The End of Innocence
In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Emerson Powery describes the report of John’s death as “the end of innocence for Jesus’ mission.” He argues, “Interpreters who choose to think that Jesus’ life and mission were disconnected from the socio-political affairs of his first century context must view this account (John’s death by Herod) as an aside… Mark placed this account between the commission and the return of the disciples,” Powery writes, “to intimate its significance for the expansion of Jesus’ mission.”
“Where’s the good news in Mark 6:14-29?” C. Clifton Black asks in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “There may be none. The drive shafts of corrupted politics torque this birthday party. Everywhere greed and fear whisper: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain between mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison. When repentance is preached to this world’s princes,” he concludes, “do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be.”
One might argue from this text that today we see the consequences of mixing the pulpit and politics. That lack of discretion gets John the Baptizer served up as the dessert course on the platter of the powerful. We church folks would like to avoid that sort of outcome.
While we are not likely to risk execution if and when we bring political issues into our preaching, we are likely to bring about conflict. If the positions we take are partisan, we risk running afoul of federal tax laws for nonprofit organizations.
I should be quick to note that this risk has been honored much more in the breach than in the “execution” (a shameless pun). Publicly visible preachers have advocated partisan positions in their preaching for years and only rarely have they suffered any consequences. In fact, such preaching – typically of a socially and/or politically conservative bent – has been celebrated rather than censured. In my experience, the legal argument against bringing politics to the pulpit has been a convenient ploy rather than a concrete concern.
The greater risk to preachers has been the more local variety of “execution.” Progressive preachers in my denomination have experienced criticism, rebuke, cuts in compensation and benefits, bullying by leaders and members, public embarrassment, and death threats – both to the preachers themselves and to family members in response to preaching and teaching that has been deemed by some to be “too political.”
It is no accident that Mark creates a parallel between the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth and the foreshadowing of the crucifixion in John’s execution. Preachers know the risks of getting too public and specific in critiques of the powerful. The threats do not come from the larger world but rise up from the very members the preachers are called to challenge.
As I noted in a previous post, as the writer of Mark’s gospel preaches “The Tale of Two Tables,” that writer is challenging disciples – then and now – to discern under which table we are putting our feet, the banquet table of Herod Antipas or the table of abundant life where Jesus is both the host and the meal. It should be clear from the text of Mark’s gospel that this will inevitably be a political choice. It will be a choice between kings – the pretender and the Messiah. That choice faced the first listeners to Mark’s gospel and it faces us as well.
We white, western, Enlightenment Christians have often resisted the notion that politics should find a natural place in our pulpits. In fact, that resistance to politics in the pulpit is, I fear, a sign of our allegiance to the domination system which guarantees our privilege, power, and position. That resistance is not a sign of our piety or deep spirituality. That resistance is a mark of Herod’s table, not Jesus’ table.
I think we can find some help in our thinking from those who are clear about their exile from the tables of privilege, power, and position. For that reason, I want to interact for a bit with chapter three of Esau McCauley’s Reading While Black, which addresses “the New Testament and the Political Witness of the Church.”
McCauley notes the pushback from white preachers who opposed Dr. King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the critiques was that his work incited violence and did not produce peace. They called upon him to stay in his spiritual lane and avoid any extreme measures, such as protests and civil disobedience. Was Dr. King jumping lanes and mixing politics with the pulpit to the detriment of both?
“For many Black Christians the answer to this question is self-evident,” McCauley writes. “We have never had the luxury of separating our faith from political action” (page 49). He refers to the great address by Frederick Douglass, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
In that address, Douglass criticizes white American Christians on that day: “your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to [God], mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages.” I hope that many white Christians have read or re-read Douglass’ stinging and honest words as American Independence Day has recently landed on a Sunday.
“Douglass called upon American Christians to live out their faith by establishing a truly equal and free society,” McCauley writes. “He argued that this country could make no claim to any form of greatness until she faced what she had done to Black and Brown bodies.” Douglass, I would suggest, comes as close to a John the Baptist as our country has produced in our history. He barely escaped a “head on a platter” fate several times in his life as he spoke truth to White power.
To summarize McCauley’s insights regarding politics and the pulpits, I will be brief. The New Testament does not prohibit resistance to governing authorities, but it does not authorize violent revolution. “Submission and acquiescence,” McCauley argues, “are two different things” (page 51).
We can and should pray for leaders who are in legitimate authority, but this is not an authoritarian blank check. As he discusses the argument in First Timothy, chapter one, he notes that the writer can walk and chew gum at the same time, in political terms. “Prayers for leaders and criticism of their practices,” he writes, are not mutually exclusive ideas. Both,” he argues, “have biblical warrant in the same letter” (page 53).
McCauley notes that Jesus wasn’t executed because he told people to be nice to each other, any more than John was beheaded because he was a stodgy moralist. Holiness and righteousness are inconvenient for the rulers of this world, regardless of party (job security for the Church as political critic). “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley suggests, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55).
“How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). Politics in the pulpit is not an irritant or an option. Indeed, it is required. When we affirm our baptismal covenants in the Rite of Confirmation, we promise to “…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
Unfortunately, many ELCA Lutherans get to about the halfway point of these vows and decide that half a loaf is better than none.
“When Black Christians look upon the actions of political leaders and governments and call them evil,” McCauley writes, “we are making a theological claim…Protest is not unbiblical,” he continues, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future” (page 62). In ELCA terms, putting politics in the pulpit is a necessary part of striving for justice and peace in all the earth.
The goal of this analysis, however, is not conflict. It is rather peace. But, as McCauley notes, there can be no Biblical notion of peace without justice. There can be no rejoicing without lament. There can be no forgiveness without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. There can be no reconciliation without repair.
McCauley’s closing paragraph is worth quoting in full (apologies in advance for the less than inclusive language here).
“The Black Christian, then, who hopes for a better world finds an ally in the God of Israel. He or she finds someone who does more than sympathize with our wants and needs. This God steps into history and reorders the universe in favor of those who trust in him. He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation he has already begun by the death and resurrection of his Son. This includes the work of discipleship, evangelism, and the pursuit of personal holiness. It also includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression. To do less would be to deny the kingdom” (page 70).
I think John the Baptist would approve.
References and Resources
Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2020.
Noegel, Scott B. “CORPSES, CANNIBALS, AND COMMENSALITY: A LITERARY AND ARTISTIC SHAMING CONVENTION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.” Journal of Religion and Violence, vol. 4, no. 3, 2016, pp. 255–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26671507. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.
Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Ritual (De)Construction of Masculinity in Mark 6: A Methodological Exploration on the Interface of Gender and Ritual Studies.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 327–352. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26417640. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.