By now you have seen, ad nauseam, video of the “Covington Catholic Kids” and Nathan Phillips in a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial. By now you’ve reached some conclusions on the incident. We’ve had time now to hear reports from both sides, see videos from different angles and sources, even look at the records of the “victim.”
The “news” is not the incident itself, but watching America jump to conclusions. Ideally, we reach conclusions after gathering information, weighing it, and making appropriate decisions. The idiom “jumping to conclusions” describes making decisions, but skipping the information-gathering process.
In this case, I’ve watched news agencies and folks on social media backtrack on conclusions reached before other important information came to light.
The Bible addresses this human predilection for jumping the gun in its wisdom literature. The Hebrew term for wisdom (hokmah) means something akin to “skill.” Wisdom is, in a sense, skill for navigating life. And one important life skill is withholding judgment until the facts are in.
“He who answers before listening— that is his folly and his shame (Proverbs 18:13).” In the Book of Proverbs, the fool is the opposite of the wise man. He refuses to listen to others (15:5) and loves to express his opinion (12:15). Here, the fool is a poor communicator because he refuses to listen to others. He doesn’t listen to the question before answering. He interrupts others to give his opinion. He believes his view is more important than others’. The result is that the fool exposes his folly and brings shame on himself.
“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him (Proverbs 18:17).” Here the author uses an illustration of a legal case in court. He warns against hasty judgments made before all the facts have been heard and examined.
In a similar warning we read: “…do not bring hastily to court, for what will you do in the end if your neighbor puts you to shame (Proverbs 25:8)?” Here again is the warning of hasty conclusions reached before all evidence is presented and examined. The new evidence may disprove allegations and bring shame and embarrassment to the accuser.
These brief Proverbs are easy to forget and ignore, often because there is no context. The sage simply states the truth in a long list of other truths. The truth is harder to ignore in the context of story as the consequences of foolishness are seen.
This is one of the sub-plots of the Book of Job (another wisdom book of the Old Testament). Job finds himself in a terrible situation. Life has crashed around him and he’s lost everything he loved. He’s looking for answers. Enter Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
The bulk of the book is their dialogue with Job. What becomes quickly evident is that each of Job’s friends are so involved in their own answers and defending their own theological positions they lose sympathy for Job and offer him no comfort.
At one point, Job responds: “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing (Job 16:2-3)?”
Ultimately, God condemns Job’s friends for their folly – for speaking out of turn and opining without facts. “After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly (Job 42:7-8).’”
Another biblical book of wisdom is the Epistle of James in the New Testament. Here’s his sage advice: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…(James 1:19).”
In our desire to discover the truth (one of the themes in James), we should strive to get all the facts (be quick to listen), listen more than we speak (since we have two ears and one mouth), and reach conclusions only when the facts are in (slow to become angry).
James is probably working from earlier Jewish writings like Ben Sira: “Be quick to hear, and be deliberate in answering. If you have understanding, answer your neighbor; but if not, put your hand on your mouth. Glory and dishonor come from speaking, and a man’s tongue is his downfall (Sir. 5:11-13).” Rabbis called this the “third tongue” because it “kills” three people: the speaker, the one spoken to, and the one spoken of.
The foolishness of jumping to conclusions, of speaking without understanding, of refusing due diligence before opining, brings shame and pain. We would do well to heed the Bible’s wisdom here.
In a world of lightning-fast information, we’re tempted to reach lightning-fast conclusions and shout our immediate opinions, condemnations, or vindications. James might write to us today: “Don’t believe everything you read or hear; Be quick to do your research, slow to repost and slow to reach conclusions.”
This is wisdom and has never been more relevant than it is today. It’s pertinent to the media, to politicians, to bloggers…to us all. And if this is an area in which you struggle, James gives us this promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).”