While we tend to think of the Three Wise Men as part of the Christmas story, Epiphany—a holiday honoring the visitation of the Magi—is celebrated in January. Which might not be the only reason that contemplating this story could be timely. It is worth noting that in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke the story of the birth of Jesus is situated within a particular political context. In Luke, what causes Mary and Joseph to set out and travel towards Bethlehem is that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, has called for a registration.
In Matthew, the political context is an awkward and fraught moment in foreign relations. Foreign dignitaries have arrived in Judea, gone to King Herod, and told him:
We’re here to meet a newborn child, a child who is the rightful King of this land and this people, for we’ve read the signs in the heavens and those signs announce that your reign, Herod, is illegitimate. We want to meet the King. It’s not you. (I’m embellishing a little bit here.)
And Herod responds, deviously: You know, I’d like to meet him, too.
Historians’ opinions of Herod as king are polarized, though few deny that he was a tyrant and a brutal despot. His critics describe him as a madman, an evil genius, someone who would do whatever it takes, no matter how immoral, to pursue his own limitless ambition. Herod was intolerant of dissent. He deployed secret police to spy on the population. He banned protests.
He used his power to brutally persecute opponents.
In Matthew, wise men come from the East, following the star. They’re identified as magi. We might imagine them as Zoroastrian priests, learned scholars, astrologers. Though the text in Matthew is silent, later tradition would embellish these descriptions, with different branches of Christianity telling the story in different ways. There were three wise men, or twelve. They’re given different names in different sects of Christianity. They are said to have all come from Persia; or from India, and Babylonia; or from Europe, Asia, and Africa; or even from China. They are imagined as sorcerers, wizards, kings, saints.
But, in the Gospel story, they come from the East. They visit Herod. With profound insecurity and devious cruelty, Herod enlists the wise men in reporting the identity of the child. The wise men journey to Bethlehem, visit the child, pay him homage, and present him with gifts. And then, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So they disobey. They disobey Herod and take a different route home.
The text tells this part with one short sentence, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” But, you can easily imagine all kinds of questions:
- What were the risks of disobeying Herod?
- Did the wise men put their own freedom on the line?
- Did they risk their own lives?
- And, most importantly, how did they find the courage, conscience, conviction, and commitment to say, “No. We are not going to do this. We will disobey”?
People who study authoritarian regimes write about what is necessary for people to resist and to disobey. For instance, researcher and consultant Sarah Kendzior offers the following advice for those facing life under authoritarianism:
Write down what you value, what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today.
Write your biography, write down your memories… Write a list of things you would never do. Write a list of things you would never believe.
Never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing. And if the answer is no? Don’t do it.
Perhaps it is as simple as this and as difficult as this. Perhaps what gave the wise men, the magi, the strength and courage to take that other road, to disobey and not return to Herod—and not reveal the identity of the child born in Bethlehem—was simply that they each possessed a strong moral compass. They knew who they were, what they valued, what they could never do and what they could never believe. They knew this deeply.
Another scholar of authoritarianism, Yale history professor Tom Snyder, offers this advice about obedience:
Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked… Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
For Professor Snyder disobedience is a conscious choice that we need to remember we always have.
As I think about the wise men, another source of strength and resilience comes to mind that may have been helpful in causing them to resist, to disobey Herod. Remember, traditions tell us that the wise men came from Persia, India, and Babylon; or from Europe, Asia, and Africa. The wise men are often depicted as coming from different cultures, as having different skin tones, different religions. And maybe you’d think with their different ethnicities and different languages that one of them would cave in, one of them would falter and say, “If I take the road back that Herod told me to take, I could get on his good side. I could earn all his favor for myself.”
But, that’s not what happens. The three of them walk together, take the other road together. Today we’d use the term solidarity. We’d say they practiced solidarity with one another. I think of Rev. William Barber, so active in North Carolina and beyond. I’m pretty sure if William Barber met the three magi he’d tell them that they are the beginning of a fusion movement!
For a fusion movement to work we can’t sell one another out. We can’t be in it only for ourselves, our own wellbeing, our own rights, our own survival. We have to realize that our fates, our freedoms, our lives are tied together; none of us can be free until and unless all of us are free.
I recently went to Raleigh, NC, for a Justice and Unity rally. We had more than 1,000 people gathered in a park to protest a Ku Klux Klan march that was happening in one of the distant corners of our state. We proclaimed our resistance to the march, our resistance to white supremacy, bigotry, and hate in all its forms. The speakers at this rally were mostly people of color, mostly young people. They included immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ folk. It was inspiring.
These gatherings are important. I’m convinced that we are being called to show up, that we are all being called to show up in numbers one hundred times as large. One thousand times as large. Being there and hearing those speakers reminded me of all the people to whom I am accountable, the people for whom I would disobey Herod. The people with whom I would disobey Herod.
Remember those words of Tom Snyder. “Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked.” Obedience, consent, going along are like oil lubricating the gears. Disobedience and dissent grind the gears down.
Like the wise men of the ancient story, like the wise ones through all history, let us pledge to disobey, to resist. Inspired by the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, let us pledge that,
[We] will not hold the bridle
while [Death] clinches the girth.
And [Death] may mount by
[We] will not give him a leg up.