What pops into mind when you hear the word "shrewd"?
Many conjure up a silky-voiced charlatan who sands down the sharp edges of what's true. They echo 19th century historian Henry Adams' complaint. He chided Washington insiders because they acted like scumbags, shrewdly fattening their pockets by investing in slick schemes. Assuming secretarial chores for his newly elected congressman father, Henry Adams warned politicians to reject Washington's "bad temper, bad manners, poker and treason." They polluted the capital like a thick oil spill.
Surprising, then, that Jesus regarded acting shrewdly as a virtue, not a vice. He dispatched disciples to preaching and teaching missions, commanding them to act shrewdly. Jesus set a high baar of conduct, expecting his messengers to act "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).
How do we spot shrewd people who display the wisdom of the Bible's proverbial snake? For Jesus, a snake symbolized someone with street smarts, not shifty; a person who perceived what others don't see; a wise political operative who out-maneuvers opposition without being snookered.
Succeed at acting shrewdly, taught Jesus. Then you're nobody's fool.
Gilbert Chesterton, the witty Roman Catholic writer, coined an adage, summing up what Jesus meant about acting shrewdly. Critics, he said, might call their enemy a "greenhorn." Such a person isn't gullible, quipped Chesterton, because he sees the inside of everything. A shrewd person plays the fool, like those in Shakespeare's plays. But they aren't foolish; they're shrewd.
President Barack Obama admires Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois politician who became president because he was uncannily shrewd. He kept the opposition off-balance. They dismissed Lincoln as a country oaf, coarse as bark from timbers in the log cabin where Abe was born.
Before arriving in Washington, Lincoln endured name bashing like a burning light attracts moths on a sweltering summer eve.
When Henry Clay Whitney visited Springfield, Ill., on a "cold, and dismal afternoon" in January 1861, he described icy blasts aimed at Lincoln in recent mail.
Pundits, recorded Whitney, mercilessly lampooned the president-elect with "editorials in pompous language, referring to him as the Illinois ape, a baboon, a satyr, a negro, a mulatto, a buffoon, a monster, an abortion, an idiot, etc." These scathing caricatures grew longer legs in newspaper editorials than the president-elect himself.
Such critics stayed on a well-worn path no shrewd political dog would track. Their barks lacked shrewd bite.
Joseph Howard, a New York Times correspondent, split from the critics. He didn't describe Lincoln as a dullard from the sticks. "Honest Old Abe was all very well for an electioneering rally," Howard perceptively wrote, "but shrewd Old Abe is much more to the purpose these days. He cannot be fooled, he cannot be led unwillingly, and he cannot be swerved from an opinion of the honesty and policy of which he is convicted."
President Obama shares Lincoln's shrewd trait.
When Newt Gingrich attacks him in his latest book, "To Save America," the former college history teacher turned House speaker flunks debunking Obama. He makes the president out to be the devil who spreads socialism.
"America as we know it is now facing a mortal threat," writes hand-wringing Gingrich. Liberals like Obama have sold their souls to the devil. Democrats, in erecting a socialistic dynasty, are committed "to a secular socialist ideology that is alien to America's history and traditions."
"The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did," warns Gingrich. Obama raises the specter of our fair land ruled by another Hitler or Stalin.
Really? Isn't this foolish fluff?
"And yet the pitchforks are being brandished," writes disgusted Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham (July 12, 2010, p. 4), "not to encourage government to curb the excesses of the elite but to warn the citizenry that the government has turned into a socialist threat to free enterprise."
Meanwhile, President Obama plies his talents and gets massive legislation passed to protect consumers and harness Wall Street. He sagely knows what Gingrich ignores. The fight isn't about big-small government. It's about what the government in a republic must do to protect citizens' rights so we each have a chance to seize opportunities and share in them.
President Obama plays Shakespeare's fool to opponents like Gingrich. He fends off sham attacks caricaturing him a socialist. Obama shrewdly moves ahead, without capitulating to critics.
He, like Lincoln, is wise as a serpent.
The Rev.Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com).