I can still remember how surprised and uncomfortable I was when I heard that the man I, like most people I knew, took to have been the closest friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had published a book that, among other things, criticized the leadership and motivation of Dr. King. The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy had gone on in his book to accuse the late Dr. King of a series sexual indiscretions. Why would Abernathy have done something so hurtful to the memory of his friend and so hurtful to Mrs. King and her children who had to live with Abernathy’s gutter images of their husband and father even if what the author claimed to be true was, in fact, true? And why, if what Abernathy had to say was of such critical importance, did he wait so long to publish it? The short answer, as I see it, is that Abernathy wanted greater fame and a heftier bank account, and he was willing to become an enemy of the late, great civil rights leader, the one with whom he had once said he would be willing to die for the worthy cause to which they both had given themselves, for a chance at notoriety and cash. How quickly an enemy!
Admittedly the book, titled And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, did not utilize a great deal of space demeaning Rev. King. In fact, the words some said were intended to humiliate the martyred civil rights prophet took up only a few pages; however, what Abernathy wrote on those pages was very incriminating, morally speaking. To be blunt, King’s “dear friend,” Abernathy, said that Dr. King had had long-term liaisons with two women, and he had had a heated argument over the telephone the night before he was killed with a third woman, presumably a potential number three.
The press was quick to ask Rev. Abernathy the same questions I just raised Why? Why run the risk of hurting the King family? And why wait so late in the game to make these accusations if they were true? How quickly an enemy!
Does anybody remember “The Today Show” when Matt Lauer was not the lead host? Does anyone who does remember that “before time” recall who was in the role that Lauer assumed immediately before he got the job? Well, the correct answer is Bryant Gumbel, and Bryant Gumbel, a fellow African American, interviewed Rev. Ralph David Abernathy about his book when it was a hot press item. He put Abernathy on the hot seat and turned the interview from a planned ten minute conversation into a twenty minute interrogation of sorts. “Why did you do it,” Gumbel questioned Abernathy, “when you knew what you would reveal would give great comfort to those who would like to demean Rev. King? Why do something so clearly contrary to King’s wishes?”
This was Abernathy’s reply. “I wanted to show that Martin Luther King was simply a human being, not a god, not a saint. I wanted to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Jane Pauley, Gumbel’s cohost on “The Today Show,” told media people around her that Gumbel believed Abernathy’s explanation, and for him his interview responses put the matter to rest. That was not the case, however, with large numbers of people who remained incensed that Abernathy would use his affiliation with Dr. King and the civil rights movement to better himself through trash talk about the face, the voice, and the soul of the movement.
Rev. Abernathy took up the leadership the Southern Christian leadership conference after the tragic death of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was Abernathy who became the motivation for mobilizing those who thought their hopes died with Dr. King to pull themselves together for the March on Washington planned for May of 1968, undoubtedly, a follow-up to the March on Washington during which Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, the speech that historians of American oratory have consistently called the greatest speech delivered in the twentieth century. By then Abernathy was no longer in the shadow of Dr. King. The spotlight was his. I’m just saying….
King was no longer around by this time to defend himself, and I don’t know that any of the women in alleged intimate contact with this great man ever came forward to collect some cash and get their pictures in the papers for a while those in Bill Clinton’s bevy did. To my way of thinking, Abernathy had nothing altruistic in mind whatsoever and didn’t care that history be correctly written as he claimed the information he had could do. I think he symbolically stomped on and spat on King’s grave, as I’ve said, to get back into the public eye and maybe recast himself as having had more of key role in the great American Civil Rights Movement than he really did and sharing juicy tidbits of gossip only he could have known, as Bryant Gumbel said to him, that would diminish Dr. King. Then, I also wonder if Abernathy would have had the guts to bring out the book had Dr. King lived on. Oh well, the Eskimo proverb comes to mind, “You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks”
Mark Twain said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” I’m not sure that in every case a friend should carry hurtful news to a friend who has had something unkind said about her or him or whose significant other is cheating. I would not want to carry hurtful news to any friend of mine if I could help it at all; she or he more than likely doesn’t need to know what kinds of ugly remarks others have made about her or him. Unless it gets so bad that the friend is going to find out from someone who will pass along the news without compassion, then a friend has to step up to the plate and spill the beans, “You and I are the only two people in the world who don’t think you’re an idiot.” How many times has that statement been made in the White House across many administrations?!?
I think my job as a friend in case of hanky panky that I know about but about which my friend doesn’t seem to know is to go directly to my friend’s significant other and say something like, “I’m not going to let you hurt her; she doesn’t deserve the likes of you, but she loves you. I want you to carefully absorb what I’m about to say. If you don’t re-monogomize yourself, I will, as painful as it will be for her and for me, tell my friend what you’ve been up to, and you’ll likely lose the best thing that ever happened to you. I hope you won’t leave me with that responsibility.”
One of life’s great pains is to find out that someone you’ve thought of as a friend, a dear friend even, isn’t a friend at all–far from it. The pain pierces through a parent’s heart as well when a child comes home from school one day, having learned this horribly painful lesson. We know as parents that as much as we’d like to say, “This will rarely happen to you again, for the rest of your life,” the truth is that it’s not really very unusual.
Back when I was growing up in Halls Crossroads, a person who wanted me to get the hint that she or he didn’t want to be my friend any more would stop being available whenever I wanted to do anything from talk on the phone to sit together at Shoney’s on Sunday night after church where all the young people gathered every week. Then, where there had been reciprocity it became nonexistent. These days there are so many other ways to let someone know that you no longer consider her or him a friend, and if the point is pushed you easily could be come an enemy. No responses to text messages. Being unfriended on Facebook. Getting removed from the “Favorites” list on a cell phone. Or the worst: getting insulted on a blog that everyone in the school reads. It’s nice that Kathy Bates is back on television regularly, and I really enjoy her show, “Harry’s Law,” in which she plays an attorney who has a penchant for taking hopeless cases–and still managing to win almost every week. One of her cases had her representing the parents of a daughter who had taken her life when a one-time friend, at least that’s what she thought, put on a blog read by almost all the students in their school, “I’m not her friend any more because she’s a lesbian.” We know that it shouldn’t have mattered either way, but even if it were so and had been shared in confidence that kind of accusation didn’t belong on a blog. How quickly an enemy.
In a church I once served as senior minister, two of my associate ministers–one right after the other more or less–decided my job should be theirs. To complicate things, I didn’t agree with them, and, as it turned out, neither did the church as a whole. Now, I thought of both of these folks as the dearest of friends, close friends, trusted friends, some of the rare few with whom I could share confidences.
This was in a city far far away, a place to which most of you have never traveled and never will be able to travel, but I remember it as if it were just down the street. The first of the two was a retired military man. His energy and organizational skills were impressive, and I knew that anything I asked him to do or anything he volunteered to do would be done well and on time. He had no pastoral experience and little preaching experience even though he was older than I. I didn’t know my job looked so easy, but he believed that he could and should have my job; and his theological underpinnings brought God into the picture. Can you believe it? According to him as word circulated around on his grapevine, it was God’s will that I should be tossed and that he should be canonized as pastor of the church.
For the longest time, I knew nothing of his plans; he was slowly, secretly trying to build a movement large enough to oust me. I do remember thinking one day that he was getting too nice and too eager to please and comply. When I’d ask him to take the lead in managing a project, he’d virtually salute me and nearly burst his ankles clicking his heels together. When I finally caught on in a not so subtle way, he was trying to line up a no-confidence vote. The deacons who made such choices at this choice allowed voting for me to stay or leave to put be on a business meeting agenda; thankfully, in most churches by now such brutish and often humiliating tactics are not permitted. I think seven people out of a hundred and something voting, voted for me to leave. My job remained secure, and the Personnel Committee met with him within the next week and gave him the ax for insubordination and the spreading of falsehoods; or maybe they allowed him to resign to avoid termination.
I was irritated and angry with this guy, but most of all I was hurt, really hurt. As different as we were, I trusted him and thought of him as my friend. How quickly an enemy.
Early in Jesus’ ministry, when he felt that his disciples were ready to head out and do some work on their own without his being present, he described various positive and negative situations they might encounter while trying to share the good news of God’s love with strangers. The advice Jesus gave them on how to determine who is really interested in what they’re saying and, in contrast, who will be tossing them out of their homes in mid-sentence applies in a sense to knowing the difference between enemies and friends.
Sometimes, we know that someone is an enemy the first time we meet them; there are people who have hated my guts, in churches too, the first time they saw me, and that view never changed. Conversely, thankfully, there are those who saw me as friendship material from the first handshake on, and they have remained my friends from then on, until this very moment in time.
Most of the time, though, enemies or friends develop over time; it could go either way, or it could be one way for a while and then quickly change to the other way.
Jesus told his disciples that when they didn’t know whether the people to whom they talked would end up on the “friend” list or the “enemy” list to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
On the one hand, I can’t be gullible and live imagining that everyone I know or meet is going to be my friend. On the other hand, though, there’s something of a risk I have to take to allow for the possibility of friendship; I have to become vulnerable. I have to be open about my willingness to share friendship even if the response from the other person hurts me because she or he chooses to be my enemy rather than my friend.
I still don’t think that’s as hard as seeing someone as your friend for a while, maybe even for years, and then suddenly she or he is an enemy. In reality, that transition probably didn’t happen suddenly at all; it was probably working in that new direction for some time, but our knowledge of it still may be sudden and shocking. It can jolt us emotionally to discover from our point of view that someone whom we thought of this morning as a friend is an enemy. How quickly and how crushing an enemy.
At least it’s easy to know what to do once we know where we stand, right? Well, not necessarily, and Jesus doesn’t help us out in terms of how we believe an enemy is to be treated in this world. What he describes is something he managed, but we don’t see outselves as up to Jesus’ standards though he clearly thought his followers could do everything he did and more; so, he preached in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your God in heaven; for God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your God is perfect.”
OK, sure. Fine. That takes care of it, right? Doesn’t matter if someone is an enemy or a friend, they get the love treatment. Again, that’s fine for Jesus, but, really, do you think I’m going to be praying for my enemies and wishing all of them well in all of their endeavors? I mean, one of their endeavors is to do me in, in some kind of way. How can I endorse that?
Jesus did not retaliate when an enemy did something hurtful to him. He did get aggressive verbally, and in one case physically, with those who were enemies to others, those who were hurting others–namely, the ultra religious who had made themselves enemies to all who didn’t measure up to their self-standards. The experience was reversed in Jesus’ experience. Indeed, he never suddenly became someone’s enemy and turned on that person, but that happened to him on a number of occasions–most notably with his disciple, Peter, the one who’d proclaimed his love and devotion for Jesus more loudly and more widely than any of the others. Still when Jesus was taken into custody by the Romans for probable execution, who was the first to say, “I have no idea who that man is. I’ve never seen him before in my life”? It was Peter.
Some might want to say that Judas suddenly became the enemy of his rabbi, but that isn’t the case. Judas was never an enemy of Jesus and never ashamed that he was connected to the Jesus Movement. Judas was terribly confused, and what he did made it a little easier for the Romans to get Jesus’ pretense of a trial underway; but Judas kissed Jesus in the seeing of a group of soldiers working for the handful of Jewish higherups who detested Jesus. Never imagine that it was a hoard of Jews who disliked Jesus and wanted him dead; it was a very few. Most Jews in Jesus’ day had no idea who he was, never heard of him. This is why Judas had to kiss Jesus in the presence of the small group of soldiers in service to the Jewish high priest; presumably those soldiers also were Jews, and none of them knew who Jesus was. The higherups and their spies knew who he was, but the rank and file Jew did not. Judas gets Jesus to the Jewish high priest who, then, gets him into the hands of the Romans. Judas thought if he could get Jesus cornered by the right people, he’d come out swinging and become the militaristic messiah most of the Jews who actually looked for a messiah, of which Judas was one, expected and wanted. Judas, though, was not Jesus’ enemy. He was in no way ashamed of Jesus or ashamed to be associated with Jesus. He believed in Jesus’ potential more than any of the others who claimed to be his faithful followers. He’d have stood with Jesus to the end had he, Judas, not become so overwhelmed at the magnitude of his failure as friend and follower of Jesus that he killed himself before Calvary was in clear view.
In President Kennedy’s inaugural addresses he said:
“Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are–but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’–a struggle against the common enemies of humanity: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
A parable from A HUMANIST BIBLE. A fox once lived near a leopard in a land of such plenty that the leopard always had as much as he needed to eat, as well for his wife, the leopardess, and their young; and therefore the fox felt safe. But although the fox and leopard were friends and good neighbors, the fox knew that if dearth came, and the plenty ceased, he might end as prey for the leopard himself; for hunger ends friendships, and necessity brings great change.
Hunger ends friendships, and necessity brings great change–in this case, negative change. Someone doesn’t actually have to be hungry, but the fear of hunger unless certain economic supports are in place and secure is as compelling a reason to name an enemy as the person who is literally stealing food from your family’s garden or storehouse.
Why did the Civil War eventuate, when brother became enemy of brother? It wasn’t foundationally because of disagreements about the worth of Black Africans; rather, it was the fear of the southern plantation owners that they couldn’t operate and turn a prophet without slave labor. One of the burning reasons many of our fellow citizens hate all immigrants is the fear that the immigrants will come in, individually and en masse, and take what we have–namely our jobs. Thus, hunger ends friendships–and quickly. Certainly, there are many other reasons why those who weren’t our enemies suddenly become our enemies. Sometimes, we help them.
In Aesop’s fable, “The Eagle and the Arrow,” the moral of the story is: The shaft of the arrow had been feathered with one of the eagle’s own plumes. We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction. And quickly.