Kings’ Lies

And when we arrived in the region of Jerusalem, in the month of flowers, our good emissary led and brought us inside Jerusalem. . .

And when we heard from them what they said, again we rejoiced greatly. And while we were exulting, we saw our leader and our guide; again we abounded in joy all the more.

And while we spoke mysteries, and all manner of revelations, and praises, we went in joy to Bethlehem as the blind scribes had read, not believing what they read from their books, nor Herod, the blind governor, [unseeing] of the love of the light that was born in their land, which was the light before all worlds. And they are dwelling in darkness in the world in their days.

But Herod said to us in his deceit: “When you have seen the messiah, come and tell me, that I also may go to worship him.” And because he was not worthy for the worship of the light that was born, because he was a dwelling of error, it was said to us by our guide and our light that we should not return to him, because he was not worthy to see the great light of the world, because he was totally deaf and blind to its worship. – The Revelation of the Magi 17:1, 7-9

This is a serious day, as we celebrate the birth of MLK . . . And I want to address a serious issue. It’s the issue this version of the story of the kings highlights: the question of lying. And not just lying, it’s the question of blindness to the truth. All of the actors in this story lie: king herod lies, the kings deceive.

So it’s serious stuff . . . But in the tradition of Martin Luther King’s African American church, the most serious matters, life and death, freedom and captivity are addressed in story.

So let me begin and end with stories.

This old rancher in Montana hates wearing a seat belt. One day he’s driving on the highway with his wife and sees a state patrol car behind him. He says to his wife, “Quick, take the wheel! I gotta put my seat belt on!” So she does, and right then officer pulls him over.

She walks up to the car and says to the rancher, “Say, I noticed you weren’t wearing your seat belt.”

The rancher says, “I was too, but you don’t have to take my word for it. My wife here is a good Christian woman, ask her. She’ll tell you the truth. She doesn’t lie about anything.”

The cop says to the wife, “So? How about it, ma’am?”

And the wife says, “I’ve been married to Buck for twenty years, officer, and one thing I’ve learned in all that time is this: You never argue with him when he’s drunk.”

We laugh at the joke because we see freedom comes to the wife precisely when she tells truth to power.  You could imagine this wife to be one of the nearly 1/3 of women in the US who have reported being abused by a mate.  We laugh because freedom is so precious, that it will come as it will, unexpectedly, and blessedly.  We laugh for relief because we know the reality is grimmer.

The wife counters a lie with the truth and is saved.

Not to belittle the question of alcoholism or drinking while driving, I tell the joke only because it reveals a basic, simple point that I think Martin Luther King Jr., might offer to us today, having just read this version of the gospel story of the visit of the magi to Jerusalem, the capital city — the seat of the Roman Empire in Judea: there are lies, and then there are lies. This is a story today about the valid difference.

This is a story, as so many of the stories of the gospels, challenge of “speaking truth to power,” as the American Quakers first put it in a 1955 pamphlet by that title attempting to reorient the US approach to the Cold War.   Speaking truth to power requires the same sort of creative wit that the wife in the joke came up with so quickly — a wit and a strength that can counter a lie with a different sort of lie.

II.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated  . . .  no longer speaking merely about race relations.  On the day he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to lead a sanitation workers’ strike. In the months ahead, he was planning a Poor People’s Campaign to march on Washington.

Dr. King knew that the struggle for racial justice would be profoundly difficult even after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. He was under no illusion about the lies people would tell to maintain their ill gotten hold on power.

But he also knew that equality for African Americans could not be achieved by attention to race alone. Against the advice of many of his closest allies, he spoke out against the Vietnam War — it would do us no good.  It would only add hatred to hatred . . .  The obstacles to the dream of justice, justice that went to the root of human behavior were enormous.  Those who benefited from these injustices, from war, from poverty, from racism, would not easily stop.  Their lies would mount up. King understood herod’s lies.

But King also would understand the the Magi.  Some occasions call for lies.

By now the kings have left Bethlehem for the East.  They have not done as promised.  They broke the ninth commandment and did not return with the news to Herod.

Biblical literalists have a hard time with this.  They suggest that perhaps we can excuse them because they were not Jewish and wouldn’t understood that tradition.  Which is, of course, hogwash.  There is no society on earth that tolerates lying.

And yet — There is a lie that is required.  It is the lie for freedom.

Homi Baugh . . .

The morning of the first day after his purchase David Wharton walked over to where Nehemia was standing and said, “Now you are going back to work, you understand. You are going to pick four hundred pounds of cotton today.”

“Wal Massa, dat’s aw right.” answered Nehemia, “but ef Ah meks you laff, won’ you lemme off fo’ terday?”

“Well,” said David Wharton, who had never been known to laugh, “if you make me laugh, I won’t only let you off for today, but I’ll give you your freedom.”

“Ah decla’, Boss,” said Nehemia, “you sho’ is a good-lookin’ man.”

“I am sorry I can’t say the same thing about you,” retorted David Wharton.

“Oh, yes, Boss, yuh could, “Nehemiah laughed out, “yuh could, if yuh told ez big a lie ez Ah did.”

David Wharton could not help laughing at this; he laughed before he thought. Nehemiah got his freedom.”

Value judgments. Is one thing better than another, is one course of action preferable over another?

Of course we live in a day when we are obliged to be tolerant and respectful of other people’s ways.

What this had meant for a good many Christians, on both sides of the evangelical divide is that the art of the good lie had been lost.

Why, essentially because we have been taught that religion is a non rational enterprise.

In a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on December 18, 1963, Dr. King concludes by suggesting with tongue in cheek, the formation of a new organization — The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.  Dr. King notes that there are certain maladjustments that he is proud to honor and claim.  He does so, because, as he notes of one such maladjusted thinker, “Where thought is free in its range, we need never fear to hazard what is good in itself.”

In spite of the difficulties of this hour, I am convinced that we have the resources to make the American Dream a reality. I am convinced of this because I believe Carlyle is right. “No lie can live forever.” I am convinced of this because I believe William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth pressed to earth will rise again.” I am convinced of this because I think James Russell Lowell is right. “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.” Somehow with this faith, we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new life into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation to a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be a great day. This will be the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!”

Let those with ears to hear, listen.

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