Speaking Truth To Power
Today’s reading from Mark reads like palace intrigue and conspiracy against John the Baptist. We first hear about John when Jesus goes to be baptized; he is clothed in animal skins and eats locusts and wild honey. He calls out those who come to investigate him with “you brood of vipers!” What is there not to like? Apparently John crosses a line when he tells Herod that he cannot take his brother’s wife as his own. This was not uncommon in those days when a brother dies, but in this case, his brother is alive and out of the picture. We read the real culprit is Herod’s wife Herodias, who has a grudge and wanted him killed. We also read that Herod feared John and protected him. Perhaps he held John in prison to silence him or maybe to please his wife or probably both. John’s head is lost when their daughter is offered anything short of ‘half his kingdom’ and the mother and daughter conspire.
Pardon my skepticism, but this reads like another misogynous writing blaming women for the sins of men. We don’t know how accurate this story is, but consider when Herod offers Herodias (wait, the daughter has same name as the mother?) Herodias is offered anything, her response is ‘wait, let me get back to you on that’, dashes out the room to consult with her mother, then returns and asks not for a villa with a prime vineyard, not for a wealthy husband, but rather a head on a platter. Every girl’s dream. We read that Herod was deeply grieved, but an oath is an oath, particularly after drinking lots of wine. We know that Herod was not a kind, benevolent ruler and like any king, ruthlessly suppressed any threat to his power. Recall in the gospel of Matthew that he ordered the execution of all infant males around Bethlehem when Jesus was born. John likely shared the prison with other “political prisoners” who were held until they either died or became a threat no longer. Did Herod order John’s head to impress his guests, to please Herodias, or maybe both.
The politics of power is not so different from biblical times. Today’s kings are replaced with dictators, despots, warlords, and tsars. Their power is entrenched by ruthlessly suppressing dissent and threats while enriching themselves and other elites who support the regime. Good to be king, have your own way. Even elected leaders engage in suppressing opponents and changing constitutions to obtain more power. Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Turkey are recent examples of democracy giving way to dictatorship. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and history is full of bad behavior, from David and Bathsheba to Macbeth to Vladimir Putin, power seems to bring out the worst in us.
In the book ‘Power Paradox’, Dr. Dacher Keltner did a social experiment gathering a group of 7th graders, all strangers, then observing how social dynamics and hierarchy develops over time. Initially the bullies and Machiavellians do well, but the kind, communitive, and empathetic kids eventually rise to the top. Not surprising results since we all want leaders to make decisions based on our interests. Unfortunately, the position of power separates the leaders from the rest of us - their perspective morphs into me versus them and over time they lose empathy and behave in selfish, rude, and impulsive behavior. Dr. Keltner describes another study at Berkeley where a student occupies a crosswalk while others note which cars stop (according to law) and which zoom by. The used Hondas, Fiestas, and low-value clunkers ALL STOPPED (100%) whereas 65% of the expensive cars zoomed by. We know that poor people donate more money proportionally than wealthy. The hypothesis is that power changes our cognitive thinking and perspective. As we become more important, more successful, and more isolated, our relations and empathy degrade. The recent “Me too” movement calls out those using their position of power and influence to sexually exploit others. Sex and power are too powerful for some. This cognitive change is slow and accumulative and often we’re not even aware of it.
The Hebrew cult understood this abuse of power and the Old Testament describes a number of prophets that council the king and people on their bad behavior and to keep God’s laws. Speaking truth to power is usually unwelcome as we read in today’s first reading. Amos, a shepherd and dresser of trees, speaks of coming death, exile, and desolation. This sounds like the classic street corner prophet with a sign ‘the end is near’. God is telling Amos that Israel has drifted, its building is no longer plumb and ready to collapse. This is a hard message to hear and accept – little wonder the existing priest of Bethel (Amaziah) banishes Amos from Judah. It’s easy to just dismiss him as a crackpot and send him away or maybe lock him up like John. How do we know whether the street-corner doomsayer is a nut-case or a prophet? The Old Testament books were written after Babylon’s conquest, so Amos’ prophesy was written after the fact. It is no surprise that his message is difficult to accept, so they dismiss him.
People in power do not like to be told they are wrong or they should be replaced; speaking truth to power is a high-risk endeavor, then and now. We live in a time of fake news, deep video, and religious propaganda. God’s Truth is being distorted and blurred – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Truth is the plumb-line, it is our reference point that we all must agree and accept. When we are no longer anchored by Truth, we drift in a turbulent sea not realizing where we are going. When our leaders are not bound by Truth, they are not bound by Law, and corruption and self-interests will take over. God’s Truth is vital to keeping the powerful honest and holding our leaders to represent the public interests, not theirs
We need prophets, people who are willing to discern the Truth and communicate to society and our leaders. Our modern-day prophets are journalists. They sift through facts, double-checking to confirm, and publish different perspectives. They expose rumors, lies, and distortions to keep the powerful in check. Their message is not always respected or well received. Journalists around the world are being jailed or assassinated while their industry is financially squeezed. Their message is distorted or diluted by alternative journalists. We are no longer certain what Truth is. How do we sort through all the misinformation and alternate facts to find God’s Truth? How can tell the crackpot doomsayer from a prophet of God?
Friends, this is a critical time. Our house is tilting, our leaders are dividing us. We need to support our journalists in their quest to find the Truth, God’s Truth. We need to filter the noise of politics – populism is spreading throughout the developed world as fear of migrants and racial hate spreads like wildfire. Climate Change will only bring more migrants abandoning land that is no longer viable for crops. We need to live by God’s Law and Truth to keep us grounded and straight. His Truth is present in the media noise of our day, but is drowned out. We need to listen to a variety of leaders and institutions and believe not what we want to hear, but accept difficult facts. We seek out trusted voices speaking with integrity. We also need to listen to our youth, our homeless, and our immigrants. The disenfranchised in our society don’t speak of political expediency or what is economically viable. They speak from a different place—their voices come from God.