Thursday, July 16, 2015

Shepherds of Woe

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” – Jeremiah 23:1-6

In a video appearing in the New York Times this week, the Prophets Adam B. Ellick and Nicholas Kristof reported “The Worst Atrocity You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Probably Ellick and Kristof don’t think of themselves as prophets, but they sounded an alarm that warns of God’s angry disapproval of all of us.

“You’ve heard of Darfur, and you know about the slaughter underway in Syria, the latter day prophets write. “But the worst ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of is unfolding in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where the government is bombing villages, schools and hospitals and trying to keep out food and medicine.”

The video shows children and adults dealing with the daily threat of bombs and marauding soldiers. A lone doctor for a Catholic charity struggles to treat thousands who are dying of wounds, burns, and diseases. And many die because the necessities of water, medicine, and supplies are cut off by 
Sudan dictator Omar al-Bashir, the bloodthirsty strongman who continues to bomb the children of Nuba.

Kristof and Ellick provide us with a handy excuse for not knowing about the ongoing genocide because “it doesn’t get much coverage.”

But their video changes all that. It’s an Old Testament call to remember the promise we made to ourselves 70 years ago when the horrible truths of the Holocaust became known: “Never Again.”

It’s not a call that makes us comfortable because, in fact, holocausts occur all over the world and we do little more than shake scolding fingers at the perpetrators.

And if we don’t take effective actions stop the Nuba genocide, we become “shepherds of woe” who turn our backs on God’s beloved sheep.

Jeremiah’s original reference dates back six centuries before Jesus when Israel’s kings refused to pay tribute to the Babylonian Empire, triggering a bloody Babylonian attack on Jerusalem. Jeremiah suggested the kings hadn’t considered the welfare and protection of the people when they made dumb decisions. 

It was a leadership issue back then, just as the Nuba genocide is a leadership issue now. When leaders do nothing, nothing is done.

The tragedy in the Nuba Mountains is not an aberration of history. It’s only the latest in a never-ending story of human struggle. The cold determination of humans to eradicate all competitors may explain what happened to the Neanderthals, and genocidal calamities have erupted throughout recorded history. The systematic genocide of indigenous Americans rivaled the horror of the Nazi Holocaust but has rarely pricked our collective consciences with equal force.

Throughout most of history, mass pogroms could proceed with impunity because people didn’t hear about them until they were over. Today, satellite and digital communication bring them into our living rooms with high definition clarity. We have been complicit witnesses to a horrific progression of mass extermination that include these examples from Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

From 1975 to 1979, the massacre of one quarter of the population of Cambodia was perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge during the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) communist regime headed by the late Pol Pot.

From 1975 to 1999, one quarter of the population of East Timor died following an invasion by the Indonesian Army, which used rape, torture, murder, forced sterilization, and forced military service to subdue the population. 

In 1994 during the civil war in Rwanda, more than 800.000 members of the minority Tutsi tribe died at the hands of the Rwandan Armed Forces composed of the majority Hutu tribe. A report of the Organization of African Unity placed the blame squarely on the church leaders in Rwanda, who they said “failed to use their unique moral position among the overwhelmingly Christian population to denounce ethnic hatred and human rights abuse.”

From 1995 to 1999 in Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina, more than half a million Muslims were displaced or killed by Serbian Orthodox Christians.

Since 1997, an estimated six million persons have been killed and raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in actions by the government, army, army irregulars, and rebels, in a blood bath that is still going on.

Are we appalled by this litany of horrors? Of course we are appalled. But what can we do about it?

The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda included this dialogue between the hotel owner and a visiting video journalist:

Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that's horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
Granted, not everyone has ignored mass murder and ethnic cleansing. The United Nations and the African National Congress have sought intervene on the African continent, and the U.S. and NATO dropped bombs in Serbia to halt the killing. 

But resources and political support are limited, and sometimes stern warnings are not backed up the good guys. President Obama has not spoken clearly against Sudan dictator Omar al-Bashir. Kristof and Ellick hope their video on “the worst atrocity you’ve never heard of” will attract public attention and compel Mr. Obama to address the issue and condemn al-Bashir during his visit to Africa in August.

I will try not to be so cynical as to presume that Sudan’s lack of oil is the reason Mr. Obama has not given the crisis a higher priority.

And I do think the president has good instincts on human right issues. I expect him to speak for the children of Nuba and other victims of genocide both next month and in the remainder of his term.

If he does, my prayer is that he will feel the churches at his back.

In 2007, when the genocide in Darfur was still attracting the world’s attention, the National Council of Churches (NCC) adopted a resolution supporting the United Nation’s World Summit Outcome declaration that called on the international community to protect victims of genocide and other political assaults.

Whether this protection should take the form of military intervention was a serious question for some NCC communion members. In the opinion of some, war is never the will of God. And some members, including Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren, have urged the council to turn away from its “just war” stance in order to urge a policy of “just peace” on the the world community.

At the same time, few persons of faith want to be guilty bystanders as children are killed each day in the Nuba mountains. 

The NCC’s resolution, Responsibility to Protect, states: 

The Christian community has always affirmed that, in response to the question, “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), we are indeed the protectors of one another. This affirmation is grounded in the prophetic call to protect the other -the strangers, the weak and the dispossessed. It was further exemplified by Jesus, who took the call for the well-being of all to the level of the nations, whose people he said would be judged by whether or not they led the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the prisoners (Matthew 25;31-46). 
The Christian community also believes that God hears the cry of the oppressed, and indeed the cry of the very blood that is spilled through injustice (Genesis 4:10) It is therefore a person’s responsibility individually to protect the other. The responsibility to protect as outlined by the United Nations correlates as to our responsibility collectively as nations. As Christians, we urge our nation to take up this responsibility in our name.
President Obama, as all presidents, has his hands full with a myriad of domestic and international issues – and God knows he has faced unprecedented partisan opposition. He is probably not looking for other crises to add to his list.

But the systematic genocide of innocent people, in the Nuba Mountains and elsewhere, should be at the top of the list of any leader and any nation who has recited the solemn promise we made to one another seventy years ago: “Never again.”

And we can be assured of God’s ancient promise to all persons who face the daily threat of death, sickness, rape, and homelessness:   
I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

Mr. Obama, God and history are calling on you to be one of those shepherds raised by God.
Pictured above: The mosaic “Sheep in Paradise” dates to the sixth century and can be found in the Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravena, Italy. The skulls of victims of the Rwanda Genocide are displayed at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Salomé of the Dance

Mark 6:14-29

Sunday school teachers be warned: do not ask your underage students to research Salomé on the Internet. 

There are, to be sure, interesting commentaries on the Web, but Google serves up hundreds of hyper-erotic images from the exercised imaginations of Titian, Aubrey Beardsley and more recently aroused artists. 

Oscar Wilde, whose 1893 play Salomé veers far from the biblical account, provided one of the most vivid portrayals of Salomé. Wilde imagined she had fallen in love with John the Baptist and was homicidally spiteful when he prudishly spurned her. In 1988, British director Ken Russell added a new dimension to the play by creating an unlikely context for it. In the film Salomé’s Last Dance, Wilde escorts his lover Lord Alfred Douglas to view an erotically enhanced version of his play. 

The story of Salomé lends itself to overwrought interpretation. And few bible stories have received more artistic attention than her famous dance.

No one knows what Salomé looked like or what her dance actually involved. If it really involved seven veils, as latter day pundits suggest, you’d think a dancer entwined in so much cloth would wilt in Palestinian sweat. Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists (bless their hearts) imagine Salomé discarding every stitch of veil early in the dance, although more conservative Victorians prefer to dress her in billowy bloomers modeled after Ali Baba’s winter wardrobe. 

Both Salomé and the dance are left to our imagining, although – given what we know of human nature – we might safely assume she was beautiful and that the dance involved more rather than less unveiling.

Most of what we fantasize about Salomé is from other people’s imagination. She has been sculpted, frescoed, and painted for two millennia. Richard Strauss and Antoine Mariotte wrote early twentieth century operas based on Wilde’s play. Florent Schmitt and Akira Ifukube composed ballets about her. Thousands of poems and songs have been written about her. Dozens of films have been produced about her or involving her, including my personal favorites starring Theda Bara in 1918 and Rita Hayworth in 1953.

Even today, Salomé shows up in unexpected places. HBO’s randy True Blood portrayed her as a two-thousand year-old vampire who complains the bible misrepresented her: “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol for dangerous female sexuality,” she sniffs before she drops her robe. “But I was just a girl.”

If the portrayals of Salomé seem farfetched, it’s important to remember that they’ve never been particularly near fetched. The bible doesn’t even mention her name, which is provided by an ancient historian, Flavius Josephus, author of Jewish Antiquities, who reports she is the daughter of Herodias. 

In his account, Josephus reports with obvious disapproval that Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod (Antipas), her husband’s brother.”

It’s impossible to know whether Herodias switched husbands out of calculating self-interest or because Herod suggested the switch. There are plenty of precedents for kings doing what they please, including King David himself who arranged for the death of Uriah the Hittite so he could marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. 

Divorcing a living husband seems magnanimous by comparison, but the biblical account finds no virtue in Herodias. 

John the Baptist – possessed of a fatal combination of eloquence and recklessness – condemned her publicly and Herod arrested him.

Dragged before the king, John expressed his view with perilous clarity: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Herod already knew that. But he recognized John as a “righteous and holy man” He was also well aware of the size of the crowds that followed the Baptist, and felt it was expedient to listen to John. 

Mark notes that the king, though perplexed by what John said, “liked to listen to him.” Perhaps the Baptist was tweaking Herod's vestigial conscience. 

But Herodias, who would have lost everything if Herod had been convinced to set her aside, didn’t like what she heard at all. She plotted to have John put to death.

Her chance came on Herod’s birthday when the king hosted a banquet for his courtiers and supporters.

In the midst of the banquet, Mark reports, Salomé came in to dance. Mark offers no details and describes no veils, but whatever she did “pleased Herod and his guests.” 

It must have been some dance. Future artists may be excused for speculating that only a young, beautiful and uninhibited girl could have induced the king to make such an injudicious and idiotic promise: “Whatever you ask me,” he said with a shallow wheeze and beads of sweat on his upper lip, “I will give you, even half my kingdom.” Herod was thinking with a part of his anatomy not lodged between his ears.

Half the kingdom was not a bad deal. Had Salomé been able to think on her feet, she could have seized an opportunity that would have made her as powerful as Herod and more powerful than her mother. 

But Salomé’s frontal cortex was still developing, and perhaps she was pathologically dependent on her mother. “What should I ask for?” she asked Herodias, who didn’t need to think about it. Her response was calculating, vengeful and psychopathic: “The head of John the Baptizer.”

Salomé rushed back to the king and asked for John’s head “on a platter,” the additional touch seeming to be an embellishment of her own. 

The king, though reportedly “deeply grieved,” ordered it done. The irksome baptizer was no more.

And Salomé, not even mentioned by name in the gospels, has gone down in history as the evil harlot who caused it to happen.

It’s an interesting theory, and all the beguiling portraits of the beautiful young temptress are diverting. But the evidence of her connivance is weak.

At no point in the biblical story or Josephus’ history does Salomé appear to be a calculating seeker of power. If anything, she seems to be a powerless pawn, a hostage to the powerful parties that struggle for supremacy in Herod’s palace. Her docile acquiescence to her cruel mother (“What should I ask for?”) is passivity in the extreme. 

Herodias appears to have little regard for her daughter beyond her usefulness as a sexual appliance to accomplish a devious end. Once Salomé has accomplished that goal, she disappears from history. (She is not the Salomé the disciple who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion in later passages in Mark.) 

Clearly it is Herodias who deserves history’s condemnation. She was a ruthless pursuer of power, devoid of conscience, and utterly unworried about who she used to get to the top.

And what about the king himself? He is, after all, the only character in the story who had the power to change its direction. He could have intervened at any point and didn’t. Mark reports that the king was “deeply grieved” by the way things were going. All that proves is that he might have had an embryonic conscience. It doesn’t prove he had the will or the integrity to do anything about it.

Herod Antipas is a frightening example of what can happen if weak and stupid men are given too much power. What, history asks, could he have been thinking when he offered to give his stepdaughter “whatever you ask”? Was he aroused to the point of lunacy and desperately seeking to gain her sexual attention? Or was he too drunk to understand he was making promises he shouldn’t keep?

Okay, men do dumb things and powerful men are no exception. But Herod was making one stupid decision after another. When Salomé asked for John’s head, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.”

Question: What’s worse than breaking a solemn oath to do something stupid? Answer: Carrying out that oath by doing something unsurpassingly evil. 

The king could have redeemed himself by turning his back to Salomé and addressing his guests:

“I pray you and God will forgive me for swearing to commit an act that would be evil in God’s sight. My good intentions have been betrayed by my wife and by my daughter. I will not make this mistake again.”

Unfortunately, kings are not good at admitting mistakes and redressing wrongs.  But we can be sure Herod knew he had made a mistake. When rumors began to circulate around the palace that another preacher – Jesus – was actually John resurrected, the blood drained from Herod’s face. His reaction reminds us of MacBeth when he saw the ghost of the murdered Banquo:

Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou has no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with.

Herod was haunted by the mistake he made, but kings are not good at admitting mistakes or redressing injustices. Neither are popes and presidents. In that regard, little has changed in two thousand years.

But if Herod Antipas was having nightmares about his treatment of John, Christian traditionalists will be tempted to wonder whether the king had similar visions at the time of his own death. 

Orthodox and other Christians believe John appears to persons who have not accepted Jesus at the time of their deaths. The tradition is that John preaches the Gospel to the dying unredeemed to give them one last chance for salvation.

Baptists, with their contrarian views on the role of saints, may not be able to accept Saint John the Forerunner as an all souls witness of last resort. 

But Baptists readily acknowledge the salvation of the thief on the cross, who turned to Jesus with his last breath after a lifetime of crime and sin. And Baptists honor John as the voice crying in the wilderness, a relentless crier who never ceased invoking repentance until his head lay silent on Herod’s platter. If God would choose any one to bring last-chance salvation to the dying damned, it would be John.

If nothing else, the tradition denotes the importance of John’s role in God’s plans. Even Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian, expressed it well (albeit with rambling prose):  

“(John was) a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”

Mark the taciturn Gospel writer states it more clearly: 

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:4, 7-8)

Politicians and opportunists like Herodias and Herod Antipas looked upon John’s call to repentance as a summons to revolution and they knew they would not be safe until he was silenced.

They were correct in a way; John called upon the weak and powerful to repent of their sins and be just, and neither Herod nor Herodias knew how to retain their power by treating their minions with justice. 

But John was also the forerunner of an even more profound revolution, a spiritual revolution in which God’s son provides the means of reconciling all humanity with its creator, eradicating sin and death for all time.

Herod and Herodias knew John was important, but they had no idea just how important he was in God’s eternal design.

And despite their best efforts to shut him up, his proclamation still resounds with a power they could never have imagined.
Pictured above: Imogen Milais-Scott as Salomé, and Douglas Hodge as John the Baptist, in the 1988 film, Salomé’s Last Dance