John 12:20-33 "Learning to Die" Lent 5B
Mark 6 and John 6 "Not Just Bread" Proper 11B and 12 B for July 23 & July 30

Mark 6:14-29 "Head on a Platter" for Pentecost 6

She wanted his head on a platter. Despots have extinguished the life-breath of their critics in numerous ways; severing heads at chopping blocks, adding drama with the fall of a guillotine, opting for the somber snap of the neck at the gallows or drowning out a voice by attaching heavy stones to their feet to let them “swim with the fishes.” If you just want someone dead, there are very efficient methods of killing them. A simple knife thrust or smothering leaves someone just as dead. The means of execution seem to be designed to send a specific kind of message.  The impure, such as witches, warlocks and heretics, are burned at the stake to cleanse by flame the contaminating evil. Social critics are robbed of their breath. You can’t speak without your head. The Romans were great engineers, so it makes sense that they would build crosses and nail people up on them.

After Edison vengeance was satisfied by zapping electrical currents through the body. And now, when health is regulated by shots and pills, we prescribe the ultimate penalty by lethal injection, hoping to cure the body politic like an influenza inoculation. As a measure of how much more humane our race has become, we’ve gone from brawny, hooded executioners to men in white lab coats. In the 22nd century, perhaps we have nano-executioners to look forward to, or we will yearly launch the condemned by space probe into the eye of the sun.

 Asking for a head to be placed on a platter reveals a particular decadence. Herod’s wife only asked for the Baptist’s head. It was the enchanting dancing girl, who adored the hungry eyes of the banquet’s guests upon her, who then asked to adorn the platter with John’s head. I wonder if the guardsman followed the joke by ringing the platter with grape leaves and olives, as if presenting the slaughtered lamb for the guests. The platter idea began as a dancer’s dark amusement and became an unconscious symbol that Freud could certainly appreciate. This was not an execution to frighten the populace into submission, but to satisfy an opulent queen’s ravenous revenge. Revenge is a dish best served cold, preferably on a silver platter.

I have never quite understood how capital punishment could be reconciled with the Christian faith. Is it morally consistent to wear a cross around your neck and want our criminals to be executed? If one man’s unjust execution atones for the sins of the world, are the murderers of our day excluded from that atonement, giving us the right of vengeance? My qualms have less to do with what the guilty deserve than with the innocents ability to judge correctly. In 2002, former Illinois Governor George Ryan announced “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error,” and commuted 167 inmates on death row to life in prison. The roots of this sweeping executive order began when a group of college students helped exonerate a mentally retarded man named Anthony Porter who had been falsely accused of a double murder. The nagging doubts raised by this case caused Ryan to examine what was then the largest state capital punishment system in America. After finding that 17 more inmates were falsely convicted and 30 others were represented by disbarred or suspended lawyers, Ryan had enough. State legislators would not reform the system, so Ryan simply took everyone off the Illinois state death row. Justice in capital crimes simply had to be more accurate than the terrible odds of the Illinois state justice system. (See The Nation, Feb. 3, 2003, Ryan’s Courage by Bruce Shapiro.)

The more I think of this, there is a deeper problem with capital punishment than the moral problem of punishing the right person. There is a deeper psychological and spiritual problem behind the whole enterprise of trying to right what is wrong through death and violence.  At first glance it seems quite reasonable to force someone to pay for their terrible crimes committed against others. When I was in high school, a friend of mine was raped and if I had known at the time who had done it, I would have attempted to beat him within an inch of his life. I even had some terrible fantasies of vengeance that involved very sharp knives. These feelings seem more than a desire for justice. If my friend had to go through life with a deep psychological wound, I wanted the assailant to feel some kind of pain too.

I could convince myself of noble intentions to protect someone I loved, or that the perpetrator would never again harm someone. But in honesty, I felt an inner rage that wanted satisfaction. There was a desire that somehow the pain and brokenness could be healed or assuaged by inflicting it back on the source. Of course, things never work out that way. Hurting another person cannot heal the person we love. It only pulls us down to the level of the perpetrator.  The act of vengeance creates wounds on our own souls. It is a great spiritual challenge to live in a world where things cannot always be made right again.

This challenge is present in any therapy. Psychotherapy involves lots of digging and uncovering the wounds and hurts of the past and bringing them to consciousness so we can understand why we feel and act as we do. We may learn how our unresolved grief at the death of a parent keeps us from forming loving attachments with other people or how we may have been taught to repress negative feelings which festered into an inner rage. Therapy brings these things to light so we may understand and change and grow. Of course, this is not always how things work. Understanding alone does not bring transformation or healing. Psychotherapist Mark Epstein explains:

“When the realization occurs that needs from the past were never and can never be met, that obstacles from the past were never and can never be overcome, there is often a sense of profound outrage….It is this kind of realization that tends to characterize the estranged Western experience in psychotherapy. This very outrage is the hallmark of what has come to be called narcissism: the vain expectation and selfish insistence that one’s sense of hollowness should somehow be erased.” (Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein, p. 210)

Murder is the ultimate extreme of trying to erase the harm we feel has been done to us. Herodias got John the Baptist’s head, but we do not know if this brought her any comfort or relief. If her emotions followed the flow of history and instinct, she was probably haunted in her dreams by John’s severed head and never felt a sense of inner peace again. (Or perhaps I have been reading too much Freud and Poe!) We do not know anything else of what her life was like from the Gospels. Mark leaves us with this vengeful story of senseless death and suffering.

The ill-fated drive to make things right through violence continues unabated in our own day. The
United   States has made the most powerful military machine in history and yet we are so limited in the ability to shape the world for the good and meet the greatest challenges to human existence. We search out new enemies and desire their head on a platter, yet no matter how many heads we serve up on our platters, we will not feel satisfied or secure. Violence will not stamp out people shouting for dignity. It didn’t solve Herod’s problems, nor will it solve our own.