by a coup d’état in 1982. On May 10th (just a couple of weeks ago) he was held responsible for the deaths of more than 1700 Guatemalan Mayans in a 40 year-long war that killed more than 200,000 “Indians,” and disappeared more than 30,000 others.

It was the first time a modern head of state has been convicted of genocide in his own country. The octogenarian president, who had been trained at Washington’s Kennedy School, was a vocal born-again Christian, and supported by President Reagan and the Washington establishment was sentenced to more than 80 years in prison.

Montt’s conviction represented a huge victory for Guatemalan priests, religious, catechists who served Guatemala’s poor. Thousands of them had been butchered by the brutal Guatemalan military. It was a victory for peasants, workers, union leaders, social workers, teachers, students and others without public power. They had been working on this case for more than two decades despite threats and violence coming from the Guatemalan oligarchy and the U.S.-trained military that supports it. Above all, Montt’s conviction was a victory for Guatemalan Mayans whose various tribes compose 70% of the country’s population.

I was going to say that the Montt conviction showed that the Forces of Life and Justice coupled with hard work and dedication of ordinary people can achieve miracles even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I intended to point out how the patient indigenous understanding of the unity of all creation, the long arc of history, and the Great Spirit’s powerful Wisdom finally received improbable confirmation.

But then last Tuesday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision on a technicality. As a result, the 86 year old genocide is (at least for the moment) a free man.

The reversal raises the question about the direction of history, who’s really in charge, and what forces (good or evil) will ultimately triumph. An answer to that question, I think, is implied in today’s readings, which, as I said reflect a peculiarly indigenous, tribal point of view about the direction of history and its Sovereign.

That shouldn’t surprise us because the Jewish Testament is a tribal document, isn’t it? Jesus himself was a tribal person – not a product of bourgeois society like us. Once again, according to tribal beliefs the world over, the earth and its history ultimately belong to God. The planet has been given as gift to earthly creatures and to humans as a trust. If it “belongs” to anyone, it belongs to ordinary people – to the poor and not to those whose only claim to ownership resides in their bank accounts.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates that viewpoint in terms of the Wisdom of Jesus and his Holy Spirit. In effect, the readings tell us not to worry whether good or evil will triumph in history. From time’s beginning that issue has already been settled, because in the long run God’s Wisdom is in charge not only of human history, but of the entire cosmos. Far from asking us to worry, God’s Wisdom requires us to know one thing only – what every tribal person knows.

You see, wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge is the intellectual grasp of data and so-called “reality.” The knowledgeable person knows many things. And that knowledge often tells us that the world is hopeless; the cards are stacked against ordinary people – like the Mayans of Guatemala – and their thirst for justice and hope. The powerful have insured the maintenance of the status quo, for instance by retaining power to annul unfavorable court rulings.

The tribal wise people on the other hand need to know one thing only. In theological terms, they know (and act on the knowledge) that the Lord is present in every human being and in all of the earth and that in the big scheme of things, God’s Wisdom will triumph. Hinduism’s Shveshvatara Upanishad puts it this way: “Know that the Lord is enshrined in your heart always. Indeed there is nothing more to know in life. Meditate and realize the presence of God in all the universe.”

The first reading from the Book of Proverbs seconds that insight from the Upanishads. Proverbs portrays Wisdom as God’s guiding principle for the creation of the entire universe. Wisdom is embedded in the very laws of creation. The author pictures it as playing before God as the Creator pours God’s Self into the earth, its oceans, skies, and mountains – and into the human race.

Today’s responsorial psalm also agrees. It praises wise human beings. In God’s creative order, they are almost angels. They are crowned with honor and glory, the psalmist says; they rule the earth. This is because they realize (as the Mayan indigenous of Guatemala do) that they are sisters and brothers with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and with the creatures of the deep.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said something similar; he saw the wise as “gentle” (meek); he promised that they would have the earth for their possession. They are princesses and princes, kings and queens in disguise whatever their earthly social status and wherever they find themselves.

Finally, the Gospel reading from John concurs with the understanding of the wise which sees them as single-minded – as knowing only that one necessary thing (God’s presence in each and every creature). John says that the wise who (like Jesus) know that one thing, ultimately receive everything from God, the origin of all things good and wise. So John has Jesus again tell his friends not to worry about anything – not even about remembering the many things he might tell them.

Instead, they should rely on God’s Spirit of Truth who will remind them of the one thing necessary. That Spirit will remind them that Jesus, the Gentle and Incomparable One embodied conscious awareness of God’s presence in everything. Consequently (like all the gentle) he has been given everything that belongs to God. “Everything that the Father has is mine,” says the crucified and apparently defeated one.

Living in accord with Jesus’ spirit of conscious unity with God brings peace even in the face of ostensible failure. That’s what Paul says in today’s second reading. Even though we might be otherwise afflicted, those very afflictions will strengthen our character, Paul writes. The love which Jesus’ Spirit pours into our hearts will produce great hope when those around us are mired in and depressed by their despair.

Can you imagine the despair of the Mayans during the genocide – and now by the reversal of the Montt decision? Can you imagine their temptations to discouragement before the overwhelming odds they face in pursuing God’s justice against the brutal killers of their relatives and friends?

The message of today’s readings: Don’t be discouraged. Instead be mindful of God’s Wisdom. It is present in your heart and in the very fabric of the cosmos. Despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the best-laid plans of the powerful, the Forces of Life and Justice will prevail in the end.

Or as the great community and labor organizer, Mother Jones said “You lose; you lose; you lose; you lose, and then you win.”

That final, improbable victory of God’s wisdom and justice is what’s promised in our readings today.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on ““You Lose; You Lose; You Lose; You Lose, and then You Win”: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Your sermon is wonderful – much to ponder here. Thank you.

    No, I cannot envisage how disheartened the Guatemalan Mayan people must feel — once again! As an American who has not experienced or witnessed anything like what has been done to these people, it is just impossible to comprehend. I am ashamed and angry to the bone about my country’s collusion in this despotic evil regime and for the inherent responsibility it shares for this genocide.

    The United States ‘foreign policy,’ implemented by the CIA and the South and Central American death squads (trained in the U.S. School of the Americas in Georgia) are just as culpable for these murders, yet no one here will ever be charged for them in any court. It is a fact, too, that most U.S. citizens do not know the truth about what their country has done, and continues to do, to innocent people in their name.

    My faith tells me that the Forces of Life and Justice will prevail in the end. It’s just the in-between wait that is so difficult to bear.

    (Mother Jones also said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” That is one of my favorite quotes of all time. I can understand how it became a clarion call for unionists, as they dragged the dead bodies of their brothers and sisters from the front of the picket lines.)

    T.S. Eliot said: “Where is the wisdom we lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we lost in information?” For me, this quote applies to the mind-boggling “information” ( data, sound bites, and visual blips on fast-moving screens) that assault our minds daily.

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    1. Aliceny, your contributions to this page are so insightful and valuable. Thank you. It is ironic, as you say, that we have so much information at our fingertips, yet seem to be retrogressing in terms of wisdom and creating a liveable planet. What strong faith it takes to profess belief, as you have, that despite appearances the “Forces of Life and Justice will prevail in the end.” I’m striving to make that my faith as well.,

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  2. This is an interesting blog Mike.
    The Guatemala affair is archived in democracynow.org of Thurs 23rd US time – as is excellent coverage by Jeremy Scahill of the new code of “Justice, Values and Way of Life” droned down from the heavens in a new form of Book Bell and Candle justice. An indisputably Spiritual… hunch!
    And the Mayans know all about that. Long before the Rios Montt family left Madrid..
    (Gosh most of us don’t have a clue what blow-back really means. The rest of the world, including the Far East, is rife with this week’s London mad-cleaver brandishing types. Drunk with the hatred of being urinated on yet again by another righteous Christian empire. And we shout shame and horror when the same “justice” is meted out on us.They lose, they lose, they lose , and then they lose again!).
    However what struck me in this blog is that you seem to be saying that all things, repeat ALL things come from God, which is hardly ever said in Christianity. You could be bordering on heresy here Mike! I notice when you quote John it reverts back to a more traditional all, things coming from God, “the origin of all things good and wise”.
    If what you say is correct it would mean that indeed all things, good, bad and indifferent comes from God. Not only earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes but also Hitlers, Stalins, Mao Tsetungs – and some US presidents. The fact we do not want to see it that way, is maybe up for further discussion. Hindu has the same belief, which you quote, which is regarded as the first monotheistic social-belief system close to 10,000 years old. But we still maintain intolerance to such ancient Pagan wisdom.
    But we are evolving. And it is comforting to think evolution implies revelation not simply survival of the fittest.
    If only good comes from Above where the hell does the bad come from – which the Mayans know all about! But maybe their astronomers knew something we don’t and a new Age will bring a reversal of fortunes. Which reminds me of what John Lennon sang about – if you had the Luck of the Irish, you would wish you was English instead.

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    1. Good thoughtful challenging comment again, Jim. I really didn’t mean ALL. To my mind, it’s not like there’s some god “up there” orchestrating things. LIFE and the evolutionary process are good even though we can’t see it in the short term. But the evils and evil-doers you mention come from human choices that (wittingly or not) attempt to thwart “God’s” Life Processes. Karma or the law of consequences and “cause and effect” will get them (us?).

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      1. I will need to revert to your answer at a later date as your explanation leaves me confused…unsatisfied …which is not that unusual for me…free choice, karma…anon anon!

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