Politics and Power

Mark 6:14-29

"King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb."

Prayer – Gracious God, help us to be more courageous in following you. Give us the strength to stand up to the powers and politics that seem to surround us at every turn. In a world where the powerful maintain their power through falsehood and deceit, in an age when we love our security and comfort more than we love sometimes painful truth, help us to be people who tell the truth because we are in service to you – amen.

Our gospel lesson this week from Mark is a classic study in the costs that result when power and politics are confronted by truth.  We wonder why Mark, such a concise writer, has made this morbid, violent story the longest in his entire gospel. The placement of this story seems a bit odd at first glance, as it comes sandwiched in Mark’s narrative between two ministry stories – Jesus being rejected by the powerful of his hometown and sending his disciples out and the feeding of the 5000+.  In fact, Jesus plays absolutely no role in the story of the killing of John.

From everything we know about Herod, he was a crooked politician, and yet, he knew John was a holy man and for whatever reason, Herod admired John.  We know Herod was a puppet for the Roman overlords, a Jew who attempted to profit from the Roman occupation, a ruler who didn’t hesitate to resort to violence to maintain his control.  And still, he knew that John was a better man; perhaps he hoped some of John’s goodness would wear off on him; we don’t know. And when Herod married his brother’s wife, Herodias, John gave the two a spiritual slap up aside the head.  During Herod’s birthday party, Herodias had her daughter come in and do a sensual and suggestive dance in honor of the king. Herod was so impressed with his stepdaughter that he said, “That was the best dance I’ve ever seen. Ask me whatever you want.”  “What should I ask for?” she whispered to her mother. Herodias responded to her daughter, “Tell Herod you want John’s head on a platter, I’m going to shut up that politics-with-religion mixing preacher once and for all.”

Mark tells us Herod tried to worm his way out of this one; on the other hand, her feared looking weak in front of all of his court officials, so John lost his head that night; he lost his head because he had the courage to confront power and politics with truth.  

We know of others who have lost their lives for speaking out the truth of injustice, inequality, and abuse of power.  John certainly wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. Throughout the ages many have lost their lives for speaking out against the powerful.  Barbara Brown Taylor stated “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion – which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”  Certainly Dietrick Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others have lost their lives for speaking out against powerful and corrupt politics.

So as we listen to this passage in the middle of July of 2018, are there parallels we see between Herod in the first century and some of our current world leaders?  Herod was certainly blinded by ambition to the point where he was willing to sacrifice his principles for political gain. There are many of us who would say the same for way too many of our current political leaders.  Was Herod like Don Draper in Mad Men, mired in a life of deception to the point he couldn’t tell the difference between truth and false news?  It seems that many of our current political leaders, like Herod, use fear-driven tactics to build up their power in order to maintain the status quo and deride those who want to see justice and peace.  For as long as there have been rulers and kingdoms, power and politics has been used to assert one agenda against another.

The truth of the matter is that for much of Jesus’ ministry, like John’s, had significant political implications.  And I don’t mean political in the sense of who to vote for. The kingdom that Jesus preaches about challenges our penchant for the status quo and our all too easy acquiescence with the cultural presumption that power or wealth or status or fame makes right.  Proclaim God’s kingdom of justice and equality and there will be costs to pay. History tells us that those who stand up to City Hall often take a beating, and those who advocate an alternative to the status quo can usually expect those who benefit from the status quo to come down on them – hard.  There is a cost attached to people in high places who combine power with lies.

John told Herod and Herodias the truth about their marriage.  He was the one person around who called it for what it was – immoral.  And Herod reacted the way powerful people often react today – “fake news.”  Or, being ridiculed or threatened or belittled or simply castigated by the friends of those who have the power.  

So, having read this and thought about it for a couple of weeks now, I have to ask myself, and you, “When have I ever stood up and told the truth that people didn’t want to hear?”  The church is meant to not only be a place of comfort and care but also a place of truth. Here is truth that is tied not to the concerns of the political right or political left but to Jesus the Christ.  Here is where God convenes us weekly to hear what the world doesn’t want us to hear, to see ourselves and our leaders for who we really are; people who evade the truth, who wish that the truth-tellers would just keep their mouths shut, and who sometimes make the truthful pay a high price for telling the truth.  

There have been times when I have been courageous and spoken out about issues.  Following a fatal shooting and robbery of a bank in Richmond, I wrote letters to every state and US politician in Virginia inviting them to come and spend an evening in our Emergency Room to see what gun violence really looks like.  I had one response and acceptance. Following a similar situation in Gastonia, I wrote letters to all of the state and US politicians in NC inviting them to come and spend an evening in our Emergency Room to see what gun violence looks like.  Not a single response. I’m pretty passionate about gun control and gun violence because I see the aftermath almost every week.

I’m also pretty emphatic about end of life issues.  Working with families daily literally around life and death means I am pretty aware of what is at stake.  I have butted heads with physicians on more than one occasion when I have spoken out about their power and the lack of autonomy that our patients and families have.  I have even lost a job as a chaplain for pushing back for an ethical issue where a physician ignored the family’s wishes for their loved one and the patient died an excruciating death because the doctor didn’t want it to impact his mortality statistics within 30 days of surgery.  

Yet, I know there have been many times when I could have spoken the truth about racism, sexism, unethical behavior, as well as my own failures and have chosen to keep my mouth shut.  There are many preachers who are afraid to preach the radically good news of the gospel because they are afraid of how their congregants may respond. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., was an honored Presbyterian minister, civil rights leader, antiwar activist, and prophet.  He summed up his faith by saying, “I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action . . . The Christian church is called to respond to biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice, and pursuing peace.” Sloane’s actions and words are evidence that he was able to navigate the tension created by those who would separate power into categories of church and state, or more accurately, of God and man.

The Hebrew prophets and Jesus clearly modeled engagement with both faith and the public forum.  However, Christianity for the most part has kept its morality mostly private, personal and heaven-bound with very few direct implications for our collective economic, social and political life.  Christianity looked to Rome for imperial protection; little did we realize the price we would eventually pay for such a compromise with Gospel values – and it hasn’t changed much in 2000+ years.

To be a person of faith is to connect the dots between our inner and outer worlds.  In the United States’ not-so-distant past, Christians were at the forefront of political and justice movements to abolish slavery, support women’s rights, protect civil rights, and establish and maintain Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Today I am encouraged to see many of my Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist brothers and sisters actively engaged with the political realm, speaking truth to power and calling for accountability for our political leaders. Being political is a basic civic, human and spiritual duty.

There is no such thing as being non-political.  Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo.  To say nothing is to say something.  The silence of many Christians is used to legitimize the US’s obsession with weapons, its war against the poor, Israel’s clear abuse of Palestine, politicians who are ‘pro-life’ on the issue of abortion but almost nothing else, the de facto slavery of mass incarceration, and on and on.  “The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of the organized people.”(Bill Moyers) Friends, it is time, it is past time, for us, you and me both, to lift our voices against the power and politics that is happening in our communities, our churches, our world.  WE have the capacity to make a difference, the question for you and for me, are we courageous enough to speak the truth regardless of the consequences? May God give each of us the courage – amen.