Grace and Peace to you.
Right in the middle of his gospel about Jesus, when Jesus sends out his followers to preach and heal, Mark tells a long, sordid story about Herod’s execution of John the Baptist. Herod actually likes listening to John, though he doesn’t get most of what he’s talking about. But among the things John criticizes is Herod’s marriage to his sister in law. So to appease his wife he has John thrown in jail. No particular reason. Just being snotty. Then at a party, the wine flows, everybody gets a little loose, and Herod’s daughter gets up and dances. He likes it so much he promises her anything. She consults mom, who says, “the head of John the Baptist.” And that’s what she asks for. Well, Herod hates to look like a jerk going back on his promise, so has has John killed and his fresh head brought in on a platter. A really nice platter.
The abuse of power, the sleazy inner workings of a dysfunctional family, the easy disregard for life by the powerful, the disasters that come from trying to please others, the poison of resentment, the horrors of corrupt leadership, the destructive power of fear, and, oh, yeah, the tragic price paid by people who tell the truth. Wow. What a slimy tale. Sounds like an episode from The Sopranos. What does that have to do with Jesus? What the heck is it even doing in the Bible?
It’s there because, well, it’s here. That’s the world Jesus sends us out into. We’re sent to be gentle, forgiving, truthful and having integrity among people who are fearful, conniving and self-serving by pleasing others. We’re supposed to be different. It’s also a hint that behind every execution there’s probably a pretty sad backstory full of fearful abuse by those in power. Count on it. People never humbly, courageously condemn others to death.
Today I’m mindful of people in prison, most of whom are there unjustly. (In the US we have over 2 million people in jail, mostly poor black men, mostly there for nonviolent crimes. Nice.) They may or may not have actually harmed society any more than the rich and powerful who put them there. Their real crime is that they are powerless. They are pawns of a system in which people use human life to assuage their fears and maintain their sense of power and social status. You don’t have to be Herod to be part of that story. (The Corrections Corporation of America makes a tidy sum keeping black people in jail. They even promise a 90% occupancy rate. How thoughtful of them.)
The moral of this sad story? Be nonviolent anyway. Don’t use people. Tell the truth. Stand in solidarity with the powerless. And reject the for-profit prison system. The alternative: enjoy the party— and don’t forget to take home your party favor.