Aleta Payne: The wise men packed up their privilege and slipped out the back

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As we mark Epiphany, let’s work to share our power rather than taking the comfortable path, writes an editor with Faith & Leadership.

A part of me wants to give the wise men credit, maybe even to see what they did as an itty-bitty act of resistance.

According to the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod and the ruling class that surrounded him were alarmed at the wise men’s news of Jesus’ birth. So, feigning solidarity, Herod slyly enlisted them in helping him track down this “problem” child.

He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV).

But after finding and venerating Christ, an event marked liturgically as Epiphany, the wise men were warned in a dream and did not report back to Herod. Instead, they took a different route home to bypass him.

The very good news is that they didn’t reveal Jesus and his parents. Indeed, the holy family received their own warning and had time to escape the massacre that Herod would soon unleash.

But what might have happened if the wise men had not opted for the easy way out?

What if they had returned to Herod, not to divulge Jesus’ location, but to challenge what they now understood to be something dangerous brewing? What if they had used their privilege to stand up to the king and his courtiers?

We have become a society willing to give credit to people because they don’t do the very worst thing possible. Call it a participation trophy for being a minimally decent human being. Our expectations have fallen distressingly low, particularly in some areas of leadership. We have normalized such bad behavior that anything short of it seems worthy to be praised.

For faithful people, this should be particularly upsetting. More than the bare minimum is required of us. A lie should be called a lie, and the absence of an outright lie is still not inherently the truth. Lately, that seems lost.

Meanwhile, we know that many people of power and privilege are most likely to be influenced by those they perceive to be like themselves. In her vital book “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson makes clear how important hierarchical structures are to everything from who succeeds to who survives. Proximity matters.

There is more Christmas pageant canon than historical certainty around many aspects of the Magi’s visit with the Messiah. There may have been three, possibly more. They might have been wise men, or maybe they were kings. We’re not even sure precisely when they showed up or where they were from.

What they could have done becomes conjecture, given all that we don’t know. But as we look to ancient writings for modern messages, the possibilities in their story are worth considering.

Apparently, the wise men had the wherewithal to make the journey, bring expensive gifts and visit with the king on their way into town. They were certainly more powerful and privileged than a baby and his parents, displaced and endangered by the very ruler who sought their whereabouts.

The wise men had the potential to speak and be heard in a way that Jesus, Mary and Joseph did not. And while the wealthy visitors didn’t tattle on the holy family, they shouldn’t get a pass for sneaking off. It is not spiritually or morally neutral to do nothing when you know something needs to be done. Jesus lived, but other children were slaughtered.

We all can make choices that technically won’t worsen a situation. We can live in a way that minimizes our complicity footprint, doing as little harm as possible, commendable in our moderation.

Within that group might be people who donate to appropriate causes, hold doors for others and try not to snap at telemarketers. We sing in the choir, volunteer as tutors and recycle. But some percentage of us also pretend not to hear demeaning jokes and fail to hold our relatives and friends accountable for their racism, sexism or xenophobia.

We might consider ourselves peacemakers when our concern really is our own comfort.

What if, instead, we all used whatever influence and access we have to call out degrading behavior by individuals and the oppressive systems created by institutions?

What if, instead of slipping out the back door, we marched up to the throne room and spoke truth to whichever power might listen? What if we prioritized justice over ease?

In his song about the wise men, the musician James Taylor says:

They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figured that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead-pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

All sorts of Herods are still with us. We can choose to avoid them and give up another mile. Or we can consciously, intentionally work to take back all those inches.