Photo – John the Baptist Rebuking Herod
~ Mark 6:14-29 ~
The Legion of Honor in San Francisco has one of largest collections of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of Paris. One of the sculptures on display there is of John the Baptist that is a bit off-putting – his head on a platter. Yes, a severed head sitting on a plate in a glass case. However, Rodin is not alone. John the Baptist’s head seems to be a favorite subject by many artists. There’s Caravaggio’s painting depicting the soldier holding John down to the floor with knife in hand as servant girls standby in horror, silver platter in hand. Rembrandt has one with the sword held high above the executioner’s head ready to swing it down towards the kneeling John. There are paintings of John’s head on a platter being handed to Salome, of Salome holding the head by its hair, Salome giving the head to her mother, Herodias, and, of course, of Salome dancing before King Herod. Such gore, such violence, such drama – which is why the beheading of John the Baptist is such a favorite subject of many an artist.
Yes, this all makes for dramatic paintings and sculptures, but what is a preacher to do with such a terrible story. What possible good can come from such a story? Indeed, why did Mark have to include such a gruesome tale in the story of the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the first place? Is he appealing to our baser instincts just to keep our attention by telling this tale of sex, palace intrigue, violence, and murder in an otherwise good story of redemption and grace? Just what good is this story? What of value can a preacher on this July Sunday say about such things?
In the narrative of Jesus’ ministry that is Mark’s gospel, this story of the beheading of John the Baptist seems out of place. Indeed, it really is out of place. Mark inserts it right in the middle of the story of Jesus sending the disciples on their mission to the villages and towns. Jesus has just given his disciples instructions for their mission venture. Abruptly Mark inserts the story of Herod and John and when he’s done returns immediately to the mission trip story with the disciples returning to tell Jesus about their adventures. What’s more, we realize that John was arrested by Herod way back in chapter one before Jesus began his public ministry.
Talk about being cancelled! In a world where being cancelled is a big deal – “Cancel Culture” – what happened to John is the ultimate in getting cancelled. In John’s case, getting cancelled is the consequence of speaking truth to power. Those in power rarely respond well to having truth spoken to them. John the Baptist’s story illustrates those consequences: he was executed, beheaded. As the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the Black Liberation Theologian from the 70’s, used to say: “The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.”
Another word for “cancelled” is ‘rejection. It seems to me that the story of John’s violent demise is another take on the theme of rejection. In an earlier chapter, Jesus gets rejected in his hometown by his own people. Then we have Jesus warning his disciples that as they spread the message of Jesus they too will most likely experience rejection. And now this: John has experienced the ultimate in rejection – he is killed. And once you get past all the intrigue and enticement and plotting and scheming of this story, we see that John is killed because he dared to speak truth to power. He goes into the halls of political power and says to Herod and his court, “Repent!” And, most importantly, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with John. Yes, Jesus too will ultimately be rejected for speaking truth to power.
Here we have a window into the very seat of power in Jerusalem, the king’s palace. And we see deceit and manipulation. We see the life of a man determined by the enthrallment of enticement and, frankly, sex. We see a contrived protocol (a really stupid granting of an impossible request – “whatever I ask for” – what is that?) trumping the exercise of justice. We see violence as a normal way of accomplishment. We see the absolute bankruptcy of political power run amok. What a mess.
Jon Carroll wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle for several decades, retiring in 2015. His columns on the back page of the Datebook, were humorous and often insightful observations of life. I would often save his columns because you never know when one might serve as a good sermon illustration. One of those was titled the Cecil B. DeMille Formula. This was the formula:
Show a society in a state of decline, with lechery and drunkenness and women in bronze bras at every hand, and feature girls dancing with snakes and cruel leaders ordering prisoners to be tortured and raucous courtiers applauding each appalling act…Oh, it is distressing. Oh, it is disgusting. Let us watch it some more to see how distressing and disgusting it is.
But, of course, in such movies there is a hero, the one upright person who resists the temptations. In the end he saves the day and all the drunks and torturers and lechers and women in bronze bras are destroyed by some sort of “Lordly smiting.” Mr. Carroll concludes:
So, we get to watch the always delicious debauchery, and then we get to feel good about ourselves because we vicariously participate in the smiting of the debauchery, of which we quite naturally disapprove.
I think it is quite easy to do that with this story from Mark. We decry the use of violence by the powerful. We see the debauchery of evil in high places and rightfully respond with disgust and righteous indignation. We applaud when the courageous hero of faith dares to go into the very teeth of the dragon and speak truth to power. After all, we’re for truth and justice; we’re for speaking truth to power.
But it has been my experience, my personal experience, that the powers we decry do not simply exist “out there” but dwell deep within we human beings. Power, domination, and violence not only shape the powerbrokers in high places, but also corrupt everyday life and relationships. Speaking truth to power cannot be a simplistic us-against-them spirit but involves my own honesty about the ways in which I live in captivity to the culture of violence and power. Truthfulness about my own cooperation with the culture of power and violence is a critical virtue if I desire to be a Christian who is about peace and justice. Christian philosopher Stanley Hauerwas has written:
Our greatest illusion and deception…is that we are a peaceable people, nonviolent to the core. We are peaceable so long as no one disturbs our illusions. We are nonviolent so long as no one challenges our turf…So violence becomes needlessly woven into our lives…The order of our lives is built upon our potential for violence.
We must be watchful and truthful because we live in a system whose order is maintained by violence; and the spirit of violence often shapes our life in the world.
Being truthful about the violence within me does not have to focus on flagrantly violent acts, such as murder or sexual and physical abuse. Although we don’t have to look too far to see that many ministers have allowed themselves to use violence against those in their care. There are way too many examples of ministers in positions of trust and power who have used their position to perpetrate violence on others. It is to the point that ministerial abuse is one of the breaking points of American Christianity today and why so many people, particularly millennials, are leaving the faith.
But violence on a smaller scale can be an issue, my issue. Often the violence in my life begins with trivial actions – actions that reveal the propensity to dominate others. I have the bad habit of interrupting people. On one level, such a habit might be dismissed as simply being impolite. Maybe I’m just so passionate about the subject that I can’t help myself. Sometimes, when we get home from an evening with friends, Linda will say, “Boy, you sure did talk a lot tonight.” And I could say that I just had a lot of opinions that needed to be expressed. Whatever, it would hardly seem to qualify as ‘violence’. But dominating another person, even if just from a ‘bad habit’, indeed, silencing another person, does, I think, contain a power dynamic. And, as a minister, when I interrupt or dominate a conversation I may be tapping into unstated assumptions of the power of the preacher, assumptions that could lead to manipulation or abuse of this very pulpit.
In other words, I need to learn to resist the inherent violence of our culture in such the trivial issue of how I converse with others. I need to be more intentional about listening to others. I need to learn to be more aware of the dynamics of power, control, and privilege imbedded in me – a big white male minister. I need to learn. Some might say I still have a lot to learn!
So, what is our role in the movie epic? Are we unwittingly the courtiers in the background applauding, and therefore participating in, the machinations of our violent culture? Or do we pretend we are above such debauchery? Or do we truly identify with the hero of the story, the one who really does save the day? I hope so for it is he, the Christ, who removes us from the role of participant in that violent scene and restores us, lavishing upon us abundant grace. Indeed, we will not be cancelled! And it is because of that grace that we can then dare speak truthfully – speak truthfully to the powers that be and speak truthfully to ourselves.
So, I guess there is something we can get out of this terrible scene in Herod’s palace. Making our way in the violent world is a difficult and maybe dangerous road. But we make our way knowing that John and Jesus have gone before us, full of grace and truth. Amen.