Prudence, Bush 41 & Abraham

After President George H.W. Bush passed away on the night of November 30, one of the first of many tributes to be posted was titled, “The two-syllable word that summed up George H.W. Bush—in the best way.” That word, according to columnist David Von Drehle, is “prudence,” as in comedian Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of Bush: “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

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Prudence is an easy word to make fun of, especially as it evokes the ever-unpopular terms “prude” and “prudery.” But prudence is in reality a virtue, sometimes considered the first of the virtues, as Karen Swallow Prior notes. “Virtue requires judgment, and judgment requires prudence. Prudence is wisdom in practice” (On Reading Well, chapter one). Prior goes on to cite the Catholic catechism, which defines prudence as the habit of discerning the “true good in every circumstance” and “the right means of achieving it.”

I’m currently writing about the virtues and how to practice them based on the example of our pioneering forefather Abraham (see my last two posts, 11/30 & 11/26). So what about prudence? Is prudence a quality that Abraham models for us?

I believe Abraham is showing prudence when he decides it’s time to separate from Lot. Both men had become so prosperous that the land couldn’t support their flocks and herds, and quarreling broke about between their herdsmen.

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Gen 13:8–9)

The word “separate”—parad in Hebrew—appears three times in this brief story, and separating from Lot can’t be easy for Abraham. Lot has been with him since he left his ancestral homeland and the rest of his extended family. Abraham is about to become even more alone—but it’s the right thing to do.

I almost wrote “it’s the prudent thing to do,” but that still sounds weak, still evokes the Dana Carvey laugh line, so let’s take a closer, word-nerd look at this term. “Prudence,” as any good dictionary will tell you, derives from the Latin providentia, as in providence, meaning divine guidance or care, or Providence, a synonym for God himself. The Latin word in turn comprises “pro” meaning “before, in advance,” and “vide”, seeing. Prudence is “wisdom in practice” because it looks ahead, and gains a sense of the outcome of a decision before executing it.

For Abraham it might be nice to stick together and make things work—at least for a while—with Lot, but it wouldn’t be prudent. The herds are bound to keep expanding, tensions are bound to keep mounting after the kumbaya moment, and the Canaanites and Perizzites were still dwelling in the land (Gen 13:7). Time for prudential wisdom.

But Abraham also demonstrates that prudence isn’t mere calculation or pragmatism. He’s going to let Lot have first choice, implicitly because he trusts God, who has already promised him the land, along with abundant posterity and blessing. Godly prudence weighs not just the circumstances and their likely trajectory, but also the reality of God’s presence and oversight; in other words, his providence.

Lot shows the opposite, a lack of prudence that helps us understand the virtue in contrast. He doesn’t choose with foresight and attention to God’s promises, but impulsively.

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. (Gen 13:10–11)

Prudence doesn’t go for what looks best, for what provides the biggest short-term return, which is one reason why it isn’t so highly regarded nowadays. Lot yields to the verdant eye-appeal of Sodom and separates (there’s that word again) from Abraham. We know how this story is going to turn out for Lot. But for Abraham, the Lord says, “after Lot had separated from him” (there’s the third appearance),

Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. (Gen 13:14–15)

As with all the virtues, prudence is its own reward. It’s a beautiful moral quality for its own sake. But it has some positive side effects too. Columnist Von Drehle concludes his tribute to President Bush with a look at his defeat in the 1992 presidential election that reminds us of the positive impact of prudence.

The nation apparently wanted something more exciting. Hoo boy, have we gotten it: Oval Office sexcapades, an impeachment, the heedless invasion of Iraq followed some eight years later by the heedless withdrawal of U.S. troops, an economic crash — all leading up to the wild improvisations of President Trump. There are no do-overs in history. But I believe if we’d known then what we know now, we would have said: Not gonna do it.

Wouldn’t be prudent.

As I’ve been writing about Abraham and the example he sets for us, I’ve used exciting terms like “journey”, “pioneer,” and “courage.” We need them all, of course, but we also need prudence, the ability to step back, look ahead, consider deeply, stir up our trust in God, and do the wise thing whether or not it looks so green and well-watered.

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