July 5, 2015

Terror and Terrorism

Head of John the Baptist by Georges Rouault
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. (Mark 6:17-29)


I hope you never do a Google search for "beheading." In my search for artwork for this post I was exposed to horrific images of recent beheadings. Don't do it. I'm not kidding.

Mark is doing a fine enough job in exposing us to the power of terror. It's a horrible story, a text of terror, a reminder that violence and brutality are a thread running throughout human history. Mark tells the story of the beheading of John the baptist in such a way that we have to stop and wince and take a moment. Consider these details:
  • Herod put John in jail because he stole his brother's wife and he wanted John to shut up about it. He was afraid of John.
  • Herod, in perhaps a drunken stupor, tells his daughter he will give her anything.
  • The girl's mother takes advantage of the moment and out of hate for John uses the girl to ask for John's head, and the request comes from the girl's lips. It could be a scene from a modern horror movie.
  • Herod kills John merely because he doesn't want to look foolish in front of his friends. He was afraid of social rejection.
And so he does it. He beheads John the baptist. It's disgusting and disturbing. And Mark tells it straight so we can hear how terror works. Because Herod is the one who lives in terror. So he commits terrorism.

Herod fears losing his status, reputation, friends, wealth, maybe his own life. He responds out of terror of losing himself, and commits violence and evil because of it. Mark wants us to be shocked and disturbed so we don't miss it: Fear, and extreme fear or terror, cause people to harm others.

Mark tells this story with strong effect because it is clear that Jesus is following in the footsteps of John. Jesus will do great and challenging things that will cause others to either welcome them in faith as the reign of God, or reject them out of fear of losing their current status or sense of security in this world. As Jesus continues his ministry of healing and calling others to change their hearts and be open to God's justice and mercy, how does he respond to Herod's terrorism? He is not terrorized. He does not let fear grip him. I expect he paused, wept, and grieved the death of his mentor. Then, he continues on. He exhibits enormous faith in God's reign and gives little respect to the empire of terror.

This story comes in the first half of the Gospel of Mark and prepares us for the greatest act of terrorism in the New Testament: The crucifixion of Jesus. The Roman Empire acted swiftly whenever anyone tried to rise up and threaten its dominance. It was, like all empires and rulers, afraid of losing power. So in order not only to stop rebels in action, but also to stop any who might be thinking of starting further rebellion, they crucified. They crucified a lot.

Crucifixion was not simply a death sentence for an individual criminal. It was an act of terrorism by an empire terrified of its oppressed peoples. It was like a billboard lining the highway promoting the fearful power of it wielded freely. It was meant to so terrorize anyone who saw it that they would turn around, go home, and go along with the reign of Caesar instead of the reign of God.

Love One Another by Georges Rouault
How did Jesus' disciples respond to the crucifixion? At first, they were terrorized, especially the men. Then, something happened. God created faith and hope out of violence and fear and terror. In the face of the empire's deathly power, God brought the power of resurrection. It is worth nothing that the followers of Jesus did not respond to the crucifixion of Jesus with violence and vengeance. They responded with energy to convert the world away from fear and toward faith.

By the end of Mark, you are left wondering: Do I live by fear and terror, or do I live by faith? It's clear in Mark that it matters terribly. Living by fear and terror, whether you are the emperor or one of the lowly being held down by him, leads to violence and death, and the reign of God will not come by such things. Living by faith and hope, however, leads to love, reconciliation, peace, and renewal of life. The reign of God is revealed in such things.

We live in an age of terror. How well have people of faith responded to it? Mostly by fear, mostly by creating even more violence and death as terror breeds terror. Mark's Gospel is needed now more than ever.

The murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were an act of terror. The martyrs of Charleston are calling to us: Even in the face of this cross, do not be terrorized by those who live in fear of loving others. Let us honor their witness and memory as we honor Jesus himself: By living with such faith in God's power to bring life out of death and love out of hate, that we live with even greater passion for the kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace. And we find new energy to live for it.


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