Updated: Aug 13, 2021
My son, as some of you know, is a big fan of horror movies. He spends his spare time making movies with his friends, most of which require his skills as a special effects make-up artist to create wounds, scars, and exposed entrails. Sometimes it worries me – but I have been assured by a number of sources – including psychologists, clergy persons, and teachers – that his interest in fantasy violence is unlikely to be related to a similar preoccupation with real-world bloodshed. Which is, of course, good news. But it also leaves me wondering how a kid who was not allowed to watch scary movies or television programs, and who burst into tears during “Santa versus the Snowmen,” became so interested in celluloid carnage.
Of course, he has gone to church his whole life, which means that’s he’s heard today’s “R”-rated gospel numerous times. And, let’s face it, the story of the death of John the Baptist has all the makings of an episode of “Game of Thrones” – incest, cutthroat politics, unfaithful husbands, plotting wives, endangered virgins, and the beheading of a popular main character. We should have had a parental warning along with the gospel proclamation. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard a parent complain about the negative influence biblical violence might have on their child.
That’s interesting, because the Bible is full of violence – as are many “Christian” books. I recently uncovered “A Child’s Book of Saints” that was given to my children when they were probably around five years-old. Thumbing through it, I found some of the most violent art I have ever seen: depictions of Christian martyrs rendered in beautiful, careful, and frequently disturbing detail in which the horror of physical suffering is paired with facial expressions that depict the apparent emotional ecstasy that accompanies it. These images suggest that the desire and ability to suffer and die for our faith is an integral part of Christian identity. As a result, many of us believe that when we suffer, the “Christian thing” to do is to endure it bravely and stoically. The Christian thing to do is to provide encouragement to others who suffer to bear it with humor and dignity. The Christian thing to do is to suffer beautifully and silently.
I think this is unfair and even cruel. Disease, chronic pain, and emotional upheaval feel bad, and I believe that sharing our pain and helping others bear theirs is a crucial part of Christian community. I am not alone. Some writers have suggested that in an era in which self-fulfillment is prized over community cooperation the Christian focus on sacrifice and humility seems irrelevant to young people. As a result, some people are pulling away from “traditional,” “mainline” religion in favor of “spiritual but not religious” practices that focus on self-fulfillment over responsibility, or to churches that preach a form of Christian doctrine that focuses on individual salvation.
In this country, one popular theology is based on the prosperity doctrine. The prosperity doctrine proposes that the strength of someone’s faith is related to their level of health and wealth. This idea is not a new one – and not solely Christian. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of “righteous” people who are “rewarded” with good fortune. In today’s Hebrew scripture we see David blessing and providing food for his people in response to their “getting right with the Lord.” The psalm we read today suggests that those who have clean hands and a pure heart will, “receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation.” And in this morning’s New Testament reading, St. Paul tells the Ephesians that by believing in Christ we will inherit redemption, salvation and enjoy “the riches of his grace.”
The notion that wealth is somehow related to goodness has been reinforced across cultures and over time in a variety of ways – through the “divine right of kings” which says that people who are born into power are somehow favored by God, by the way in which popular media encourages us to emulate the rich and famous, and even inadvertently in our own lives when in response to a compliment we humbly allow that we are “blessed.” Except that’s not really what we mean. What we mean to say is that we have grace – free, unmerited and available to all. That’s not the same as saying we are blessed by having things. Saying we are blessed, implies that our gifts are a sign of God’s favor, which suggests that if we do not have good things – if we are suffering in some way, that we are not blessed by God. But prosperity and reward for the righteous and suffering and punishment for the unworthy is not the Christian gospel. It is an American nationalist gospel, and it is preached by politicians, pop culture, and, sadly, in countless pulpits. According to that doctrine, suffering is a warning against acting outside of societal norms. This prosperity creed sees poverty as punishment for laziness; inequity as the result of ineptitude; and mental and emotional illness as moral weakness. In this view, suffering is ugly.
But suffering is neither beautiful nor ugly. It is simply part of the human condition, as well as part of our Christian identity. Christians should not be surprised that the world is full of suffering. We know that we live in a fallen world, albeit one full of God’s grace. Suffering is not the result of individual fallen people. Suffering is the result of the fall of God’s kingdom in this world. We live in a world that is ruptured by resentment. A world in which the peace of the holy is drowned out by the powerful voice of prejudice. A world in which faith is used to create fracture. The fact that we are Christians does not separate us from it. The fact that we are Christians does not elevate us above it. Rather, the fact that we are Christians obligates us to suffer for this world that we have brought so far from what God created by crying out against ignorance, injustice and inequity at the top of our lungs.
We don’t really know how much John the Baptist suffered, but we know why he did. John believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would free the Jewish people and preached that freely. But today’s gospel tells us that ultimately it was his politics – not his faith – that killed him. John the Baptist did not die because of the work he did in the name of Jesus. In fact, King Herod believed that John was holy and righteous. Some scholars have suggested that Herod actually imprisoned John as a form of “protective custody,” because he wanted to keep him safe from his wife Herodias. It was Herodias that had a grudge against John, because he had preached that their marriage was illegal. That’s important – because it was John’s beliefs that compelled him to speak out about the marriage, but it was invocation of the law that earned him Herodias’s enmity.
The place where John the Baptist found himself was at the intersection of principle and policy, conviction and legal commandment. For John the Baptist being faithful to the word of God meant dealing with the issues of the world –not by aligning with a certain leader or dogma - but by seeking to alleviate the “unavoidable harshness of life,” by speaking truth to power, and by pointing out the difference between being “blessed” with prosperity and being given the free grace of God.
We are not blessed because we believe in God, but because God believes in us. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…according to his good pleasure.” All that we have are free gifts of grace. God does not reward us for our goodness and God does not punish us for our errors by making us sick or poor. God loves all of us equally and offers each of us the opportunity to share in God’s goodness. This means that no matter what our human conditions is we can “live for the praise of God’s glory,” preach the true gospel, and, if necessary, suffer for it. Christian suffering is not something to avoid or endure or desire. It is simply one way to demonstrate who we are – not meekly or stoically - and certainly not silently - but as King David did, brashly, stridently, and joyfully – paving the way for the true King of glory to come in. AMEN.