Writing to King Herod: An Open Letter from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

While I was sitting in my office writing my piece on “Troubled Herod,” unknown to me Jonathan-Wilson Hartgrove was in Wake County Jail writing a letter to Herod.  Through the efforts of thousands of North Carolina Christians like Jonathan, we have at last been delivered of the infamous “bathroom bill” and a Governor who has so greatly damaged our state public educational system.  As I have said, now is a time not for reconciliation, civility, and facile unity but a time for resistance and rebuke.  Jonathan is doing that!  (In my forthcoming, Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism, I laud Jonathan’s Free to be Bound: Church Beyond the Color-Line as one of the most encouraging books on a truly Christian response to racism.)

Dear King Herod,

I do not know whether anyone lodged a formal protest all those years ago when you ordered the slaughter of the innocents. But yesterday evening, when I stood with fellow North Carolinians to protest an illegal session of our legislature, I thought of you.

It’s Christmas here in North Carolina. Most folks are busy with holiday parties and last-minute shopping. But an all-white caucus within our General Assembly conspired secretly to call a special session on Wednesday, December 14, to subvert the results of this year’s democratic election. Our Governor-elect, Roy Cooper, has vowed to challenge this power grab in court. But as you well know, courts can do little to save what power aborts in infancy.

I thought of you when I stood in the house chambers last night and asked Speaker Tim Moore to recognize our citizen protest. Thanks to an abolition movement and a terrible Civil War, our state Constitution expressly prohibits the “secret political society” that met to call this session. We learned that the meeting was secret when, in response to a protest from Democrats, Speaker Moore said on the floor that he was not aware of the votes to call the special session until that morning. Since he is a member of the GOP caucus that is granted an exception under our state’s open meeting laws, the public can only assume the planning for this session happened outside that caucus, in an illegal secret meeting.

A lot has changed in the world since your reign, King Herod. Given the way you treated John the Baptist, I don’t imagine you would have much patience for the labors of democracy we’ve committed ourselves to in America.

Still, some things stay the same. Like you, Speaker Moore and his extremist colleagues in our General Assembly are so concerned about loosing political power that they’re willing to abort the very good news that could save us. For the past four years, our Forward Together Moral Movement, better known as “Moral Mondays,” has built a broad and diverse coalition of people committed to reviving the heart of democracy and pursuing a more perfect union for the common good. According to analysis by Public Policy Polling, our movement shifted the balance of power in this year’s election the hard way–by changing hearts and minds and getting people out to vote. “The seeds of McCrory’s defeat really were planted by the Moral Monday movement,” PPP said, noting that the popular Republican governor’s polls dropped from 65 to 35 and gave McCrory “39 months in a row of an underwater approval rating” following our protests of legislation he signed during the 2013 legislative session.

But the extremists who control our legislature don’t answer to the people, as our Constitution imagines, because they have maneuvered to hold onto power by any means necessary. (You would, I suspect, be impressed by their ingenuity.) Elected to represent districts that a federal court found to be racially gerrymandered, they have not killed the young and diverse North Carolinians who would win many of their seats in a fair election. They’ve rigged the system so that a few of their opponents win unchallenged so they can maintain a supermajority.

They get to cling to power without having the blood on their hands.

Still, as I watched Speaker Moore yesterday evening, I saw a sadness in his face that I suspect you too must have felt. Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. But it also makes people lonely. It’s one thing to know you can get away with murder. But it’s something else to have to live with it.

You did all you could to kill the nonviolent revolution of love that was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, King Herod. And your heirs are doing all they can to abort the Moral Movement that is still a toddler in North Carolina today. But we celebrate Christmas because Jesus showed us that when a light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.

And that, my dear brother, gives me hope for you. The good news of Jesus is that there’s room for everyone on the winning side. I can pray for Speaker Moore and his colleagues, so enslaved by the grip of fear. We can love them and hope they will join us, even as we stand to insist that what they are doing is wrong.

And in the meantime, while the struggle continues, we can rejoice that we don’t have to suffer the loneliness that plagues our enemies. There’s good company over at the jail house. And at the state house here in NC. If you could, I’d love for you to join us.

Merry Christmas,

Jonathan


Jonathan’s letter was originally published at Red Letter Christians, a movement of Christians seeking to live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.

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3 thoughts on “Writing to King Herod: An Open Letter from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

  1. This post reminded me of an article I just finished writing for the local newspaper, The Washington Daily News. It’s copies below and attempts to present the familiar story from a different angle, in historical context and how the context shapes the story.

    Polk Culpepper

    The Christmas Story – With a Twist

    Once upon a time, a young couple was driven by the technocratic census-takers of an Empire to leave their hometown and travel on foot and donkey to the place of their birth, a little town about 70 miles away. The couple was desperately poor – he a carpenter, struggling to make ends meet; she an unwed mother-to-be, subject to shame and discrimination (if not death) for not being married.

    One or another empire had occupied the couple’s country for centuries. The armies of the latest were garrisoned in strategic towns throughout the nation so that they could be quickly mobilized to brutally eradicate any attempt at liberation by rebels or self-appointed Messiahs.

    The Empire had supernatural gods to which it sacrificed but its true religion was civic and based on worship of the Emperor. Its leaders were thought to be divine and often referred to as Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. Its current Emperor, Augustus, was even believed to have been conceived by the sexual union of a god with a human being.

    Its rationale for the violent invasion and subjugation of other nations was attributed to its sense of itself as exceptional and its self-serving desire to bring peace to what it perceived to be chaos. Its true motives were darker and inherently selfish – the exploitation and extraction of wealth, minerals and labor for the benefit of itself and its citizens.

    According to accounts written about the baby many decades later, the Empire demanded that all those living within its borders return to their places of birth and be registered on the tax rolls. The purpose of the mandate was to maximize tax revenues from the couple’s small nation and could not have come at a worse time for the young couple. The woman’s baby was past due. A bumpy ride on the back of a donkey would only help to induce labor.

    Adding to their personal problems, the young woman, Mary, and her fiancé, Joseph, arrived in the place of their birth, Bethlehem, only to find it crowded by others ordered home for the census. Every room in the little town was taken. A kindly old innkeeper seeing that Mary was great with child allowed her to sleep in an animal stall behind his modest establishment. Surrounded by the stench of excrement and the baying, baaing and mooing of sheep, cows and donkeys, the erstwhile parents laid down to sleep, hoping to be counted the next day so that they could return to Nazareth before the baby was born.

    Babies, however, are notorious for their disdain for schedules set by adults. They come when they are good and ready. Mary’s baby decided to come that night. It was not the custom then, as it is now, that a baby’s birth be announced to those outside the immediate family. The birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby, however, was communicated to strangers – magi from foreign nations and shepherds .

    As a class, shepherds were about as low on the socio-economic ladder as one could get – lower than peasants; on the margins of what passed for society; and especially looked down on by those in positions of power and wealth. Ironically, those on the margins of society, like the shepherds, would become the baby’s main concern.

    From such humble beginnings, the babe would grow to become known among his people as a prophet who envisioned and called his people to live in a new kind of Kingdom, one which espoused values diametrically opposed to those of the Kingdom which oppressed and violently exploited them. My kingdom, he taught, is one based on the values of the God we worship, the God revealed in our scriptures, the God who calls us to love neighbors and enemies alike, embody justice and mercy for the poor, discriminated against and the immigrant, respond to attacks with non-violence , and treat all persons with dignity and respect. The Empire, on the other hand, knows nothing of these values and exists only to increase its wealth and prestige through violence and oppression.

    Both Kingdoms asserted the same titles and made similar claims for their leaders. But Jesus was not Caesar. And Roman imperial theology was not the theology about which Jesus spoke. To pledge allegiance to Rome was to promise to be bound by the belief that peace could only come through violent victory over enemies. To profess believe in Jesus was to oppose that understanding and pledge oneself to the work of peace through non-violent justice and love.

    At last, Christmas is not about the giving of gifts (however heartfelt) or parties or mistletoe, but about which kingdom we chose to live in. The Empire’s kingdom of peace through violent subjugation and exploitation or Jesus’ kingdom of peace through nonviolent love and respect for all kinds and conditions of people? The question penetrates to the very heart and soul of who we are as individuals and as a nation. We refuse to engage it to our detriment.

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