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Politics of Scripture

Listening to Power’s Fears

Paying attention to Herod’s fears about Jesus can keep us from depoliticizing the gospel.

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’s name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 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. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 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. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 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.” 23 And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 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.” 26 The king was deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14–29 (NRSVue)

Misunderstandings of the gospel strive on too-easy oppositions and false binaries. One such problematic opposition is the commonly heard assertion that, in contrast to John the Baptist’s immanent eschatological, politicized hopes for liberation, Jesus offers a more spiritualized understanding of how to overcome evil and attain salvation. John, we are told, wanted a “political” revolution, but Jesus offers a more loving way – a message convenient for preachers eager to contrast “heavenly” redemption with the supposedly hollow desire for more this-worldly liberation, or even for more modern theologians who wish to emphasize the supposedly more “existential” nature of Jesus’ message (e.g. Bultmann, Tillich) as opposed to more directly political outcomes. 

In other words, “John = politics” while “Jesus = spirituality” has underwritten the de-politicization of Jesus’ message for too many preachers and theologians. This would be problematic for liberation-oriented hermeneutics if it were true to the text; however, there is good reason, at least on literary grounds, to see such an opposition not only as foreign to the text, but as directly countervailing its depictions of power and its misuses in the account of Herod and John’s execution. 

Indeed, it is striking that, in Mark’s gospel, unjust political power personified – Herod – hears the accounts of Jesus’ teaching and miracles and is immediately reminded of the ministry of John; moreover, the text underscores the politicized nature of this association by narratively linking it to one of the most direct confrontations between the proclamation of God’s kingdom and imperial power in the entire text. For Herod, the contrast between what he knew of John and what he heard of Jesus was a distinction without a difference. Herod not only is reminded of John when hearing about Jesus, but the text makes clear that this threat is tied to an episode that personifies the precise nature of imperial power’s casual cruelty: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 

The chilling execution of John the Baptist foreshadows that of Jesus in that it features a superficially sympathetic take on Herod as a reluctant murderer (not unlike Pilate), while in fact demonstrating that power is willing to sacrifice innocent life in order to achieve its aims. Indeed, in contrast to Pilate’s somewhat understandable desire to maintain peace among the colonized populace as part of his charge, Mark’s account of Herod’s “seduction” (with ambiguously sexual overtones) by Salome (by way of Herodias’s dancing) emphasizes the relative banality of how horrific violence emerges within the context of empire and cruelty – no grand imperial designs, just human jealousy exacerbated by wealth, power, and access to casual violence. In other words, the violence of Herod is all the more chilling in that it is not tied directly to imperial ideology or any sort of Agamben-esque “state of exception” – it is human, all too human cruelty enabled by inordinate imperial power unjustly wielded. Herod is craven, vain, and weak – and when those attributes are combined with power, they are magnified to where the innocent – in this case John – must suffer. John’s prophetic vocation has put him in the place where he, in anticipation of Jesus, will have his body crushed by power in order for power to maintain itself, and the sheer triviality of the occasion for this violence is, put provocatively, an equally important depiction as Jesus’ crucifixion as to how and why imperial violence “works.” Sometimes power kills the innocent because of the complex dynamics of politics; however, sometimes politics is just the vehicle by which trivial human dramas become lethal. We see both kinds of violence in our headlines today. 

Enemies can tell us things that our friends cannot. To continue the parallel, to the extent that the death of Jesus is foreshadowed in the execution of John, we see that the forces of imperial violence and colonialism that gripped the lands of Jesus’ ministry saw in him a danger that is too often domesticated in our own readings – to the extent that Jesus is the Messiah proclaimed by John, his message is indeed dangerous. The subsequent persecution of Christians precisely as traitors to imperial ambitions (and the accompanying theopolitics of empire) throughout the early church bears “witness” (martyrdom) to the fact that Herod was right. Readers eager to emphasize the nonviolent nature of the Jesus movement (such as John Howard Yoder) are not wrong to see that this revolution did not proceed on the basis of violence, but linking violence inexorably to immanent liberation is a mistake that liberation theologians themselves rarely make – thus, to use threats of violence as a wedge between John and Jesus is again to introduce a binary that Herod himself, not to mention the New Testament and the early church as a whole, would not have recognized or found relevant.  

Put provocatively, believing Herod’s intuition – or at least taking it seriously – that Jesus’ ministry represents a resurrection, a recapitulation, of John helps us to understand the potential of the Jesus movement to fulfill the immanent, this-worldly liberation that liberation theology seeks and overly spiritualized readings of Jesus occlude.The Jesus revolution was and is a political revolution, which Herod intuited even as it is easy for modern preachers to miss. 

One is reminded of the supposed contrast, pushed by too many majority culture exegetes, between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Here too, Malcom X is often slotted in the “violent,” politicized role while King is domesticated into a spiritualized, “loving” figure. But once again, as close readers of both men, such as James Cone and Rufus Burrow have shown, King’s enemies knew something about him that his contemporary domesticating “friends” too often overlook – his message and ministry was indeed dangerous to the powers that be, the forces of imperialism and domination, the Herods of his day. King was not assassinated because he was a messenger of abstract “love” and “togetherness” – as with the early Christians – he was martyred as a threat to the ambitions of empire and its casual cruelties both domestically (e.g., white supremacist oppression of black and brown people, with accompanying injustice to laborers of all races) and abroad (e.g., Vietnam). Similarly, Jesus was not executed because he was a preacher of kindness and existential authenticity – he was executed because, to the extent that his message and movement were compelling and true, they operated in zero-sum opposition to the theopolitical claims of empire and its colonialist ambitions. King’s enemies saw something that his well-intentioned “friends,” to the extent that they de-politicize him, often missed. To understand King, it can be helpful to see him as his enemies perceived him. So too with Jesus, the one proclaimed by John.

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