Woodworking guru Norm Abram of The New Yankee Workshop popularized an old English proverb: “Measure twice, cut once.”
Anyone who has even dabbled in woodworking or carpentry knows the wisdom of that saying.
Remember the poor fellow who said, “I’ve cut this board off three times, and it’s still too short.”
This piece of wisdom takes its place with “look before you leap,” “think before you act” and “count to 10 before you speak,” among other versions of this adage.
I have been reminded of this good guidance in recent discussions of responses to a number of the crises that are facing us today, from local issues to global concerns.
When someone in a position of authority is said to give a “measured” response to a policy or an issue, there is often a suggestion that it is “indecisive” and reflects a lack of clear leadership.
“Measured” seems to suggest a pattern of thinking that takes into consideration the complexity of the topic and the implications of various perspectives toward it, as compared to a more direct “Here’s what we need to do about that – now let’s do it!”
A recent and much discussed illustration of the power of the “fast gun” is the response to the horrendous atrocities perpetrated by the group of extremists who call themselves the Islamic State.
When reminders are offered that any faith can be guilty of such things, and that it is good to remember that no faith can be rightly evaluated in terms of what extremists do in its name, this counsel is quickly “shot down” as attacking Christianity, being anti-American and pandering to terrorists.
In spite of the fact that measured responses have almost as quickly pointed out what has been known for centuries and even in more recent history about various sinful, destructive actions done under the auspices of a brand of Christian faith, there is still a tendency to label such comments as “weak” and “lacking in the kind of leadership we need.”
Why is there such a tendency to ignore the lessons of history and jump so quickly to responses that focus on the present expressions of evil without seeing their precedents?
It seems easy to presume a moral high road in the face of others’ cruelties, especially ones as brutal and vicious as what we have witnessed lately.
Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount about seeing the splinter in another’s eye without being aware of something bigger in our own (Matthew 7:5) may have application in collective as well as personal contexts.
It doesn’t suggest not responding to the splinter, but to be careful about our assumptions of righteousness when we do.
Historical honesty and the humility it fosters doesn’t seem to yield the result of reinforcing assumptions of superiority that quick words and actions can provide.
“Let’s think carefully about this” doesn’t seem to inspire quite as effectively as a bold and clear “Let’s go get ’em!”
Measured responses to challenges before us seem to be gaining a hearing, and that is encouraging.
But the distracting power of the “fast gun” of flashpoint responses that exacerbate the problems is still effective in drawing attention away from their roots and complexity.
Norm Abram has had such good luck with his woodworking show; I’m thinking about starting my own. It won’t compete with his, though, because I’ll go after the audience that doesn’t care much about craftsmanship.
In place of his “measure twice, cut once” motto, I’ll have a slightly different one: “Keep your saw running at all times and cut every board in sight.”
The audience will likely love hearing the noise and watching the sawdust fly, and they won’t notice that I don’t even have a ruler or measuring tape.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.