I’m probably one of the very few people in America who loves Elaine May’s 1987 movie Ishtar, one of the great box office flops of all time. It’s a comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman about two loser songwriters adrift in the Middle East. The film is full of the terrible songs they write, and here are the lyrics to my all-time favorite among them:
Telling the truth can be dangerous business;
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.
If you admit that you play the accordion,
No one will hire you in a rock ’n’ roll band.
Truer words were ne’er spoke. “Telling the truth can be dangerous business.” Or, as Jesus tells us today, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” [Mark 6] We seem only to want to hear the truth when it flatters us. And we don’t particularly like it when people tell us what we really don’t want to hear.
A perhaps more high-toned example than Ishtar is Shakespeare’s King Lear, a tragedy with a famous opening scene: the aging King announces his decision to retire and split his realm three ways among his daughters, giving the largest share to the daughter who can answer this question best: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” The first two daughters, Regan and Goneril, are practiced bureaucratic infighters, and they outdo each other in fulsome expressions of love for the old man. When it comes time for Cordelia, the third daughter, to speak, she declines to answer this crazy question, saying:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
We all know what happens. Lear becomes enraged, and disowns Cordelia saying: “thy truth, then, be thy dower.” [King Lear, Act I Scene I] She is banished from the kingdom and disinherited to boot. Whenever I read or see King Lear, I remember what Jonathan Lear [no relation], a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, said about it. Jonathan Lear is also a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he writes intriguingly about the connections between philosophy and psychology. In his book Open Minded Lear tells the story of a dream he used to have about his name—Lear—and its connection to the Shakespeare play. He realized that in his dreams he was not King Lear so much as he was Cordelia, the daughter who refused to tell the king what he wanted to hear. Jonathan Lear’s flash of insight came when he realized that Cordelia’s problem was his problem too. Here is what he says: To identify with Cordelia is to want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy-and to want to be loved for doing just that. This is not a set of desires which get satisfied often. By and large, people prefer to be flattered. They find it hard to recognize love in a blunt appraisal; and they find it even harder to reciprocate such love. Cordelia’s strategy is not the route to massive popularity. —Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 3
We want to tell the truth, and we want to be loved for doing it. That was Cordelia’s problem. That was Jonathan Lear’s problem. In going home to Nazareth and preaching in the synagogue, that may have been Jesus’s problem. I can’t speak for you, but I realize that often it’s my problem, too. Yesterday was the Fourth of July—Independence Day—and we’re gathered this morning both to celebrate America and to think theologically about it. Like King Lear, Nations and empires—from ancient Rome to 19th century Britain, to 21st century America—are better at praising themselves than they are at opening up to judgment. We love our boosters more than we do our critics. Jesus’ journey to his hometown synagogue and that congregation’s rejection of him raise some important questions for us about what it means for religious people to tell (or hear) the truth. Telling the truth can, indeed, be dangerous business. Sometimes prophets can feel like the accordion player who showed up at a heavy metal concert. Of course, truth-tellers often make things hard on themselves. On occasion, we wrap ourselves in the slogan, “speaking truth to power”, a phrase I have never liked. Here is what the great progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky says about “speaking truth to power”:I don’t agree with the slogan [“speak truth to power”]. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves. [Noam Chomsky] So what is a prophet, or a prophetic community, to do? We want to speak the truth, we want to hold power accountable, and we want, if possible, to avoid being crushed. Many of the people we call saints today were those who stood up for Christianity against the oppressive claims of empire. They were martyrs—literally “witnesses”—to the truth of the Gospel, and they did indeed speak truth to power. So martyrdom—witness—is an ancient and honorable tradition in Christianity. And there are times when we need to risk martyrdom in the service of what is right. But I’ve been around the movement world a long time, and a lot of what we call prophecy is simply self-dramatization. There is another ancient tradition, a more pragmatic one, a tradition that counsels working with power to achieve good ends. Of course, there are times when imperial power is intractable, when you have to speak. But there are also times to work with power to bring about a good result for everybody. The trick, of course, is to be able to tell the difference.Today’s Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 11:8-16] is one of my very favorite passages in scripture. The writer lists all the great patriarchs and matriarchs who lived their lives in faith and died without seeing God’s promises fulfilled. He concludes with these words: All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11]
Like our Israelite forbears, we contemporary Christians also “desire a better country”. We know that we are “strangers and foreigners here on earth”. We too seek a homeland. Christians will always be caught in the gap between the country we desire and the country we have. Christianity is always countercultural in every era and civilization. Gospel values can never be perfectly realized in any earthly nation state. Even as great as we may think America is, it will always fall short of our longings for the divine standard. Like the Israel of Bible times, America will espouse values to which it cannot always live up. As great as our accomplishments may be, the list of our shortcomings is long. We are deluding ourselves if we think it can ever be otherwise.And so God sends us truth-tellers, call them prophets or idealists, who dare to speak what we often do not wish to hear. Sometimes they’re Civil Rights demonstrators, sometimes anti-war activists. Sometimes they advocate for the homeless and the poor. Sometimes they blow whistles and expose secrecy or wrongdoing in high places. Jonathan Lear was right: if we want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy, then we’re probably not going to be loved for doing so. Noam Chomsky was right: power already knows the truth, and they don’t need to hear it from you. We need to talk not to but with each other to find a new truth. Jesus was rejected in his hometown, but many who denied him eventually became his followers. His truth-telling always served God’s greater purpose of love. On this Independence Day weekend, let us rededicate ourselves to building that heavenly country that we continue to want America to be. Let us acknowledge that we will inevitably fall short of the better country God holds out to us as the divine standard. But let us never give up trying to make it real for ourselves, our households, our communities, and all the special recipients of God’s care: the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the lonely, the lost. And let us continue to give thanks for the prophets, the truth-tellers, the blunt talkers who help us identify and close up the distance between God’s hope for us and the lived reality of how things are.
Telling the truth can be dangerous business;
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.
If you admit that you play the accordion, No one will hire you in a rock ’n’ roll band.
So then: Power knows the truth. God’s better country awaits. If we persist in talking respectfully with each other in truth and in love, one day we just might find an accordion somewhere out there in the mosh pit. Amen.