The pattern of deception by which the weak are deprived of their civic, economic, political, and social rights without its appearing that they are so deprived is a matter of continuous and tragic amazement. The pattern of deception by which the weak circumvent the strong and manage to secure some of their political, economic, and social rights is a matter of continuous degradation. A vast conspiracy of silence covers all these maneuvers as the groups come into contact with each other, and the question of morality is not permitted to invade it.
When the world around you is a lie, the temptation to lie is great.
Thus, the second of Howard Thurman’s “hounds of hell” is deception, the willingness to deceive or trick for gain or survival.
Consider what life would be like if lying were essential for survival, if uttering the truth could mean taking the risk of dying at the hands of those with the power to extinguish your life or your family’s life. This exercise in empathy is crucial for understanding the moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas that the disinherited face. In a world with no guaranteed rights, no system of justice that might grant opportunity or secure necessities, no compassion in times of difficulty, surviving, thriving, and advancing may come most efficiently through a dishonesty that subverts or appeases those who govern or profit at your expense.
To demand rights upfront is to risk being brutally crushed by someone who wields the power of an unjust systems, so a degree of cunning and deception may seem like the only means to gain security. By “deception,” I think Dr. Thurman means more than strict falsehoods. He speaks of “compromise” as a matter of “behavior patterns.” They may include allowing one’s self to be insulted without showing anger in order to appease the Powers that Be. They may include feigning ignorance when that is expected. They may include deferring to those who know less, or pretending to find brilliance in mediocrity, so as to gain some favor by not rocking the boat but going with the current. A “go-along-to-get-along” kind of attitude that is dishonest to the self may be deemed necessary for survival, even as it deepens the status quo. “To the morally sensitive person,” Thurman writes, “the whole business is sordid and degrading.”
Thurman brilliantly explains how giving in to the temptation to deception, though it may be the most expedient means of survival, can damage the soul, concluding that ultimately: “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated.”
But the lies that tempt the disinherited are the mirror image of the lie that keeps them under the heel of power. Systems of injustice and oppression are lies in and of themselves. If temptation to moral compromise is a “hound of hell” that howls at the disinherited, that beast has long-since overtaken the powerful who live at the disinherited’s expense. Those who uphold injustice lay the stumbling blocks for the disinherited, and Jesus once said of those who lay stumbling blocks, “It would be better if a millstone were tied around their necks and they were thrown into the sea.”
As Jesus and the Disinherited guides me through Holy Week, I ponder deception late on Thursday evening, the night of Jesus’s betrayal. But though Jesus was betrayed, he was never deceived. Rather, the Powers that Be, the forces that crucified him – the amalgamation of human fear and hatred and finding identity and security at the expense of others – these forces were ultimately deceived. Those who thought they were serving God by calling Jesus a blasphemer and nailing him to the cross ultimately murdered God in the flesh. Those who thought they were saving their nation from destruction by offering a sacrifice to appease Rome were participating in a system of violence that ultimately destroys everything in its wake.
And isn’t this false belief in righteous violence and a God who demands sacrifice also the basis for slavery, segregation, and the systems of inequity that use human beings as tools, vilify them as monsters and cast them aside like garbage? A system that uses people of color for profit while simultaneously casting them to the margins is built many lies, the most damnable of all being that such injustice is the will of God. The idea that God uplifts some at the expense of others, and that the poor or unfortunate or outcast are suffering God’s wrath, is a lie that Jesus took into himself and buried, rising with forgiveness to show that no one is outside the bounds of God’s love. But Christianity was so misinterpreted that it became a weapon of the powerful against the powerless, serving the very opposite of Jesus’s mission. Institutionalized Christianity as practiced by slaveowners and segregationists has crucified Jesus many times over.A world deceived into the belief in a God of violence killed Jesus. A nation deceived by a belief in a God of violence has enslaved, marginalized, and killed people of color, employing lie after lie to justify violence, cruelty, isolation and humiliation.
Howard Thurman writes for the disinherited, and it is crucial to understand their struggle. But if those with privilege are tempted to judge the temptation to deception, we must look at the redwood tree in our own eyes… only. We who live on a lie at the expense of others should learn the struggles that the disinherited face, but we will never have the right to judge them and always have the obligation to scrutinize, judge, and correct ourselves.
Yet, once again, the hope that Jesus offers to the disinherited becomes the hope for the privileged as well. That hope is the courage to be honest; to live sincerely and make the integrity of one’s life the force that pushes back against the deceit that permeates the world. The refusal to acquiesce to the lies that uphold injustice is a force of such overwhelming dignity that it moves the world, however much the Powers that Be try to push back. Such integrity is not without risk; there is often “speedy judgement with attendant loss,” Thurman says. But as the desire to assert dignity through honesty grows through the power of positive mimesis and influence, “the vindication of truth [follows] in the wake.”
“In the presence of an overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense, with the edge taken away from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of their position rests,” Thurman writes.
Haven’t we seen the undeniable truth of people of color putting the lie to white supremacy in the wake of the marches and boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement? Can we not see it again in the Black Lives Matter campaign? The lies that uphold privilege – the prejudices and biases and stereotypes – are continually challenged. If we see the truth, we must join with the disinherited to proclaim it, or our very silence is a lie. There is still too much injustice to believe in the deception that systemic racism no longer affects our world. And there are still too many forces that would silence people of color who challenge racist systems by living into the truth of their full dignity. But if all who know the truth proclaim it, others will see the truth and raise their voices too, until truth silences – rather than is silenced by – lies.
And crucially, for those of us who would want to be allies to see and proclaim the truth, we must accept with gratitude correction when we err. When people of color tell us the mistakes we are bound to make, that is the courage and sincerity that sets us all free. The temptation to push back in defensiveness if we believe ourselves to be above racism is the same self-deceiving attitude of superiority that upholds unjust systems.
Lies and deceit can absorb us and disconnect us from ourselves and from reality, building the relationships that become integral to our lives on shaky, slipshod foundations. Those inwardly deceived are outwardly misleading, thus deepening the lies that poison the world. But sincerity and integrity will rebuild the world on solid ground, where the truth of human dignity is affirmed and relationships built on honesty remake the world in the true image of Love.
Image: “Howard Thurman” by On Being. Available on Flickr via Attribution Noncommercial 2.0 Share-Alike Creative Commons license. Image modified.