Speaking truth to power
What if I were to tell you that “King” Obama—or “King” Romney, for that matter—decided to end all federal civil rights protections and return our country to the practice of segregation? And, since we are supposing, let’s say that our very own Larry Dye was called by God to confront this abuse of power, to insist that segregation is morally wrong. We would think of Larry as a prophet, wouldn’t we? We might even cheer Larry on in his prophesying, or merely approve of his actions while offering a sigh of relief that God hadn’t called US to be the one to speak this truth to power.
That doesn’t sound much like Resurrection, though, does it? We are DOERS of God’s Word, not merely hearers, so we would be out there in the thick of things. The lobbyists among us would, well, lobby those we know on the Hill to overturn this immorality, this injustice. The prayer warriors among us would all pray. The political activists would rally support, some of us would mail letters, and others would write checks.
Are you with me so far?
Well, what if “King” Whoever had Larry arrested, on trumped up charges, no doubt, or maybe merely for worshiping in a diverse congregation such as ours? And (tragically) let’s say that Larry was executed in prison, a victim of the Aryan Brotherhood or some other White supremacist group. The point is, Larry would have spoken the truth to power, spoken what God commanded, and Larry would now be dead!
How would we tell this story about Larry (who, by the way, graciously has allowed me to use his name in my example in today’s sermon)? We would want people to know that Larry had been a prophet, wouldn’t we? We would want people to know of his martyrdom. Perhaps we would do so by telling the story of Larry in such a way that evoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. We might tell about Larry marching in Selma, making an “I have a dream” speech, and being incarcerated in the Birmingham jail. Larry would have marched, spoken out, and been in jail, but when we told about Larry this way, everyone would know that Larry was just like Dr. King.
This kind of thing is exactly what is going on in our gospel lesson today. Mark says that John the Baptist had been denouncing “King” Herod for having married his brother’s wife, and that this bit of truth-telling had eventually led to John’s death. Of course, as Mark told the story, there were some intimate and gory details in between.
The great Jewish historian Josephus, writing around the same time as Mark, told of John the Baptist’s death at the hand of Herod. By Josephus’ reckoning, Herod—who Josephus says had married a woman who was both his step-niece (incest!) and his step-brother’s wife (adultery!)—this Herod had put John the Baptist to death because he was afraid that John’s large group of followers would threaten his rule. By Josephus’ reckoning, Herod killed John the Baptist to eliminate a potential threat to his reign.
Josephus’ account offers us a rare confirmation of the historicity of an event told in the gospels. Sort of. The details of John’s actual death vary greatly in the two accounts. No one knows whose facts are more accurate, Josephus’ or Mark’s. However, there is no doubt that Mark’s account was the more theological of the two.
Mark wanted his audience to know that John the Baptist was NOT the Messiah. There was great confusion in first-century Palestine between John the Baptist and Jesus. Did you know—I just learned this—that fifty to seventy thousand people EVEN TODAY worship John the Baptist instead of Jesus as the Messiah? So Mark told the story of John’s death in such a way that there can be no doubt about who is who. Jewish scripture had prophesied that the great prophet Elijah would return before the Messiah came. Mark let us know that John was Elijah—and, by extension, Jesus was the Messiah.
To do this Mark dipped back into the story of Elijah. In Elijah’s day the power was the weak King Ahaz, who had a truly evil wife named Jezebel. Jezebel was so bad that even today we don’t give our daughters this name. Elijah prophesied against Jezebel and Jezebel tried to get her husband the puppet-king to kill Elijah. The more we remember of the Elijah story, the more we can see this earlier story as Mark’s vehicle for evoking the memory of Elijah in telling the story of John’s death.
John the Baptist, Mark was saying, was the very image of Elijah. They both wore the same kind of outdoors-y clothes. Both told the truth to power, and both got their king and queen very upset with them for doing so. There is one big difference between Elijah and John the Baptist, though. Elijah did not die as a result of being God’s mouthpiece.
At first I had a hard time figuring out what this meant. Does John the Baptist’s death mean that power triumphs over truth, trumps truth, silences truth? If so, this would be a very poor piece of scripture. But in Mark “location, location, location” is very important. If we look at where Mark placed this particular story, we discover that Mark told of John’s death as a flashback sandwiched between sending his disciples out two-by-two on their very first mission, and the disciples’ return with their reports of their successes and failures.
By the time Mark had written his gospel, not only had Jesus been crucified and raised from the dead, almost all of the original twelve disciples had been martyred for speaking the truth to power. Mark’s telling of John’s death seems to have been an acknowledgment of the risks that all of Jesus’ disciples took in sharing the gospel with the world. In Mark’s view, telling truth to power is an inevitable and integral part of in discipleship, making this fair warning about what can happen to disciples who speak the truth to power: they can be killed.
But just when John-the-dead-truth-teller might lead us to believe that power wins over truth, we notice that in Mark’s account Herod was petty, paranoid, afraid, foolish enough to make bad promises in public, and prideful enough to keep those promises MERELY to save face. Mark even calls Herod “King.” This is intentionally ironic (sarcastic, even) because Mark’s original audience would have known that Herod wasn’t actually “King” of Judea, any more than our president is “king” of our country. Being a holy, albeit dead, truth-teller who is in heaven is looking very good in comparison to being this puppet king.
Even Herod realized that truth is a force greater than power. Herod had tried to kill truth, tried to silence truth. However, as we humans have proven over and over throughout the ages, truth cannot be silenced, truth cannot be killed, as long as there are holy people who choose truth over power, people who choose truth-telling regardless of the consequences.
John the Baptist choose truth over power. Jesus himself made this choice, initiating God’s kingdom here in this life and providing for our life-to-come. Ever since, there have been Jesus-followers who have spoken the truth to power, many choosing truth over life itself. In our own day we have our own examples:
- Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who remind us that killing the truth-teller doesn’t silence truth.
- Desmond Tutu, who reminds us that not all truth-tellers get killed, and that truth-tellers are still needed to continue to make God’s kingdom prevail on earth.
However illustrative these examples might be, don’t we have our own truth to tell?
- That racism is not dead but needs to die;
- That we were all immigrants at one time;
- That the “haves” and the “have nots” are equally beloved of God;
- That pursing money and power is a an impoverished way to spend our lives;
- That seeking power at the expense of truth is a foolish and futile endeavor.
What truth have you told to power recently?
What truth have you graciously accepted, if truth has been spoken to you?