Ultimate power couple
Herod and Herodias are the ultimate power couple. They are a reminder why power corrupts people and needs to be limited. For example if Herod and Herodias invite you for a helicopter ride you might want to find an excuse not to go. Look at Herod’s unwillingness to lose face in front of his guests at a dinner party. He is more willing to have John the Baptist, who Herod knows is a holy prophet, be executed in the middle of a dinner party, than lose face by going back on his word. He makes a ridiculous promise and doesn’t back down when the request from Herodias via her daughter is unreasonable. Herodias doesn’t wince using her daughter as a political pawn. Herod and Herodias are the worst.
However too often we focus on the individual. We like to imagine other leaders with absolute power would behave better. That there is such a thing as a benevolent dictator. We see God in the story interrupting worldly power. God uses John the Baptist to help usher in God’s kingdom, God’s dominion rooted in love rather than absolute power. It’s not wrong to think this is a sad gospel reading, but the story does not end with the execution of John the Baptist.
John is also a forerunner to Jesus and John foreshadows Jesus’ ministry. Emerson Powery writes that John the Baptist isn’t just a random interlude in the Gospel of Mark. It’s a foretelling of what is to come for Jesus on the cross. Not only that, it’s a signal that God is very much willing to get dirty hands in the midst of a political world. John the Baptist doesn’t stay out of trouble and so too Jesus doesn’t stay out of trouble.
“Good trouble, necessary trouble”
John Lewis, Civil Rights leader, liked to talk about “good trouble, necessary trouble.” The roots of trouble date back to liberation currents we see within the Bible including Moses and the Exodus narrative, leading the Israelites from slavery into freedom. As well we think about John the Baptist’s warnings for the ruling class asking, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John the Baptist got into good trouble, necessary trouble, and it came at a price.
We know Jesus was also calculating in the trouble he got into. He knew when to slip away from the crowd when they were ready to throw him off a cliff. He knew how to save his energy for the journey to Jerusalem and facing off with religious and political leaders. He knew his disciples would follow him but only so far before they began to get afraid and peel off to save themselves. Jesus knew about good trouble, necessary trouble.
Those of us who are not marginalized, who are white folks with relatively more privilege, it is dangerous to imagine ourselves as prophets or radical leaders in the same way as a John Lewis or John the Baptist. That is not our role. However, we can learn to listen to liberating stories in the Bible and in recent history and support setting people free. We can walk alongside those leading the movements of “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Today in our context here in BC, we think about liberating Indigenous voices. I think about people like Carolyn Klaassen doing the work as an Indigenous seminarian and church leader in her own right in the Lutheran church.
I think about the hand wringing white folks express over the destruction of statues and burning of churches often near former residential schools, while these same folks often show little empathy for actual children who died at the hands of church leaders because they were Indigenous.
I read one public letter from a Roman Catholic bishop in Saskatchewan mourning the recent loss of a historic church building. The whole focus was on the loss of the building no longer in use for worship and its meaning to a church community. It is understandable that a community is sad losing a historic church building. The cause of the fire is unknown, including motive if it was due to arson. What is widely known is widespread outrage at the Roman Catholic Church and Christian churches generally for the history of residential schools. Missing from the bishop’s letter entirely is any mention of residential schools, any empathy for the plight of Indigenous people and their justified anger. There are different ways to parse a story like this, but refusing to admit the church played a role in Indigenous genocide is telling. Systems of power perpetuate themselves and cling to power. They can only see themselves as victims even when they hold relatively more power.
Walking alongside the John Lewis’ and John the Baptists of the world calls for a different approach. As disciples of Christ, through God’s grace, we embrace humility. We admit we do not have the answers. We admit that we’re swimming in the soup with everyone else when we think about the issues of our day, including walking alongside Indigenous folks demanding their liberation. From a position of humility, a defaced statue is of little concern relative to actual human lives. Church buildings, while sad to see destroyed, do not even begin to approach the crimes against humanity churches perpetuate against marginalized communities.
What does good trouble, necessary trouble look like for us? There is no one right answer. There is a whole spectrum of what living into God’s grace looks like. I remember hearing Diane Nash, Civil Rights leader, speak some years ago. She talked about a need for persevering and preserving energy for long-term organizing. She said we can’t pin all our hopes and dreams on whatever we’re planning in the next six months or even the next year. We need to be thinking about what we can accomplish as the body of Christ in the next fives years, the next ten and twenty-five years. We think about building foundations on top of which we might not live to see what they will support for future generations. That’s the kind of long-term planning we need to envision.
We’re still coming out of eighteen months that have been exhausting, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we still feel tired. We’re reeling from recent revelations around Indigenous children and residential schools. We’re not going to finish addressing this within a year. If we want to be real, to be in it for the long-term, then we need to dig deep. Dig into the spiritual traditions of prayer, song, scripture, and story that will sustain us. For Dianne Nash if she had a big action to prepare for as a teenager and early twenties, she would lock herself in her house for three days for prayer, meditation and spiritual renewal. She would focus on kindling those inner fires that needed tending to. She turned to spiritual practices that dwelled both on the cross and the power of resurrection.
What are those practices for you? Whether it’s an overtly spiritual practice, reading a book, going for a hike or paddle, working on a car, building something, gardening, weaving, making art. Whatever it is that renews your strength, we’ll need to kindle these practices as we seek to renew our reserves of energy. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for being tired. We’re all tired in different ways, but together we are filled with God’s grace and love, which will see us through the journey ahead.
Maybe you’re already on that journey and you know the path ahead to take. Maybe you need more time for discernment. I know we are craving community and look forward to worshipping together. This too fills us with joy and sustains for the road ahead.
Know that the Herods and Herodiases of the world are afraid of prophets and of those who walk alongside them. Simply by questioning power and authority we present a threat to the established order. That too is the power of the cross and resurrection.
As disciples of Christ we are invited into this journey together as a church community. None of us carries the burden alone. Christ lightens our burdens. God’s grace and love sustains us day to day. Thanks be to God. Amen.