Sunday, July 15, 2012

Political Theatre

            Sometime during the last year I saw for the first time Richard Strauss’s one-act opera, Salome.  The story is based on the passage that you just heard proclaimed as the Good News of Jesus Christ a minute ago, namely the beheading of John the Baptist.  Strauss, upon seeing Oscar Wilde’s play by that name which Wilde wrote in French, composed his German opera, giving to audiences in 1905 something so stunning and shocking that the work was banned for several years in London and then performed only with alteration.  The Vienna State Opera did not perform it until 1918.  And when it premiered in New York in 1907, wealthy patrons insisted that further performances be canceled and kicked up a fuss trying to get the British composer Sir Edward Elgar to join them, an invitation he flatly refused, calling Strauss “the greatest genius of the age.”  Such drama!

            Salome, a name not given in the Bible in connection with this story, is in the opera the daughter of Herodias.  Her lecherous step-father Herod persistently flirts with her.  The Strauss opera builds to a climax when Salome dances the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” for King Herod until, having removed one veil at a time, she finally lies naked at his feet.  She then demands the severed head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.  No one, to my knowledge, retched at The Kennedy Center when in a final act of decadence Salome passionately kissed the lips of the beheaded prophet; but it does not take much to appreciate how audiences of an earlier day, unused to the stage and cinematic violence that we see all the time, were totally repulsed by the scene.  Wilde, of course, and Strauss, boldly embraced just such shocking eroticism partly, perhaps, because doing so jolted a prissy and repressed public with images calculated to dent, if not smash, their hypocrisy.

            So far, no one seems terribly sickened by all this on a warm July Sunday in 2012.  Not only do we have little trouble appropriating the grotesque, inured as we are to blood and gore in everything from cartoons to computer games; but also we have at best only the vaguest sense of unease about the biblical story to begin with, caring not very much about John the Baptist’s ill fate, and understanding even less what it all has to do with anything remotely touching our lives at the moment.  I am making a heap of assumptions here, to be sure.  I allow that it is possible that you may be indeed feeling a little queasy with the thought of a severed head, even if it is found in the pages of the Evangel of Jesus Christ according to Mark.  And I allow that you might be disturbed that on this, of all Sundays, I should preach on the gospel as opposed to another passage about a dance, namely the exuberant, handsome young David, dancing with all his might before the Ark of the Covenant.  There is plenty of eroticism in that story, too, which would make a good opera if someone were inclined to compose it.  But let’s stick with this gruesome gospel tale today.  It might have something to say to us worth our hearing.  And, who knows?  There might even be some good news here before we are finished.

            What is the story even doing in Mark’s gospel?  It is the only story in that short book that is not directly about Jesus.  Why would he have included it?  Its style, so different from Mark’s rather crude Greek, reflects the fact that he borrowed an already existing story, perhaps even one circulating in print.  Why?  For one thing, he inserts it exactly at the point at which Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs, giving them authority to cast out demons and to anoint and cure the afflicted and diseased.  Mark says that Herod got wind of all this because Jesus’ name was beginning to be in the news.  Folks, ever quick to jump to conclusions, were saying that John the Baptizer had been raised from the dead (the idea of resurrection in those days was not the stumbling block that it later became).  Others were saying no, that Elijah or one of the other old prophets had reappeared.  Herod no more heard the name “John the Baptizer” than he flipped into a terror imagining that one whom he had arrested, imprisoned, and later executed had indeed risen and come back to life, perhaps to haunt, or at least to embarrass him, Herod.

            The digression into the ghoulish story of John the Baptizer’s death functions for Mark as a time-filler while the pairs of disciples are out doing their work.  When the story ends, the disciples return and report to Jesus all that they have done and taught.  But surely there is more to the story than that.  In fact it does have something to do with Jesus.  Harking back to the Old Testament, the scene of Herod and Herodias recalls another king and queen, namely Ahab and Jezebel.  Jezebel had a serious problem with another prophet, Elijah.  She tried every way she could to have him put to death.  So, Mark seems to be saying, this is the kind of thing that happens to prophets who speak truth to power.  What happened to Elijah back then and to John the Baptist more recently is exactly what is in store for Jesus.  He too will suffer death at the hands of the politico- religious establishment.  One does not take on the big boys without paying dearly for it. 

            If you follow Mark’s story really closely, you cannot help but see that it is laden with messages to disciples, followers of Jesus.  Of course it is, for that is what gospels are for.  Mark, however, is quite obviously conscious of disciples specifically as targets of persecution.  There is more than a good chance that the very thing that motivated him to write a gospel was the first, or at least a very early, wave of persecution that tested the faith and mettle of disciples.  Why should one confess the faith of Jesus Christ if to do so means to die, perhaps a painfully violent death?  What is to keep one, feeling the breath of lions and seeing one’s buddies torn apart for sport just because they happen to be Christian, from quickly rethinking the value of following Jesus and tossing in the towel before it is too late?  Mark’s basic answer is that faith in Jesus is worth the risk because Jesus is truly the Son of God, and hence the Truth.

            It is not incidental that the story of John the Baptist’s fate takes the spotlight just as the disciples are being sent by Jesus on a mission with authority over unclean spirits.  Those who are sent are apostles, for that is what the verb “αποστελλω=to send” means.  And apostles are sent not into a friendly, hospitable world, but into a world that is riddled with evil, bewitched by power, and largely in the grip of forces that sooner or later will turn with a vengeance on anything that attacks their entrenched interests.  Apostles had better watch out.  John the Baptist opened his mouth one too many times about immorality in the royal household.  Jesus paid the price by taking on the powers and principalities.  Disciples, apostles, will pay dearly too.

            There are, of course, many people in many places in the 21st century who know this all too well.  One thinks of Jawani Luwum, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even some like Nelson Mandela who have survived.  The narrative that Americans cherish is that we in this country are spared those awful outcomes of Christian witness.  Don’t be too sure.  Although we can be thankful that many lives are protected from outright persecution and death, we need to understand some basic things.  One is that the essential meaning of the gospel is precisely that one cannot in fact be a follower of Jesus unless one’s loyalty to what he called the Kingdom of God or the Realm of God is paramount to national and political ties.  Telling the truth, whether in protesting the massive imprisonment of black men, or supporting those whose status puts them outside the law, or opposing political parties and politicians that lie, cheat, and steal on many different levels, will land today’s disciples in deep trouble with power structures.  In that sense, this society, while restrained by a constitution and laws, is little different from any other political culture.   Prophets, apostles, evangelists, and ordinary faithful Christians are not in the business of being popular, but rather of being loyal to the God of Justice, Peace, and Love.  We have to make up our minds whether we are going to go on the mission of Jesus or sit it out.  But one thing is for certain:  discipleship costs.

            It is frankly much harder to jolt an easy-going, peace-loving population like the great array of the American middle class (if there is still such a thing) with a message like Mark’s or Jesus’ than it was to crash into Victorian morality with a character like Salome.  Notice what gets peoples’ dander up and their blood boiling these days.  Generally it is stuff about as relevant to our lives as a Salome making love to the severed head of a man of God whom she has repeatedly tried to seduce.  It is a bevy of things like nudity, pornography, and sexual orientation and behavior different from the norm.  None of that is especially threatening to power, political or otherwise, though many in power would have us think so.  Then, too, people argue on and on, talking about things that no one can disagree with, antiseptic things like “creating safe environments” and “relieving stress.”  None of it gets at the root of the evils truly infecting humanity and the planet.  Hyperbolic phrases like “the undoing of civilization,” “the moral decay of the nation,” “the undermining of the sacred foundations of society,” and other such claptrap is sounding brass to cover the real noise of economic injustice, the damage done by unbridled greed at all levels, racism, militarism, gender inequality, and financial vulnerability, not to mention more global crises like inhumane prison conditions, genocide, the persistent rape and poisoning of the environment by economic engines, and the wholesale rip-off of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable by powerful corporate interests that own whole political systems and protect them with armies and navies.  I am not talking just about the United States.  I am talking about Egypt, Sudan, Syria, China, Russia, and a host of other places that participate in versions of the same macabre games that silence Truth by chopping its head off and then in tawdry scenes, kissing the relics and memories of dead radicals as if they had blessed them all along. 

            Is there any good news, or do you hear this as just one more rant that can be classified loosely as liberal Christianity echoing in an empty room?  Well, there is good news, but you have to listen very closely and very quietly to hear it sometimes.  Believe it or not, there is some good news in that little ending of Mark’s beheading story when the disciples of John the Baptist come and take his body and bury it in a tomb.  In the midst of violence and wholesale degradation, there are pockets of Presence that pick up the pieces.  There are disciples that nurse the sick, who care for the wounded, who look out for children, who feed the monks and nuns that pray and the prophets that protest.  Burying the dead might not be a glamorous job, but it is one that makes the grief of the world a little easier to bear.  And it is good news that some disciples do that.
            That is only one piece of the Good News.  If the bad news was that John was not in fact raised from the dead, the Good News is that Jesus was.  And Jesus is still being raised from the dead, just as creation itself is still in the process of happening.  Communities of disciples gather together to share the kind of love that Jesus modeled and taught.  One by one, people are bringing into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the name of the Living God and of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Two by two and sometimes in larger numbers, disciples are going out into the world with a real sense of authority over unclean spirits, taking on the powers of disease and insanity, speaking up for Truth, defending the orphan and the widow, taking time to listen to the powerless and dispossessed, feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant, and welcoming the stranger.   Herod is still on the throne in many places, and Salome is still doing the bidding of her irate mother.  But,

            Though the cause of evil prosper,
            Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong,
            Though her portion be the scaffold,
            And upon the throne be wrong,
            Yet that scaffold sways the future
            And behind the dim unknown
            Standeth God within the shadows
            Keeping watch above God’s own. [1]

[1] James Russell Lowell, "Once to Every Man and Nation," 1845
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012