There are a lot of words in that story, especially for the Gospel of Mark. So let’s be clear about what happened: King Herod, who is something of a puppet ruler for the Romans, has a very broken relationship with his brother, Philip. As the king, Herod only answers to Rome, a power that doesn’t seem to care much about his morality. So he takes Philip’s wife for his own. John, the truth-teller, speaks out against the king’s lack of moral fiber, and is thrown in prison. Herod sees that John has power and a following. But Herod is also curious about John and his teachings. Then one night Herod gets drunk, is enthralled by his step-daughter’s dancing, and promises here whatever she wants. Salome is smart – she knows Herod is powerful, so she asks her mom what she should do. The Greek used indicates that she is a girl—not yet a teen.
Herodias, maybe to test Herod, wants revenge on John for publicly shaming them.
And of course Herod doesn’t want to appear weak, so he agrees. It’s an old, old story, one that plays out in various shapes time and again, and one that is also stunningly contemporary.
It reminds us of the cruelty and randomness of violence in the Roman Empire, and of the end which generally awaits prophets. In case we are tempted to think that the state murder of Jesus, in whose name we gather, was a singular event, John’s death shows us that even a dinner party can be deadly if the powers that be decide you are a threat.
Corrupt leaders are not a new thing in the 21st Century, and anyone who is a puppet for an occupying force keeps an eye out for potential trouble-makers. So that’s how John’s head ended up on a serving platter (literally). And then Herod hears of Jesus, John’s cousin, and he starts getting VERY nervous. It’s starting to look like this might be a bigger movement than just one guy with some followers.
You might wonder: we proclaim this as gospel—as good news. Where is the good news here? This story has another, critically important layer, because it shows us the power of prophecy, of speaking the truth in public, of being part of a movement based in God’s love.
John, who may have been languishing in prison for over a year, represents a threat to a corrupt regime. But he is not alone. Mark points out that at John’s death, Jesus and his followers are right there, coming up in the next flank. It is a portrait of non-violent resistance, of refusing to be cowed, of claiming the power of something stronger than fear. Herod stands in for the power of Empire. Empire does what is expedient, often motivated by fear. The love of God demands something else, calling us to go deeper, broader, higher, to live in gratitude for what Ephesians describes as “the riches of grace lavished upon us.” Love is always stronger: stronger than fear, than greed, than grasping for power.
For years now, people have been gathering the first Saturday of every month at the ICE detention center at Pt. Pinole, demanding and end to policies separating immigrant families and imprisoning tax-paying residents whose only crime is trying to live here and support their families. On Tuesday, the mayor of Contra Costa County announced that he would not be renewing his contract with ICE. He credited public outcry for a large part of the reason he is willingly giving up this $3 million dollar contract.
Speaking the truth to power makes a difference.
I had the great privilege of hearing the Rev. Dr. William Barber speak Thursday night at First UCC Church in Berkeley. Barber, who is just a year older than I am, is a modern day John the Baptist, and a true prophet. I so wished Anne Langston was there with me,
and I suppose she was. The authorities no doubt keep their eyes on Barber, because he has already shown that he can mobilize communities for change, for healing, and to live out the power of Gospel love.
He is the leader of the Moral Mondays movement which began in 2013 in North Carolina, when, over the course of 40 weeks, growing from a handful to thousands, people gathered at the statehouse to protest regressive legislation. Their voices made a difference, and their method has spread to other states. More recently, he has revived the Poor People’s Campaign, a grassroots movement begun by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., focused broadly on social issues and rooted in a call for resuscitating the moral fiber of our country.
At the packed 1st UCC church, speaking to a mostly non-religious crowd and receiving multiple standing ovations, Barber repeatedly turned to his bible to talk about what God demands, the call of the prophets, and the power of love, when we are willing to let go of our narrow self- interests, and let them be bound together with the needs of others.
The movement he calls people to join does not focus on one issue, but looks broadly at voting rights, economic justice, labor rights, education, healthcare, environmental justice, immigrant rights, criminal justice, LGBTQ rights and militarism, arguing that we cannot win progress if we stay in our particular issue silos, but look toward a new moral movement that calls for a renewed heart of our nation.
One of the most humbling moments for me was when he acknowledged that this is an exhausting time to be alive and speaking truth to power. And then Dr. Barber, a former high school football player, who stands 6’2” and still has a formidable build, asked the largely white audience, “Are you tired of fighting for justice?”
And went on with a litany…
Do you think Japanese Americans interned in WWII were tired? Do you think enslaved Africans were tired? Do you think Rosa Parks was tired?
Do you think the workers in the fields picking our vegetables are tired?
So, do you think John the Baptist was tired? We know Jesus and his followers got tired. But we must not grow weary of speaking the truth, of calling, in love, for justice, for mercy. Love is not the easy route. Love demands our best, our highest. And love is more powerful than Empire.
You can whip up a crowd with fear, with hatred. But to build a movement that will endure, and heal, and welcome and rejoice that takes the Love of God which nothing on earth can break, and against which not even death can prevail.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.
(For more information about The Poor People’s Campaign, see https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/; Rev. Dr. Barber’s organization is here: https://www.breachrepairers.org/poorpeoplescampaign/)