“Any reason why the powerful are so afraid all the time?” Last month’s adult education forums launched my year-long internship project focusing on racial justice. Those gathered examined the intersection of white supremacy and power and looked at racism as a theological problem. Following his participation in the series, Ken Weisnsale emailed me some of his reflections. Among his insights on power, privilege and a feeling of indictment, he closed with this question. “Any reason why the powerful are so afraid all the time?” How relevant for this Festival of Epiphany for this question reflects back to us the irony in Matthew’s gospel story today where we hear King Herod was frightened. King Herod, a tyrannical ruler known for his brutal cruelty including killing his own wife and offing countless others who questioned his authority was frightened? How ironic. This ruler who built temples and fortresses to curry political favor and publicly assert his dominance cowers in fear?
Truly, no one in this story is acting as we might expect. Our wise men from the East are not prophets rising from within Israel but Zoroastrian priests, outsiders, seeking the King of the Jews. Comically, they arrive to Jerusalem, the very seat of power, questioning where is the king? Since the Israelites are living as a conquered nation under Roman rule, isn’t Herod their king? The story continues as the wise men are dispatched to locate this other king so that our brutal dictator might pay him some respect. Traveling by a solitary star they arrive to an utterly nondescript place in an unimportant town where they encounter a child and throw themselves to the ground worshipping him. No one is behaving as we might expect. And, perhaps that is precisely Matthew’s point.
The irony of his tale borders on political satire, a form of communication which reveals deep truths about ourselves and our world. It is a literary form of resistance, a subversive protest to oppressive status quos that exist in a perilous world which suppresses dissent. It is into this dangerous world Divine Love chose to become manifest. A world of cruel autocratic rulers where divides as great as the east is from the west pits the privileged against the disenfranchised and the wealthy against the poor. A world in need of liberation.
King Herod is not an exclusive phenomenon to antiquity. Autocratic rulers have flourished throughout the centuries. Free speech is still forbidden in many countries today and globally the divides between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen as great as the East is from the West. Perhaps, however, we can more broadly understand the “King Herods” of our time as that which oppresses and seeks to retain power at any cost. Perhaps, centuries later Herod has morphed into something far more insidious and less easy to identify shape-shifting into ideologies that influence our thinking and infect the systems and institutions in which we live. Perhaps we can name white supremacy as the reigning “herod” of our day. A tyrannical thinking brutal in its cruelty. An ideology renown for the extrajudicial killings of black and brown bodies by American law enforcement serving the state. A “herod” that undergirds the building of big beautiful walls on our southern border and is fragile when its authority is questioned. This “herod” asserts it dominance driving divides as great as the East is from the West and ironically it torments the oppressed and imprisons the oppressor.
My father is fond of quoting the old adage, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” White supremacist ideology corrupts our world and inflicts suffering. It is the very kind of autocratic “herod” that Divine Love became manifest to expose, confront, and dismantle to set us free.
Matthew speaks of a liberation movement begun thousands of years ago. A movement begun when God became manifest in a humble, impoverished child who would grow to teach people the Way of his father, confront the oppressive powers of his day and be lifted up and crowned a king. Yes, God in Jesus Christ is indeed “flipping the narrative” ironically exposing deep truths about ourselves and our world. For God always arrives in the unexpected such as wise men from the East who foolishly fall prostrate before a humble child, offer up their wealth and power, and resist the King Herod of their day to stand in solidarity with the Christ child. As author Jay Tyson writes, “…beyond the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, there was the greater gift of their action, showing that the religions of God transcend human political limitations...” These wise men know this child has much yet to reveal to us, therefore they depart by a road less traveled, for theirs too is a God that liberates.
This is the God that greets us in 2021. A God that descends into our fraught world to expose and confront the threatening “Herod’s” that still rise before us and those that lie within. A God who works through all God’s people to dismantle oppressive ideologies, unite across divides and liberate. A God that offers an invitation to resistance. It is just such an invitation that is extended today to the congregation of God’s Love. An invitation to begin or perhaps continue your journey of confronting and dismantling the evil of white supremacy. The season of Epiphany marks a dawning of God’s light exposing what was once obscured. Therefore, we are launching Monday, January 4th, a 21-day racial equity challenge. All are invited to participate. This challenge leads up to a two-part racial justice and implicit bias training led by NIOT Princeton for God’s Love at the end of the month. Additional information and registration links will be forthcoming.
To Ken, my brother in Christ, you are not alone. I too struggle with my own sense of privilege, power, and feelings of indictment. Indeed, we are all indicted kneeling before the manger. It is a journey that continues through Epiphany’s dawn and will lead us to the foot of the cross where we will stand convicted. And, by the grace of God, we will arrive to an empty tomb where we will be redeemed. I wonder if this is the reason the powerful are so afraid all the time? Under the probing light of a solitary star, the truth about ourselves, our world and our God is revealed. And the Good News is Divine Love’s liberating power is the only absolute. Amen.