The Beheading of John: Why Is This Story Even Told?

Mark 6:14-29

This has been a dark place to ‘live’ this week, with the fateful, gruesome end of John before us now.

In fact, I have found myself wondering why Mark and Matthew chose to include this story at all, with all of its awful detail.

Perhaps it is simply to ‘close the loop’ on John, so that we know what has become of him in the end.

Maybe it is a vivid foreshadowing of what will soon happen to Jesus, as too much too often happens to anyone who lives and works and speaks contrary to ‘how things have always been,’ who stands up to the powers that are, to ’empire’ and all it represents.

Or maybe it is something more.

  • Maybe this story in and of itself serves a different purpose altogether.
  • Maybe it is shared for us to stand still in for a while so that we, ourselves, might become even more deeply aware of the senseless tragedies which play out all around us, even that which we ourselves may also be capable of, when we prioritize our pride or our own ambition ahead of the essential beloved-ness of the one right before us.
  • For maybe it is so that when such as this is exposed to the world’s eyes and to our own deepening self-understanding. Maybe then, especially in the sharing of such extreme stories as this one, maybe then the possibility for repentance and change is heightened or deepened.

Indeed, perhaps it is so that sometimes we are called to simply train our eyes on the utter brutality we are capable of visiting on one another before we are led to another place altogether.  It is not my preferred way of getting there, but it can be effective. As long as we recognize it as a path towards redemption and grace and not just a horrific end in and of itself.

Some of you will know that over the last few years I have been leading some folks through some deep conversations about our nation’s history with race. In fact, I just returned from leading a group which visited significant Civil Rights sites in Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee. While it is easy to get ‘stuck in the past,’ even fooling ourselves into believing that these matters have long been reconciled or at least that they remain in such a far distant time that reckoning with them is beyond our reach, one of my goals all along has been to trace these patterns from south to north, from centuries and decades ago to today. And to hear better our calling to how we are to live now. To be honest, I am still working on this in this context here. Even so, the learning has been invaluable already. And isn’t it so that most often true repentance begins with a deep acknowledgement of the wrong we have done? And sometimes, it surely seems the stories have to be told and heard in all their brutality, for such to begin.

Certainly this is by now common knowledge among students of our own Civil Rights History. We know that much of what was done to move us forward was, in fact, at least among some, strategic: to call attention to the worst of what was happening so as to awaken the conscience of a nation:

    • This is surely what happened when Mamie Till-Mobley insisted that her son Emmet’s broken body be shown in an open casket in 1955.  By refusing to hide the brutality, by displaying it for all the world to see, something began to shift. ( The Washington Post, 2018) She may not have intended it, no doubt could not have known, but her need for others to see moved things forward exponentially.
    • At least as I understand it, this is why in Birmingham, Bull Connor with all of his brutish, raw violence caught the attention of people near and far. Unlike in other contexts and among other people where the violence was perhaps more hidden, what was shown on the evening news from Birmingham is what caused people finally to say, ‘Enough.’ (Video, 1963)
    • Indeed, this is why in Selma, Sherriff Jim Clark served the same purpose, spilling the blood of innocent people on a bridge as they sought to access and secure the same basic rights of citizens which others had long enjoyed. (New York Times, Jim Clark Obituary, 2007)
    • And oh, as I understand it, this is why the bus boycott in Montgomery was finally effective. (And I will say, much of this particular learning is sadly, quite new to me.) For you see, most of the ridership of those buses was women who were laboring — black women traveling to and from their work of caring for white families. For decades they had suffered abuse at the hands of white bus drivers. Deeper and longer still, black women had suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of white men. And within the ten years before a whole community quit riding buses demanding change, some of those women no longer suffered in silence.  In allowing their stories to be told, even if they did not obtain justice, they dispelled the awful silence which allowed others, even well meaning others, to ignore, to look away, to deny what was happening right in front of them, laying the groundwork for what would follow. If you are curious to learn more about this, I would highly recommend. At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. Mcguire.
    • Indeed, wasn’t this exactly what happened with George Floyd whose brutal death was recorded on a street corner in Minneapolis last May? (New York Times Video, 2020)  We were forced to look and found ourselves not able to look away from what had been too much happening all along. And as it caught the attention of the world, we pray that change will come. To institutions, yes, but also to our own hearts that we might learn to more fully see the beloved humanity in the one, in every single one, who is perhaps right in front of us.

    This is something Herod did not, seemingly could not do.  Certainly his wife and her daughter did not, could not, would not either, so caught up were they all in protecting themselves or in getting even or in remaining steadfast in whatever awful way they had of making sense of the world. At the very least they saw John as less than human, as expendable, or more than that as someone who needed to be eliminated in order to seek to guard what they most valued: their reputations, perhaps, or something more.

    Oh, I do wonder if the story is included here so as to force us to take a hard look at what can come to be when we too often use power and status in such a way that others are expendable. I wonder if Mark and Matthew, too, just rend open the veil and simply force us to look.

    For this can be the beginning of change.

    This can be the beginning of renewal.

    This can be the start of grace given and grace received.

    For we are also Herod. And yes, we are also John. And we are everyone in between.

    • What would it look like if we could stand still a while on the brink of the awful knowledge of all the terrible things that too often are visited on beloved human ones?
    • What could it mean if I could acknowledge that in my action or my inaction, in my speaking or my not speaking, I am or could be complicit in such as this?
    • Could that, in fact, be the beginning of grace given and grace received, as we are forced to step back and away, to reconsider and begin again? As we recognize the need for healing and for new beginnings whose only source could be God who loves and yearns to embrace us all? God who first and last sees us each one as so very loved and calls us, models for us how to do the same?

    Is this why Mark and Matthew both tell this horrible story in all of its ghastly detail?  I do not know for sure, but I think it may be so.

    What do you think?

8 comments

  1. Rev Gregg Knepp says:

    Thank you for bringing to life the reality of Herod in terms of racial justice. Claudio Carvalhaes provides similar examples regarding The power of Herod at the US border a few cycles ago in working preacher. Very helpful for those of us looking for contemporary examples! Thank you!

  2. Beth Olson says:

    Thank you for your examples, Janet. I’m coming back after a few days of vacation, so just digging in now. Your insights are already helpful.

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