A Quick, Merciless Death

Preached at St Peter's Church, Manchester on 12th July 2009
Mark 6: 14-29

In his inaugural address the US President Barack Obama quoted one of his favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr,“The arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice.”

Dr King quoted these words many times: in 1961, when he first explained his principles of non-violence; in the spring of 1965, on the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, when the Alabama state police attacked the peaceful protestors with billy clubs and tear gas; even in the last sermon he preached, in 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, just four days before he was assassinated.

The phrase comes from a Unitarian minister in the 19th century, Theodore Parker, who was active in the movement to end slavery, even harbouring those who had run away in his home. He sometimes wrote sermons with a loaded pistol at his desk in case he was disturbed by the wrong person.

The arc of history may be long, and it may indeed bend toward justice, but didn’t bend quite quick enough for John the Baptist. Imprisoned near Herod’s chambers, he is the silent victim of Herod’s weakness, of the merciless plotting of powerful men, the scheming of powerful women, and the brutal efficiency of an executioner dispatched to remove his head one evening – ironically the birthday of Herod.

There is a scene in the recent film about Che Guevara of execution of two revolutionaries who had robbed and mistreated peasants. They are taken into the jungle and one is asked for a last wish. He asks for confession, which is he isn’t given because the priest is too far away; he then asks for a last swig of rum just before his quick, efficient death.

John isn’t given even the tiny generosity of a last wish. His death is as quick, as thoughtless, as any death under an oppressive regime today. These kinds of deaths are distanced from those in power; they are a collateral necessity, an unfortunate reality — never a human loss. There are no last words, no fiery speeches from the gallows, just a quick death somewhere in a dark, awful room away from attention.

The Herod pictured here is the son of the Herod who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth.
He is known in history for killing John, but for different reasons; an ancient historian at the time records that he killed John because he was threatened by him.

People in scripture and today collude in awful acts of violence. The rulers of Galilee are present at the banquet, hear Herod’s rash promise, and do nothing. Women collude in the action — although the dance isn’t necessarily a sexually seductive one (Mark uses the same word “little girl” in the story of the Jairus’ daughter Beth preached on a few weeks ago. The dance could simply be a child’s performance).

We all know that the Christian life is not meant to be easy, and yet this story comes as a shock, a disappointment — even an embarrassment. The idea of God’s continuing care for creation as well as for each living thing, for each sparrow, for each of us — is an idea needs careful reflection after a century of bloodshed as well as in the face of climate change caused by humans. With rape used as a tool of war in Somalia, and the body count rising in Afghanistan, the idea of God’s providence, God’s care for human life and all life can seem naïve indeed.

How can God let this death happen? Perhaps God allows chance to be part of the freedom given to creation. Or perhaps God looks after the cosmos in general, but not after particular creatures. At least, daring to call oneself Christian cannot be to blind oneself to the brutalities of human nature so terribly laid bare here. The story is sandwiched into the story we heard last week about Jesus sending out the twelve; the next passage is the twelve returning from their travels. Perhaps Mark is making the point that being Christian is not a guarantee of safety, much as Amos knew that speaking the truth can be a dangerous and even seditious act.

And perhaps the presence of this story in the center of the Christian story, in the middle of the good news of Jesus Christ, is to remember that God’s good news is open to, alive to, aware of, wounded by, such awful deaths as John’s. God will see the story through to a different conclusion than Herod imagined. The story set in motion by God is great enough to bear scenes such as this. Perhaps mature believers, too, are to face these stories with eyes open and to shoulder some of the responsibility as they participate in God’s action, as do the disciples.

God sends us out to share in the work of the kingdom. God doesn’t promise a easy road, or even a long life, but God promises that time is now on God’s side. Even if John’s life ended abruptly, in a darkened cell, even if our lives are punctured with abrupt endings of lives, of relationships, such events do not put us beyond God’s seeking us in newness wherever we are. Jesus’ death, unlike John’s, was not final, although it was just as real and awful. The seeming failure of Jesus’ ministry was shown to be the eruption of a different kind of relating and knowing others. In Mark he tells the woman at the tomb that he is going before them to Galilee, where he first called them, as if he is calling them again after this rupture in their life.

In Christ we, too, are given this new time as a gift to be acted upon, and that time is now. The responsibility is given us, and the moment has come in which to forgive and be forgiven, to speak and to listen, to seek justice and to work for peace in the midst of unspeakable violence. The unspeakable has been spoken; the worst has been faced. There is no reason, no power in our way, no technique to perfect, to make us wait in pursuing the kingdom; there is no secret knowledge to be given from a priest or set of prayers or actions or sacrifices to be completed to please God. The time has arrived, Mark says, John says, to participate in the liberating action of God that is already underway.

How long until the arc bends towards justice?
Not long — because the truth will overcome falsehood.

How long until the suffering is over?
Not long — because time is now on God’s side.

There is time with God — and there is no time like the present for speaking the truth, even — especially — to those in power.

Nathan Eddy