Truth to Power

On this blog we’ve been discussing moral courage quite a lot lately.  One sign of a lack of moral courage is hypocrisy.  A story the Lovely K. has enjoyed hearing is from the Jewish tradition of midrash, or tales that fill in some of the sketched outlines of Bible stories with more detail. This is one of the more famous of the traditional midrashim, Abraham the Idol Smasher. 

In his youth, Abraham lived in Babylon, in Iraq, and his father was among the elite favored by the king.  Abraham had the habit of turning a studious gaze on power, and he had plenty of opportunity for doing just that. His father was a prominent idol merchant, who manufactured statues of this god, that god, any god his wealthy customers asked for. “How old are you?” Abraham might ask a customer, over his father’s protests. “Sixty,” might be the reply. “Strange, how a man of sixty will bow before a stone statue carved yesterday,” Abraham would point out. (This was not so good for business!) One day, Abraham’s father reluctantly left his son to watch the store while he made an out-of-town delivery, and woman came in with an offering of grain to leave before one of the statues. “I’ll take care of it,” Abraham assured her as she left.

When she had gone, he put the grain before one of the statues. And nothing happened. Then he put it in front of a different statue, and again, nothing happened. Certainly there was no argument from the first god who’d been offered it! Abraham then picked up a hammer and methodically smashed all the statues except one, and left the hammer in front of that idol.

Upon his return, Abraham’s father was horrified to see the mess in the shop. “What in all gods’ names have you done!” he cried out to his son. “Me?” said Abraham. “This idol here did it,” he continued, pointing to the one unbroken statue. “What are you talking about, that stone has no power!” the father roared. Abraham nodded. “Exactly my point.”

My daughter laughs at this story (okay, I use funny gestures and expressions as I tell it; it’s not especially hilarious on its own). This one is always food for conversation about how often we see people say one thing but then turn around and say or do the opposite. We sometimes discuss why that might happen, and I try to keep the speculation compassionate – I don’t want either of us to become sanctimonious or self-righteous about it, after all. From people with no power, saying one thing and doing another may be a matter of survival. But it is important to know what speaking truth to power requires, and it’s always worth shining a spotlight of attention on doublespeak and hypocrisy from people in authority. I do include parents in that group, in the context of the family. Our children are always watching us, and noticing if our deeds and our words are in alignment. So I tell my daughter this story, and I ask myself privately, what idols am I paying lip service to that she may one day smash?

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