In the Name...
There is a scene in the musical "1776" where the members of Congress are making amendments to the draft Declaration of Independence. One has a clause removed because he feels it could upset English friends who support America; another gets a phrase removed because he thinks it criticizes Scotland for England’s actions; and yet another has an entire section removed because he's afraid it blames Parliament for the King's actions. Finally, in exasperation, John Adams blurts out, "This is a revolution. We're going to have to offend somebody."
In the early 1920's, Mahatma Gandhi began his work of achieving independence for India. Traditionally, achieving independence for a country involves a certain amount of armed struggle, as in the case of our own American Revolution. Gandhi, however, introduced something new to the world - non-violent civil disobedience - and in spite of setbacks and frequent arrests; he never gave up his vision of peaceful change as he walked his way back and forth across India.
As he did so, his reputation spread such that both city-dwellers and rural villagers would travel for days on foot just to catch a glimpse of him. Never before, it seemed, had any figure stirred the masses to their very depths and received the homage of so many people.
And, although they resented deeply what Gandhi was attempting to do, the British authorities could not but admire what he had come to represent. The Governor of Madras declared that this was an entirely new political phenomenon and, in a famous letter, wrote, "There is no doubt that Gandhi has got a tremendous hold on the public imagination."
For someone outside the power structure to hold the public imagination is the kind of threat that the rulers of this world fear most and, in this week's Gospel, St. Mark plunks us down squarely in the midst of that fear.
Mark has just finished describing to us Jesus sending out his disciples, two by two, with instructions to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the gospel. The scene then dramatically shifts. We are whisked away from the bright, sunny outdoors, strolling with Jesus in the villages, and transported to the shadowy lamp-lit halls of power to hear the story of the conflict between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist.
Now, this is not the King Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus. This is one of that Herod's sons and although Mark calls him "King" Herod, the truth is he was only the Roman appointed ethnarch, or supervisor, of Galilee. He wasn't even a proper governor, like Pontius Pilate in Judea, but, like many rich and powerful people, he made the most of it and considered himself a law unto himself. And it was for his blatant violation of Jewish marriage law that John most publicly criticized him. Herodias, his wife, was not only the ex-wife of his brother, she was also the daughter of one of his older half-brothers. In Jewish eyes, the relationship was incestuous and a scandal.
Political authority in ancient times was very personality-based. Criticizing the ruler could topple the government and if the Romans thought that Herod couldn't control his people, they might replace him with someone who would. John, a man who could capture the public imagination, was a clear and present danger.
Herod, though, was not as decisive as his father. He arrested John to keep him off the streets, but, at the same time he couldn't help wandering down to the cells to listen to him talk about the need for personal repentance and holiness. A bit like the British with Gandhi, he knew his prisoner represented something he couldn't deny was right.
Herodias, however, did not share her husband's admiration for this desert prophet. She was much more like her grandfather and determined to get John out of the way once and for all. He had humiliated her. She wanted revenge and revenge is a dish best served cold, preferably on a silver platter.
It’s quite a story. Books, plays, and operas, have been based on it; great works of art portray it. It's the stuff of imagination - sex and violence. It's so unlike the rest of the Gospel.
So, why is it here? Perhaps, because this is where it needs to be - right after Jesus has sent his disciples out on their own for the first time. St. Mark was addressing a Christian community that was still finding its way in a hostile environment - experiencing moments of triumph and tragedy, of victory and persecution. Placing this story where he does, he reminds them, and us, that when the Church rises up to do the work of the Church, the world rises up to stop it.
This may sound rather strange. In our day, churches are praised for their good works and civic involvement. Ministers are asked to serve on community boards. Politicians seek religious endorsements when running for office. But, in a subtle sense, this too is a form of persecution. This is the world's way of domesticating the Church - of keeping it under control. Herod put John into prison; the world puts us on committees.
The greatest challenge of the Church is always that of doing the work of the Gospel and translating its message into the context of the culture without adopting the secular values of that culture. The Church is called to heal the sick, cast out demons, and offer a message of hope to those who are hurting. But, when it does this in a way of which the world doesn't approve, this can cause conflict.
There was once a priest in a downtown area who did something which caused such a conflict. It was something that upset the city fathers and resulted in official, public criticism. What was this terrible thing he did? He didn't lock the church door. That's all. He left the main church door unlocked 24/7, because he felt that with a 24/7 casino two blocks away from that door, the church building should also be available for people anytime. And that was enough to stir things up because, as one city councilman told him, churches are only supposed to be open on Sundays.
I happen to know about this because, well, I was that priest and I was “invited” to the chief of police's office for a lecture on having created an “attractive nuisance.” I wasn't arrested, but, I was supposed to be intimidated. But, you know how dull I am. Didn’t work.
Strange, though, that something as simple as an open church was enough to upset people who didn't go to that church. It was because of what it represented. Sometimes we lose sight of the power we have, as Christians, and what we represent. We're just so busy fitting in and getting along that we don't realize that that's the world's best way to keep us from changing it.
When the Church rises up to do the work of the Church, it may not be popular or successful. It may repel as many people as it attracts. But, we are called to be the Church and that means that as well as heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the Gospel, we are to respond to human need by loving service, seek to transform unjust structures of society, challenge violence, pursue peace, and safeguard the integrity of creation even, no, especially if the world doesn't want to hear it.
Christians, you see, are really part of a revolution. We might just offend someone.
In the Name...