Dissembling, Deception, and Disobedience

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Exodus 20:16, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Painting of Shiphrah and Puah, Unknown Artist

Continuing our series on Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, today, I would like to take a look at deception, or lying.

Thurman writes that deception is used as a tool by the disinherited in order to “protect themselves against the strong” (58). Not only is this done by humans, but also by different species of animals, most notably through camouflage, the phenomenon through which an animal that has evolved with the ability is able to blend into its surroundings so that it is invisible to predators. This deception is specifically used to preserve one’s life or the life of another (Thurman, 69).

How many instances of deception can you think of, either in the Bible or throughout history? Thurman gives some examples, such as animals that play dead before they can be killed by predators, students who distract their teachers so that they forget to assign a quiz or homework or take another action that would be unfavorable to them, and the African-American minister who, knowing he would be punished for preaching a “social justice” sermon at the funeral of a blind African-American man who was killed by police, prayed instead. The police couldn’t arrest him if he was praying, even if he was saying everything he would have said in a sermon (Thurman, 58-60).

Additional examples I can think of are Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, who, when commanded to kill newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt, instead let them live, and lied to the Egyptian officials by turning what may have been a stereotype against them. In Exodus 1:19, the midwives tell Pharaoh that they did not kill the baby boys because:

…the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.

Exodus 1:19, NRSV

This lie allows the midwives to save lives, just as Thurman argues.

Two other examples are similar: the people who lied to protect escaped slaves hiding in their homes during the antebellum period, and the people who lied to protect Jews–and probably other persecuted groups as well–hiding in their homes during the Holocaust.

How do we determine when a lie is ethical?  The Ten Commandments command us not just against lying, but specifically against lying on other people: “bearing false witness against our neighbors” (Ex. 20:16, NRSV, edited). Does it matter how we interpret this? Does this mean that all lies are bad, or only the ones that we tell about other people in order to harm them? 

In the examples given above, lies were told in order to protect people from the enforcement of wicked laws by corrupt government officials. This reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to civil disobedience. He did not advocate for the disobedience of all laws; only those that were illegitimate. A protest movement grounded in nonviolence would ensure that legitimate laws against murder were not broken. However, sit-ins at restaurants that did not serve African-Americans were acts of disobedience that defied and confronted illegitimate laws based on a false sense of racial superiority and inferiority. 

To “Christianize” this a little more, let’s take a look at what Paul says in Romans 13:

All of you must obey those who rule over you. There are no authorities except the ones God has chosen. Those who now rule have been chosen by God. 2 So whoever opposes the authorities opposes leaders whom God has appointed.

Romans 13:1-2a, New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

Yet, as the civil disobedience example shows, such obedience is complicated when the rule of law established by the authorities is one that denies the humanity of a particular group of people–the disinherited–or that requires them to break one of God’s commands, i.e. Shiphrah and Puah. In choosing which law to disobey, to lie to the officials or to kill the babies, surely they must have determined that it was better to obey God than the evil command.

Thurman makes a moral argument against deception. According to Thurman,

A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not.

Thurman, 65.

This person has lost the ability to determine right from wrong; they have no moral compass. Instead, Thurman argues for complete honesty and sincerity. Using Psalm 139, which describes God as omnipresent and omniscient, he argues that even as we lie to other people, it is impossible to lie to God. In contrast, being honest with other people equates to being honest with God (Thurman, 71-72). This honesty is then used as a weapon against the oppressor, in the place of deception.  Thurman concludes that when the disinherited operate from an ethic grounded in sincerity, it breaks down any power dynamics that may have existed:

…there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity,

Thurman, 73.

Here is where I am tempted to disagree with Thurman, though this disagreement depends on how I interpret his argument, for I seem to be interpreting it in two different ways. The first interpretation is that it is solely the responsibility of the disinherited to practice sincerity in engagements with their oppressor/the group that holds power. This action enables them to feel an inherent dignity within their persons. The second interpretation is that, while the disinherited are responsible for being honest and sincere, this act serves as a mirror of sorts, reflecting onto their oppressors the wickedness that they have done. There is no longer any excuse or justification for their behavior, because the disinherited have done nothing to provoke them. Perhaps this turn towards sincerity and away from deception comes from a sense of dignity instead of evoking one.

Clearly, I’m still thinking through this, but I will push back a bit against Thurman with the words of Trinidadian-American activist on behalf of the African-American/Black American civil rights movement, Kwame Ture, born as Stokely Carmichael. Speaking specifically of Dr. King, Ture stated: 

His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience….

Kwame Ture, formerly/also known as Stokely Carmichael

Ture’s words were the first that popped into my head after reading the conclusion to Thurman’s argument. Sincerity is great, but what if your opponent refuses to fight on the same ground as you? I think it’s a beautiful idea to think that consistent nonviolence/sincerity/transparency will change the hearts and behaviors of our enemies/oppressors/opponents. 

If our current climate has taught me anything, it is not necessarily that taking the moral high ground produces results, but exposure of the truth of what’s really going on. Now, if this is part of the sincerity that Thurman is advocating, I can get behind that.

I. “Who Do You Say I Am?” Hermeneutics and Christian Social Activism

I kid you not when I say this will be the title of my dissertation (or, maybe just the theme).

This post is my first in a series in which I attempt to connect the theologian Howard Thurman to the concept of hermeneutics.

Chapter One of Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited concerns this very topic, “Jesus: An Interpretation.” How we interpret who Jesus is and what He stands for affects how we believe we should engage with the world as Christians.

I open this post with Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:13-17:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Matt. 16:13-17, NRSV

Who do we say that Jesus is?

I believe that this question is not only the foundation of the sermons that we hear (or preach) and the ways that we worship (including hymnody, liturgy, and even the language that we use), but it also deeply influences how we live our lives; specifically, how we interact with other people, how we interpret other people, and how we engage with our societies and communities.

The different between liberal and conservative Christians is based on a fundamental difference in the answer to that question. Even Simon Peter’s (or Peter’s) statement that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is interpreted differently. (In other translations, Peter says that Jesus is the “Christ”).

First, a word study. On the most basic level, the word Messiah comes from a Hebrew word called Mashiach. This word means “anointed” or “consecrated” (Strong’s Concordance, 4899). Although this word was used generally to refer to those who were anointed, such as kings and priests, beginning in the New Testament, it came to be specifically associated with Jesus.

The alternative word, “Christ,” comes from a Greek word called “Christos”. This word also means “anointed” (Strong’s, 5547).

We have two different words used for the same individual. The word Messiah comes from Hebrew-speaking Judaic culture, and the word Christ comes from the Hellenic/Greek culture.

In addition, Jesus’s actual name, a common Hebrew name “Yeshua,” comes from the Hebrew root formed from the letters yod, shin, and ayin, which would be the equivalent of y, a “sh” sound, and the vowel sound “ah” (though, technically, the ayin is a consonant that can take on the sound of any added vowel, which I will not discuss in detail here).

I mention the root of Jesus’s name (yasha: to deliver) because it is similar to the sound of the word “Mashiach.” Yeshua, and its Greek counterpart, Iesous, means “salvation”, or “deliverance.”

On the most basic level, we can say Jesus is the Son of the living God, who is an anointed deliverer, or an anointed savior. (Except most traditions would probably capitalize the words “Deliverer” and “Savior,” because Jesus shares in the Divine nature of the ‘Father’).

So, who do we say Jesus is? The answer comes down to our idea of what the Messiah is meant to do, what salvation looks like.

Howard Thurman is part of a theological camp that believes that salvation includes delivering people from their current lived conditions, especially if they are poor, marginalized, or victimized for reasons that are outside of their control: those with their “backs against the wall.”

There is another theological camp that would argue that salvation primarily consists of delivering people from sin so that they can live a holy life and go to heaven. (Though, technically, we don’t go to heaven; heaven comes to us.) The evidence of salvation is a “changed” life in which we don’t engage in sinful behaviors anymore.

The problem with this view, although it is the most widely accepted and “orthodox” view, is that it only focuses on a portion of sin: personal sins vs. corporate sin. Personal sin consists of those sins which we commit as individuals, while corporate sins are committed by a group of people.

I think the only time many Christians think of corporate sin as a sin is when their pastors preach on Sodom and Gomorrah….

This misconstrued view of sin results in a misconstrued view of salvation. So it becomes okay to say that Jesus comes to save us from behaviors and attitudes such as lying, jealousy, rage, and rebellion, but the outcomes of economic and social inequality are not for a savior to fix, but for the underprivileged to “pick themselves up by the bootstraps” and attempt to solve their own problems.

What does this have to say to the children of God who are backed up against a wall? Especially when their social position is no fault of their own?

Thurman writes,

“To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail.”

Thurman, 11

Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity has lost whatever social influence it may have had?

Those who deliver sermons are tasked with speaking God-given messages. Preaching or otherwise communicating a Gospel that emphasizes a transcendent, spiritual, “deny yourself” or “don’t sin” approach while neglecting to address the injustice that is reflected in generational poverty, segregated neighborhoods, and public education systems tied to property taxes, is an act that communicates to a congregation that God is more concerned about our perfection and cleanliness than our ability to live long enough and well enough to do God’s will.

At Bethany, when Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman, some who were present complained that the ointment she used was wasted on Jesus when it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus responded:

…”Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Mark 14:6-7, NRSV

Jesus spoke these words before his death. At that time, no one knew that he would be resurrected after his death, or even that he would send his own Spirit to be with us after he ascended to heaven. However, now we can say that Jesus is with us. If the Spirit of God is in this world, Jesus is with us.

Therefore, if Jesus is with us, we now have the time to show kindness to the poor. In fact, it is Jesus himself who gives us the desire and ability to do so.

I don’t believe the poor are suddenly going to miraculously go away. I don’t believe that injustice is going to miraculously go away. I do believe that it is our responsibility to faithfully continue to remedy that through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just because we always have the poor with us, it does not mean that we should find excuses for society to stay that way. And I believe that the duty falls upon all of us to contribute to this work. This means not just missionaries and churches and charity organizations, but also legislators and political representatives. Those who have the power to help should do so.

When I was in college, I was part of an organization that existed to produce Christian leaders in America. They would say things like, “America’s leaders should be shaped by Christian values.”

However, Christian values are as diverse as the members of that organization. They don’t only include the preservation of life from the womb and traditional family units, but they also ensure that once born, the child can thrive, no matter what type of household they are born into. They ensure that health insurance and other benefits are not limited to those who have the privilege of being legally married. They ensure that generations of poverty and the inability to acquire wealth are remedied by equal access to affordable higher education and employment opportunities.

Our answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say I am?” is reflected in our engagement with these issues.

Last scripture:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-36, 40

I am glad that I attend a church where our leadership encourages us to love others as Jesus does and to stand up for people who either cannot stand up for themselves or are ignored and spoken over when they do. I am also glad that I live in a country that has the resources to solve many of the above issues. I only wish their budgetary allocation was in line with what their values allegedly are.

Imagine if instead of it being the church’s responsibility to do charity and food drives, laws were passed that made sure that every household had access to enough income to be able to ensure that each member could eat well, have a roof over their heads, electricity and running water, clean clothes, and maybe even cable? Imagine if insurance companies couldn’t overcharge on premiums or doctors couldn’t charge exorbitant prices for potentially life-saving procedures like MRIs, CAT scans, and surgeries? Imagine if, more than just visiting people in prison, we made it possible for them to live fulfilling lives when they got out and solved the issue that made them go to prison in the first place?

What a wonderful world it would be!

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