An elected county clerk in Rowan County, Ky., Kim Davis, was jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses. She is required by law to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which she refused to do since it affronts her understanding of the nature of marriage as a Christian. The situation has riled up many people. Some consider her a martyr who is being persecuted for her religious beliefs; others consider her a hypocrite for refusing to do her elected duty, especially since she herself has been divorced three times. While numerous evangelical Christians support her, Catholic commentators have also defended her, on the basis of Scripture and natural law, specifically the principle that an unjust law is no law at all and might even demand civil disobedience.
This dispute has become a source of rancor among Christians because it exposes deep cultural fault lines about the relationship of civil law to divine mandates. But while the particular issue might be new, Christian allegiance to divine commands in the face of contrary civil law has a long history, grounded not only in the teaching of the apostles and the behavior of the first martyrs but also among Jews like the Maccabees and the figure of Daniel. The well-formed conscience has a genuine integrity that cannot be dismissed with snide remarks or by harshly judging the authenticity of participants in a dispute.
How does one navigate contentious issues? What is needed is wisdom. Wisdom, sophia in Greek, hochmah in Hebrew, is personified in Scripture as a divine figure who comes from God to guide us. “Therefore I prayed,” says the Wisdom of Solomon, “and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” We are told that wisdom must be valued above all human gains—“I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her”—but that with wisdom “all good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth.”
Wisdom can take time to find and counsel us, and wisdom requires our attention. In these days, filled with more distractions than ever before, we are called to make complex moral judgments in an instant. Yet the psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Wisdom is not the product of the wittiest tweet, the snarkiest putdown or the cleverest meme but the fruit of prayer, reflection and humility.
Wisdom means carefully examining the positions of others, especially when we are convinced we are correct. Wisdom asks us to see the human beings behind the soundbites, searching out their humanity, even when we are convinced their stance is wrongheaded.
As Christians, we have Scripture to introduce us to wisdom, and we know that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Wisdom comes through attentive reading, when we allow Scripture to interrogate our hearts and minds.
When we read with the teaching and tradition of the church, we are able to hear the wisdom of the people of God and the magisterium, and it is more than just a process of looking to the correct page and chapter in the catechism. Think of Jesus, who met a man who had followed all the commandments exactly, but when Jesus asked him to sell what he owned and to give the money to the poor so that he would “have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” the man balked at accepting Jesus’ wisdom, as most of us might.
Peter, too, cried out to Jesus after the rich young man left, “Look, we have left everything and followed you!” Jesus was challenging his disciples to look beyond commandments simply as a form of proper procedure to the value of wisdom, “uncounted wealth,” “treasure in heaven,” which can guide us in the most tumultuous of times to eternal life.