The Corner Cutter

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Simón Bolívar, also known as El Liberator, is the George Washington of not just one country but several, beginning in his native Venezuela. In fact, the official name of that country is the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Nearby, the nation of Bolivia is named for the leader. The currencies of both countries are derived from his name as well.

Go to Venezuela today. Or better yet, don’t go. It’s a dreadful place where the common people struggle to have food to eat or money to buy it with. Poverty has been rife in Venezuela for decades but today it is made worse by an economy that just keeps spiraling downward despite immense oil wealth.

I mention this because I would trace some of Venezuela’s problems to what I saw when I visited the place. Government officials at various levels were corrupt, looking for bribes on matters great and small. And if that happened with police and customs officers, we have to know that it happened among the powerful in and out of government as well.

Consider the next sayings of Koheleth:

Surely, the practice of extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the mind.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Rush to Folly

When I first read these verses, I was annoyed. They seem utterly unrelated and thus would need to be treated separately. But reflecting on the matter briefly, I realized that there is a connection between them.

What sort of person becomes corrupt or practices extortion? Certainly a proud and impatient spirit will lead in that direction. Those officials in Venezuela did not start life less virtuous than me. As much as I might want to dismiss them as just the sort of people that South America produces, I know that this isn’t at all fair.

Or maybe it is fair. Maybe the sort of people that South America produces is the sort of people that North America produces. We start out life with the potential to be honest and humble, but then, to a greater or smaller degree, things go badly.

I could proudly look at myself, a college teacher, and crow that I’ve never asked for or accepted a bribe for good grades. I did have a guy offer me $100 for a better grade one time, but I quickly laughed that off, assuring him that he was joking. Here I am: pure as the driven snow.

But these proverbs don’t indicate that extortion and bribery are the only paths to folly and corruption. I would suggest that any time we manifest our impatient or proud spirit, we are apt to cut corners and engage in behavior that is every bit as dishonest as those Venezuelanos.

Getting in Tune

I don’t know much about Simón Bolívar, but I do know about Washington. What impresses me about the man is that he did not cut corners. Through difficult years, he stayed the course, while Benedict Arnold stuck his finger into the wind and acted corruptly for his own benefit. Honestly, many of the problems of our nation today can be traced back to people cutting corners for selfish reasons.

Jesus stayed the course even better than Washington. One of Satan’s temptations was essentially a corner-cutting exercise, a move that would bypass the cross and jump to the end of the matter from the beginning. But Jesus knew this to be the wrong thing to do.

When we rush to cut corners, when we behave corruptly, we debase ourselves and reflect badly on our God.

Benedict Arnold, American Hero

Benedict Arnold, that ultimate American traitor, made one big mistake in his career during the American Revolution: he didn’t die soon enough. Had Arnold possessed the good sense to, say, die of blood poisoning after the victory at Saratoga, he would today be held up as an American hero  of the second rank. No, he wouldn’t challenge George Washington’s primacy, but honestly who could? On the other hand, he would sport a greater claim to fame than several others who true history nerds know: Nathan Hale or Dr. John Warren. Nathan Hale, had he possessed more than one life to give for his country, might well have done something ignoble with the second one. Arnold, to his detriment, got that opportunity.

Early in the war, Arnold, while a bit reckless and self-promoting, enjoyed a string of bold actions that were mostly successful.

  • When the town fathers in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut dithered, he forced their hand, broke in to the armory, and led his militia unit off to help around Boston.
  • He famously helped to capture Fort Ticonderoga and was instrumental in bringing the fort’s cannon down to Boston, which proved key in driving the British from the city.
  • To take the battle to the enemy, Arnold led a group through the wilderness and made an ill-fated but incredibly bold attack on Québec.
  • Later, he proved instrumental in blunting British efforts to recapture Fort Ticonderoga and, with it, control of Lake Champlain and the north end of the Hudson valley.
  • Finally, it was Arnold who led the successful fighting in the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, a battle that Arnold and many historians believe would have been an even greater win had General Gates heeded his subordinate’s call for further attacks.

After that, Arnold’s triumphs were over. He grew disillusioned and bitter about an array of slights, both real and imagined. Eventually, he got into contact with Major John Andre, and the rest is history.

How sad is it that many Christians enjoy a Benedict-Arnold-like career serving God’s kingdom. We may spend years doing all the right things, teaching Sunday School or passing out bulletins. We might be married for decades or raise a string of godly children. We might, like the prodigal son’s older brother, make all the right moves.

But then, nearing the finish line, we can foul things up. We can wind up damaging our family or dividing our church. What a shame to transform oneself from the hero of Saratoga to the archetypal traitor. That’s why we are warned in Hebrews 12:1-2 to run the race with perseverance. It’s why, in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul doesn’t look back at how he started the race but remarks that he has “finished the race.”

It was at Saratoga that Arnold took a musket ball to the leg that left him limping for the rest of his life. Never given the credit he deserved from that battle, passed over for promotion, and not reimbursed for large personal expenditures, Arnold grew increasingly bitter and eventually conspired to betray the defenses of West Point to the British. If only his wound had proven fatal.