Be Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves: Part One

While pastoring in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” His text was Matthew 10:16 where Jesus said to his disciples, as they began their mission trip to the house of Israel, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” The juxtapositions of wise and innocent and wolves and doves reflect one of many paradoxes in Jesus’ teachings. I define paradox as something which sounds like a contradiction but upon further reflection and experience, proves to be profoundly true. All paradoxes require openness, insight, and the ability to reason. MLK lamented that few people are willing to do the “hard, solid thinking” needed in our world. “There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” 

King saw that this “soft mindedness” leads to tragic gullibility. He even referred to the willingness of many people to accept whatever they read from the press as unvarnished truth. He said, “Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the greatest needs of humankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.” One wonders what Dr. King would say today about the gullibility of so many people who accept whatever they read or see on Facebook or certain Faux networks, especially when it confirms their prejudices and sloppy reasoning.

Dr. King also understood that soft-minded individuals fear change. Their default is always the security of the status quo. Such reluctance to accept greater truth often occurs in religion. Too many Christians have never learned that all truth, wherever it is found, comes from God and never should be feared. MLK suggests that such people have rewritten the Beatitudes to read, “Blessed are the pure in ignorance; for they shall see God.” I would suggest that much of the backlash we are experiencing among whites, especially those advocating white supremacy, is fueled by the realization that our nation is changing and that by 2043, people of color will constitute a majority of the US population. Evil geniuses in politics know how to fan the flames of fear and hatred among those who fear the inevitability of such change. A democracy is ruled by the will of the majority. One way to maintain rule by a minority is to destroy democracy. Such a path has been taken in the past by countries like South Africa with its apartheid policies. We are witnessing this path in the US as Republican state legislatures pass laws to disenfranchise voters of color. 

One of greatest victims in our current society is truth.

One of greatest victims in our current society is truth. Lies are ubiquitous on Facebook, tv networks, and even in many pulpits. We are bombarded daily with so many falsehoods and forms of propaganda. Even when the lies are so obviously apparent, many people who are brainwashed will still embrace lies rather than be open to truth. Society (and especially politics) has always had a checkered history when it comes to any devotion to objectivity and truth. But I would suggest that we are currently experiencing a new low in integrity and honesty in so many areas. Four examples:

Members in Congress who still refuse to condemn the intended overthrow of our government on January 6, 2021 (There were calls to kill the vice president when he accepted the electoral college vote that President Biden had fairly won the election. Some of these spineless liars in Congress have even said that what happened that day was no different from any other day when citizens visit the Capitol!)

The continual ranting and raving of a wannabe demagogue that he was robbed of being reelected even when state officials in his own party have admitted that the 2020 election was fairly won by his opponent and after repeated recounts (some even conducted by companies paid by the Republican Party) have demonstrated that there was no corruption in that election

Former Vice President Pence’s claim that the United States does not have a race problem 

The stubborn, ignorant rejection of scientific and medical research proving the effectiveness of vaccines—a recalcitrance which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.  (It’s interesting that when anti-vaxxers come down with Covid and are suffering in hospitals, they beg for the vaccine only to be told that a vaccine will not help them now that they are afflicted with the virus.)

What concerns me the most about the gullibility of people today and their compete abandonment of reason and logic is how it is threatening our democracy. MLK warns us of the danger facing a society which has lost the ability to tell the difference between truth and lies, goodness and evil, integrity and corruption. He wrote the following: 

Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society. Adolf Hitler realized that soft-mindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” In Mein Kampf he asserted, “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell—and hell, heaven. . . . The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed.”

Our nation is still enduring “shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated” which are irrationally embraced by millions and millions of our citizens. We must wake up to the real dangers threatening our democracy and the truth for which it stands. We must become wise as serpents if we are to survive with any degree of decency and integrity.  

I close with the following words from Dr. King’s sermon which are perhaps more relevant and challenging today than they were over fifty years ago: 

There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.

(All quotes come from Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book entitled Strength to Love, pp. 1-5. Part Two in this series will cover MLK’s presentation of what it means to be “innocent as doves.”)

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