Summary: The old Wshington-DuBois debate is mirrored in Jacob: his trouble was from his own foolishness as well as from others’ deceit. The way out was to receive God’s promise of greatness and to act now to offer concrete help to those coming after.
Almost exactly a century ago, American listened to a debate between two great thinkers, two men who had unquestionable credentials, first-rate minds, and powerful pens.
Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. In September 1895, in a speech in Atlanta, Booker Taliaferro Washington advocated training in practical skills for young people of African descent. His speech and his ideas resounded throughout the country. At his Tuskegee Institute, Washington started courses in farming, bricklaying, mattress making, and wagon building. He insisted that his people stay out of politics and not agitate for rights. His slogan was, "Cast down your bucket where you are,“ which meant that everyone should look at the resources they already had available, and learn to use these things. If you will farm, if you will labor, if you will work hard, you will "earn" – that’s his word, not mine – you will earn your rights and privileges.
Over against Washington was his younger contemporary, the proud, intellectual, aloof William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. In this very year, 1895, as Booker T. Washington was delivering his Atlanta speech, W. E. B. Du Bois was receiving his doctorate from Harvard University. Du Bois challenged Washington’s acceptance of racial separation and demanded equal rights. More than that, he attacked Washington for minimizing the value of higher education. Du Bois instead spoke of training the talented tenth. The leaders, the exceptional people, the gifted and talented, these are the ones who should be counted on to lift and lead others. You cannot, he said, expect everybody to get ahead. Train the talented tenth, so that, as he put it, again, his words, not mine, "The best can lead the worst." Develop the talented tenth.
Now, happily, I do not have to argue this case out this morning. But, in another way, I found the talented tenth in the Biblical story that Deacon Holt selected for this year’s observance of Black History Month at our church. We’ve heard the story of Jacob and his ladder read to us. (’II take you back to that story in a minute, but just focus with me on its last line, where Jacob says to God, "Of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you." One tenth. Is this the talented tenth?
First, let’s think about how we got to our present state of circumstances in America. Racial relationships in this nation, never really good, are today again deteriorating and declining. Students resegregate school cafeterias. Skinheads paint graffiti and form armed resistance clubs. The language of militancy counters the language of racial epithets. We’re in trouble again. How did this happen? Who is to blame?
Jacob knew what it was to be in trouble. He was born in trouble, as a child he stayed in trouble, and when he left home, he was still in trouble.
Some of that trouble was of Jacob’s own making. He had stolen his brother’s birthright, deceiving their father. He had planned, with no regard for honesty, to put one over on the old man. Some of his trouble was home made.
But much of it was not. Many of Jacob’s problems came from what others did. Rebekah, his mother, conspired with him; the classic indulgent mama led her son to believe that if he wanted something, he should have it. Rebekah is in part to blame for Jacob’s foolishness.
And Isaac too. Victim though he was, Jacob’s father was to blame. Isaac tried to manage Jacob, tried to set down the rules of his life too rigidly. Isaac tried to tell his son whom to marry and where to go to find a wife. When you meddle too much in the private life of a young person, you are asking for rebellion. Isaac shares the blame for Jacob’s misbehavior.
And then there was Esau. There was a lot of hate in brother Esau. Undefined, indiscriminate hate. Unfocused anger. A sour personality. That too affected Jacob. Lots of Jacob’s problems can be laid to the feet of others around him.
And so when Jacob stopped that night, running from home, and running from himself; when Jacob stopped that night, he was the product of both a messed up family and of his own folly. When Jacob found himself out there in that wilderness, wondering where his next meal was coming from and how he was going to survive the night, he got there partly by his own messy mistakes and partly by the plots and the maneuvers of others who wished him harm.
I suspect that’s usually the way it is. If any of us is in trouble, if any of us is living a mixed up, messed up life, well, some of that is our own craziness. And much of that was brought to us by others who wished us harm. Both are at fault.