There is speech like spraying bullets

It took a tragedy to blow off my individualistic blinders

A group prays at the site of a memorial for the victims of a shooting outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y. Ten people were killed and three wounded on May 14, 2022, when a White gunman opened fire on shoppers and employees. — Joshua Bessex/Associated Press A group prays at the site of a memorial for the victims of a shooting outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y. Ten people were killed and three wounded on May 14, 2022, when a White gunman opened fire on shoppers and employees. — Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

When I bring scripture to bear on systemic injustice, I turn to the Old Testament prophets — heavy hitters like Isaiah or Micah — plus a robust showing from the Gospels. I do not turn to Proverbs. Or, rather, I didn’t, until an event collided with a sermon series in a way I couldn’t ignore.

Ever in search of wisdom, for several years I read a chapter of Proverbs every day. It remains one of the most marked up books in my Bible, second perhaps to the Book of James. Over time I moved through different colors of pens and highlighters, so when I look back I can connect the colors to different periods in my life.

Though I never sought to memorize Proverbs, the sheer repetition of reading it so many times, combined with the memorable nature of the pithy sayings, means they spring to my mind often.

And that’s exactly what proverbs are supposed to do: become a little voice of unexpected, often indirect, commentary on your daily decisions, no matter how big or small. Proverbs are supposed to be memorable, practical, reliable. A high-quality proverb is specific enough to be compelling yet general enough to apply to a wide variety of situations.

The master of Proverbs, then, is a master of discerning when to apply a proverb — and when not to.

So why did my brain’s resident Proverbs sage not pipe up when I recognized injustice around me? Why was the internal sage so quiet while the prophets roared? Does Proverbs have nothing to say about injustice at the systemic level?

I usually think of Proverbs as a voice of personal piety, although that’s more a product of my own cultural blinders than what’s actually there. Proverbs is one of the wisdom books, one of several wisdom voices or perspectives in the Old Testament. Rather than the ultimate authority on what is wise, it’s meant to be held in conversation with other wisdom voices like Job and Ecclesiastes (though perhaps “heated debate” better describes that trio together).

Ancient wisdom voices speak with a communal accent. Individualism was not a value of the ancient Near East. A sharp distinction between one’s self and one’s community may be a hallmark of my culture, but not of the one that produced Proverbs.

What does it mean to understand Proverbs outside my individualistic lens? First, I need to flag proverbs that speak to communities and systems, so that I can connect them to those settings in my life.

One example is naming the oppressive economics, artificial scarcity and food insecurity bemoaned in Proverbs 13:23: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

I also need to pause and ponder how situationally vague proverbs can apply in communal contexts, not just interpersonal ones. It’s no wonder my internal Proverbs sage was quiet: Proverbs has been speaking about systemic ills for millennia, but I didn’t have the ears to listen for it.

Then one day, it clicked. I just wish it hadn’t taken a tragedy to do so.

On May 14, 2022, a White supremacist perpetrated an act of domestic terror at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. The mass shooter stole the lives of 10 African Americans. My predominantly White congregation and I were in the middle of a sermon series on Proverbs, and I didn’t see the news about the shooting until after worship the following day, which left me a full week to brood.

I had already chosen the next sermon theme weeks prior: words and how we use them, from Proverbs 12:18. “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

My stomach sank through the floor when I learned the shooter had written 180 pages of words spelling out his rationale and detailing his plan for violence. After that, the connection to the proverb was unmistakable.

We are no strangers to weaponized words. Even if translators have a hard time figuring out the specific kind of words the first half of Proverbs 12:18 is talking about, there’s no doubt that words can hurt.

We’re all familiar with hurtful words in interpersonal relationships, but that week my individualistic blinders were blown off as I was confronted with a tragic reminder of how words perpetuate, even facilitate, systemic injustice.

Words can be systemic weapons too, not just interpersonal ones. My heavy heart wondered if a 21st-century Proverbs sage would have lamented, “There is speech like spraying bullets.” There is speech like showers of lead. There is speech that tries to justify snuffing out the lives of Black and Brown people in the United States. Again and again.

It’s not a new revelation. But it was new for me to hear it from the voice of Proverbs.

Yet the proverb doesn’t end there. Death and violence wreaked by words give way to wise words that heal. After tragedy, the proverb says there is hope.

I’m left spinning my wheels, though: Words aren’t enough. What are wise words in response to an act like this? What words of healing could I possibly offer amid blood stains and bullet casings — especially when the shooter’s skin looks like mine?

A quiet voice pipes up, and a proverb rises to the surface with signature indirectness: “Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of a gift never given” (Proverbs 25:14). Promises unfulfilled, pledging yet ultimately withholding lifegiving water.

What are Proverbs’ wise words of healing in the wake of spraying bullets? We aren’t told what they are, but we’re taught what they are not.

Wise words of healing aren’t empty ones.

Monica L. Miller (she/her) is a disabled person and former Mennonite Church USA pastor living in Indianapolis, Ind. She gets interrupted by Proverbs a lot more often than she used to.

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