While I was sitting in my office writing my piece on “Troubled Herod,” unknown to me Jonathan-Wilson Hartgrove was in Wake County Jail writing a letter to Herod. Through the efforts of thousands of North Carolina Christians like Jonathan, we have at last been delivered of the infamous “bathroom bill” and a Governor who has so greatly damaged our state public educational system. As I have said, now is a time not for reconciliation, civility, and facile unity but a time for resistance and rebuke. Jonathan is doing that! (In my forthcoming, Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism, I laud Jonathan’s Free to be Bound: Church Beyond the Color-Line as one of the most encouraging books on a truly Christian response to racism.)
Dear King Herod,
I do not know whether anyone lodged a formal protest all those years ago when you ordered the slaughter of the innocents. But yesterday evening, when I stood with fellow North Carolinians to protest an illegal session of our legislature, I thought of you.
It’s Christmas here in North Carolina. Most folks are busy with holiday parties and last-minute shopping. But an all-white caucus within our General Assembly conspired secretly to call a special session on Wednesday, December 14, to subvert the results of this year’s democratic election. Our Governor-elect, Roy Cooper, has vowed to challenge this power grab in court. But as you well know, courts can do little to save what power aborts in infancy.
I thought of you when I stood in the house chambers last night and asked Speaker Tim Moore to recognize our citizen protest. Thanks to an abolition movement and a terrible Civil War, our state Constitution expressly prohibits the “secret political society” that met to call this session. We learned that the meeting was secret when, in response to a protest from Democrats, Speaker Moore said on the floor that he was not aware of the votes to call the special session until that morning. Since he is a member of the GOP caucus that is granted an exception under our state’s open meeting laws, the public can only assume the planning for this session happened outside that caucus, in an illegal secret meeting.
A lot has changed in the world since your reign, King Herod. Given the way you treated John the Baptist, I don’t imagine you would have much patience for the labors of democracy we’ve committed ourselves to in America.
Still, some things stay the same. Like you, Speaker Moore and his extremist colleagues in our General Assembly are so concerned about loosing political power that they’re willing to abort the very good news that could save us. For the past four years, our Forward Together Moral Movement, better known as “Moral Mondays,” has built a broad and diverse coalition of people committed to reviving the heart of democracy and pursuing a more perfect union for the common good. According to analysis by Public Policy Polling, our movement shifted the balance of power in this year’s election the hard way–by changing hearts and minds and getting people out to vote. “The seeds of McCrory’s defeat really were planted by the Moral Monday movement,” PPP said, noting that the popular Republican governor’s polls dropped from 65 to 35 and gave McCrory “39 months in a row of an underwater approval rating” following our protests of legislation he signed during the 2013 legislative session.
But the extremists who control our legislature don’t answer to the people, as our Constitution imagines, because they have maneuvered to hold onto power by any means necessary. (You would, I suspect, be impressed by their ingenuity.) Elected to represent districts that a federal court found to be racially gerrymandered, they have not killed the young and diverse North Carolinians who would win many of their seats in a fair election. They’ve rigged the system so that a few of their opponents win unchallenged so they can maintain a supermajority.
They get to cling to power without having the blood on their hands.
Still, as I watched Speaker Moore yesterday evening, I saw a sadness in his face that I suspect you too must have felt. Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. But it also makes people lonely. It’s one thing to know you can get away with murder. But it’s something else to have to live with it.
You did all you could to kill the nonviolent revolution of love that was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, King Herod. And your heirs are doing all they can to abort the Moral Movement that is still a toddler in North Carolina today. But we celebrate Christmas because Jesus showed us that when a light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.
And that, my dear brother, gives me hope for you. The good news of Jesus is that there’s room for everyone on the winning side. I can pray for Speaker Moore and his colleagues, so enslaved by the grip of fear. We can love them and hope they will join us, even as we stand to insist that what they are doing is wrong.
And in the meantime, while the struggle continues, we can rejoice that we don’t have to suffer the loneliness that plagues our enemies. There’s good company over at the jail house. And at the state house here in NC. If you could, I’d love for you to join us.
Jonathan’s letter was originally published at Red Letter Christians, a movement of Christians seeking to live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.