The sordid story of John the Baptist’s execution boils down to being faithful to one’s oath. (See Mark 6:14-29 for the longer version; Matthew 14:1-12 for the shorter one.)
Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) could be criticized for a lot of things – being weak, anxious, a little paranoid and a lot swayed by sexual suggestiveness.
But you have to grant also that he was morally sensitive, which eventually led to the Baptizer’s detached head being presented to Herod on a platter.
Yes, he made the mistake of marrying his brother’s former wife, and John had been unambiguous about condemning that. It was that condemnation, in fact, that had landed John in jail.
Yet Herod had a good deal of respect for John – even “fearing” him because he saw John as “a righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:20).
Moreover, while Herod was willing to go along with incarcerating John, he wouldn’t accede to his disputed wife’s request that the Baptizer be put to death.
The text even suggests that Herod might have been protecting John by jailing him and that he liked listening to John while confining him.
See what I mean about being “morally sensitive” in a strange sort of way?
But his weaknesses got the better of him when his wife’s daughter – sometimes called Salome – seductively danced before him and all the guests he had invited to his birthday party.
He was so taken with the dance, and even more the dancer, that Herod publicly promised to grant her whatever she wished – “even half of my kingdom.”
What a dance that must have been!
After a quick consultation with her mother (the one who had wanted John put to death all along), the dancing daughter returned to Herod and proclaimed: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Herod was “grieved” by that request, but then that “morally sensitive” streak reappeared: How could he not keep his oath – the one he had made before all his guests (members of his court, officers in his army and the leaders of Galilee)?
So out of moral sensitivity and integrity on King Herod’s part – in keeping true to his oath – John the Baptist lost his head … and, of course, his life and ministry.
Lives are being lost in my own city of Chicago, too, because people are keeping true to their oaths.
“More Chicago residents have been killed so far this year in the city than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan – 144 – over the same period,” reported the Huffington Post recently. “The war zone-like statistics are not new. As WBEZ [the public radio station] reports, while some 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, more than 5,000 people have been killed by gunfire in Chicago during that time, based on Department of Defense and FBI data.”
The city’s homicide rate this year is running ahead of last year (272 as of this June 30, compared to 441 for all of 2011). The same is the case for the number of people shot (1,267 as of June 30, compared to 2,217 for all of 2011).
A seven-year-old girl, Heaven Sutton, was shot and killed selling candy and snow cones in front of her home on June 27, probably as a result of somebody morally committed to keeping his oath.
Heaven wasn’t the intended victim, just collateral damage in one of the many gang wars being waged in the Chicago region, where keeping true to the oath made to one’s gang has the highest moral priority.
But what about the oath the city’s police make “to serve and protect,” which is emblazoned on every police vehicle?
At a clergy meeting earlier this week someone pointed out that our police department was able “to serve and protect” the city’s citizens and businesses against all the thousands of protestors who were here for the NATO summit, but unable to stem the murder and assault rate among our own people.
And what about the oath the city makes, supposedly to all of its residents, to provide not just safety but the educational, economic, social and cultural opportunities that will lead to the flourishing of life for everyone?
What about the oath the disciples of Jesus living in the Chicago region take with their baptism and confirmation to love their neighbor, including their enemy, to bless (that is, to make whole and generative) the poor, the hungry and the mourning, to be peacemakers and healers and reconcilers?
What about keeping true to those oaths?
Could it be that the members of the gangs take their oaths much more seriously than those of us who are members of civic organizations and religious congregations?
Any renewed commitment to oath-taking for nonviolence and pro-peace-with-justice has to start somewhere.
Why not with those followers of the one who taught us, “Do not swear falsely, but carry out the vows – the oaths – you have made to God” (Matthew 5:34)?
Why not start with those who have taken an oath to be a part of the gang of Jesus?
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.