The Art of Social Change

This is Part One in a Two Part look at some of the change required to build a better world. “So you say you want a revolution?” You’ve got to begin by changing the fabric of your own Social Life (Part One) and your Inner Landscape (Part Two). In both cases the Bible Readings for these meditations come from the Lectionary.

beheading

Bible reading: Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her.

For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Herod

Herod came from a tough family. He had some pretty significant childhood trauma.

In the public health world, there is a scoring system known as the ACE Score. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the test asks 10 questions relating to your childhood homelife. The study asks if you were abused physically, sexually, or emotionally as a child; if you were neglected physically or emotionally; and it asks about general household dysfunction, were you around mental illness? Substance abuse? Divorce? An incarcerated relative? Was your mother treated violently? If your answer to any of those questions is yes, you receive 1 point, and at the end of the quiz, you have a score with 10 being high and 0 low.

This test is used to predict health and social problems across the lifespan. The higher your score, the higher your risk of becoming a smoker, an alcoholic, a drug user, someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle, and someone who misses work regularly. You’re also more susceptible to experiencing severe obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, STDs, Heart Disease, Cancer Stroke, COPD, and broken bones.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what Herod the Tetrarch’s ACE Score was… but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was pretty high. Herod Antipas (or Herod the Tetrarch), was the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great came into power in 37 BCE. He was highly devoted to the Roman government, and his popularity in Rome meant the expansion of his power. He built forts and cities and named them after the Romans, he renovated the temple, and he exterminated anyone he considered a threat to his power, including one wife, three sons, a brother-in-law, and a mother-in-law. He died in 4 BCE and his kingdom was divided between three sons: Archaleaus was ruler of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea until he was replaced by a Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate; Herod Antipas was named ruler of Galilee and Perea; Philip was ruler of the northern territories and those east of the Sea of Galilee.

Ok, so that house where a wife, three sons, a brother-in-law and a mother-in-law were all murdered is the house where Herod the Tetrarch grew up… I think it’s safe to say it was a tough childhood. No one made it out of that house unscathed. Herod the Tetrarch was affected by this and it would go on to affect his life.

The circumstances of this event are unclear to me, but at some point, Herod took his brother’s wife as his own. Now this wasn’t the 1990’s in America, women were still regarded as a possession in this time period. Men could have multiple wives, but women not so much. Herod, being more powerful than his brother, took his brother’s wife, and brought the woman, Herodias, and her daughter, Salome, into his home.

John the Baptist wasn’t so keen on this. He criticized Herod for this behavior, telling him it was unlawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife. Before long, a plan began to emerge in the household around the extermination of John.

A certain reading of this text might imply that this event was all Herodias’ idea. This reading is in line with readings that imagine women in literature as temptress’ or seductress’, it’s in line with the idea that evil enters into the world through Eve. It’s the kind of idea that emerges when you allow only half the gender spectrum to make doctrine for 2,000 years. It’s a severely limited view.

We’re not going to read this story that way. We aren’t going to suggest that Herod wanted John the Baptist to live, but Herodias wanted to kill him.

We will suggest that both of those ideas lived within Herod’s mind, frankly the only mind that mattered, that had any voice, within his household. On one hand, Herod sees John the Baptist as an intriguing figure. He’s perplexed by his language, and yet, he likes to listen to him. He can tell that this man who lives in the wild eating a diet of locusts and honey is a righteous and holy man. He finds something in the man that is compelling, and he understands that the man has some power. He has a following. How would they respond if he was killed? What would his death mean for Herod’s political power?

On one hand, Herod finds it too politically risky to kill John. But on the other hand, he wants to do it. This man is criticizing him, the ruler of the land. He should be gone. Exterminated. Gotten rid of.

Herod is weighing these options in his mind. Herodias may have an opinion about these options, but she has little say on this matter or any matter at all.

Herod’s birthday was quite a party. The wealthy elite from the land filled his home. There was ample food and wine. Barbecued sheep, olive trays, live music. Important people all around. At some point, Herod and some of the other men slipped into a back room where some of the women in their possession had been forced to dance. Herod was most enthralled when it came time for his wife’s daughter to dance. “Look at this young one, living in my household,” he said to the men to his right and left as she slipped off her robe and began to dance, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the land.”

Demonstrating his power before the men in the room he called her over. As she danced near, he leaned towards her and intimately whispered, “I’ll give you anything you want.” I think it’s safe to assume we know what he was thinking, and I think it’s safe to assume that she has registered a fairly high ACE Score as well.

She wraps up her dance, puts on her robe, and rushes to find her mom at the party. When her mom hears the story, she is irate. This man has taken both her and her daughter as his sexual property. She has no power against him, but maybe this is her chance to assert some power by making him politically susceptible.

After the exchange with her mother, Salome returns to Herod. He looks at her with seductive eyes, and asks what she wants? She stares straight through him and says, “The head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Herod is caught. He knows there is political risk associated with killing John. It may anger the mob, it may send the peasants on a revolt. But he’s got a household full or wealthy people now, and it is important to demonstrate the power of his position to them. He orders the act be carried out, and before long, John’s head adorns an olive tray.

The scene unfolds

As I read through Mark, I feel as though I’m watching a film. This is probably more so the case with Mark than with any of the other gospels. Mark’s story moves rapidly. It’s only 16 chapters compared to John’s 21, Luke’s 24, and Matthew’s 28. You can sit down and read the whole thing start to finish in a couple of hours. This story is happening as you turn the pages of Mark’s screenplay, and as I read through the text, I’m envisioning they way it might unfold on the silver screen.

It’s another bluebird day in Galilee, and people are going about their business as usual. In the bottom of the screen, people bustle about as merchants set up their stands along the road. Merchants open up their baskets, lay out their blankets and set up Jewelry stands, spice stands, olive and fig stands along the road. People move by on foot, some stopping to shop, others corraling their children, others just moving on past.

Near the middle of the screen, a man known as Jesus of Nazareth walks the road. He’s drawn a bit of a crowd. Some people are walking with him, listening while he talks. Others just seem to sneak up and want to touch his cloak. He stops now, to speak with some of his closer friends. It appears as if he is sending them out, two by two, on some sort of a healing mission. “As you go,” he says, “Take nothing except a staff. No bread, no bag, no money. Go with nothing, and make people well.”

At the top of the screen stands Herod, overlooking the territory he rules. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying, that’s a privilege that we have as viewers, but he sees the crowd that is gathered and finds the behavior slightly peculiar. He turns to one of his staff members standing with him, and gestures towards Jesus? “Who is that?” He asks.

“Some say John has been raised from the dead, others say Elijah,” the staff member replies.

Upon hearing John’s name, Herod’s mind begins to race, and the viewers of the film are invited into Herod’s mind for a moment. He sees that night unfold again before him. He sees the food, the drink, the live music. He sees the backroom where his young female possession was dancing. He vaguely remembers whispering, “I’ll give you anything you want.” He sees John’s head return to the party on a platter.

Herod continues to think on this, but our glimpse into his mind is gone. The screen returns to this full view as Herod watches Jesus down below. Jesus’ friends begin to walk off two by two, in each direction.

A couple of days later they return and tell him all that they had done and taught. People began to notice that Jesus and his friends were gathering again, and they began to gather around them. As it grew late, his friends came to him and said, “It’s now very late. Send them away so that they may fo find something to eat.” But Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

And the viewer watches as the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand unfolds.

The art of social change

As I watch this scene unfold in my mind, I recognize that the story of the execution of John is put right in the middle of a highly contrasting scene.

Jesus gives his friends nothing, and sends them out to heal and feed.

Herod has a banquet with everything, and sexual assault leads right into a murder scene.

Jesus and his friends have nothing, and they bring life.

Herod has everything, and brings about death.

 

I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in John 10. “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came they they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus was born into a world as complex as this one. A world full of alliances and allegiances. A world of powers and principalities. Jesus’ work was to change the entire landscape. Socially, spiritually, politically, Jesus sought to return the world to its rightful order.

Jesus accomplished this through the resurrection, but the work of bringing about a new world continues through the resurrection community.

Jesus was an artist of social change. He took conventional social norms and reimagined them. In Jesus’ creative social universe sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers were all invited to table fellowship. Upon the canvas of Jesus’ new world, oil paints blur the lines between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

Social norms lead into systemic and structural oppression.

-A world where white people and black people don’t eat meals together is a world where we have mass incarceration and police brutality.

-A world where only English is spoken is a world where Spanish speaking families can be separated at the border, and Arabic speakers live under the constant threat of war.

-A world where wealthy people and poor people don’t live in the same neighborhoods is a world where housing and healthcare can become unattainable, and people at the lowest ends of the economic spectrum have to fight for the right to survive.

 

The social fabric of our lives shows up in public. We are called to be artists who imagine a new canvas of social life, and to live it.

As any good artist knows, a work of art requires imagination, and it requires work. We don’t call it “a work of art,” for nothing. As David Ramirez sings, you’ve got to “Put in the work, put in the time.”

For me, there has never been a more interesting question than, “How shall we live?” What could possibly be more creative than to reimagine the shape of our lives?

We might be FOR progressive causes on a national level, but if we’re not putting in the work and the time to reweave our social lives, those causes will always be distant… fleeting dreams without feet that will carry them down any road.

 

Who do we eat with?

Who do we speak with?

Who do we live near?

 

The answers to these questions produce the social world that we live in. That social world produces a world that brings about death… or that brings about life.

Many of us have been traumatized as the children of a dysfunctional society that filled our early lives with abuse and neglect. That environment leads to poor health, and has produced for us a world that is desperately sick.

But a highly creative social artist lives in our midst, and he wants to heal us.

He wants to brings us to new tables.

He wants to bring us into new conversations.

He wants to bring us into new spaces with one another.

 

Are we willing to put in the work? Are we willing to put in the time?

 

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