Pastor Gerald Donovan, First United Methodist Church
Empires want to legitimize violence and death; even claiming it as a means of peace. We see this very clearly in the Roman Empire. Death was the very foundation for the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. Those who threatened the Empire, those who disturbed the peace, would be arrested and possibly killed like John the Baptist, Jesus, Barabbas and many others.
Now it’s not that empires really want to kill people, however it’s what often happens to maintain order and to keep promises. Look at Herod Antipas in the Bible Mark 6:14-29. He was the son of “the Great,” but not really a king at all. He was a tetrarch ruling a quarter of his father’s territory. He didn’t have the authority to give Herodias’s daughter half of the kingdom, and yet this puffed up chest, pervert, offers this enchantress something he doesn’t even own.
And when she asks for the head of John the Baptist, Herod is stuck because he doesn’t want to kill John. Even with John speaking truth to Herod’s power, he enjoys listening to him. But now he’s made this promise, and not do it would reveal weakness and undermine his authority.
To keep the peace and avoid breaking down the system, he must behead John the Baptist. Herod is a model for the Empire and possibly this is Mark’s intent. As much as empires desire to maintain or promote “peace,” how they do it is often unbelievably violent.
This is what makes resurrection so subversive and such a threat to the Empire. Death is the empire’s ultimate tool of oppression, suppression, and possession. If death can’t be controlled by the Empire what authority do they really have? If dead people can come back to life what power does the Empire truly hold?
While this scripture is about the death of John the Baptist, it is even more about Jesus. Mark inserts the story of John because Herod fears Jesus is John resurrected, and as the resurrected John the Baptizer, Jesus immediately becomes a threat to the Empire.
Earlier in the book of Mark, Jesus is recognized as a threat to the religious system. Here we begin to see Jesus as a threat to the Empire as well. If John was rejected, Christ will be as well. If the mere idea of a resurrected John can strike fear into the Empire, what will the resurrected Messiah do?
The Christian witness speaks truth to power. This might lead to some form of our own death though probably not literally in America. However, speaking truth to power may still prove to be costly. Even when principalities and powers are doing their worst, Christ is still King.
As a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection, John’s perceived resurrection shakes the foundations of the Empire. The church, then, as the agent of Christ in this world wages peace not as the empire does. The Church who bears witness to Christ, as did John, wages peace not by taking life but by giving up life in the hope of the resurrection.