Politics and the Daily Office

Monday, July 25, 2011 — Week of Proper 12, Year One

Saint James the Apostle

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)

EITHER the readings for Friday of Proper 12 (p. 976)

Psalms 56, 57, [58] (morning) 64, 65 (evening)

2 Samuel 2:1-11

Acts 15:36-16:5

Mark 6:14-29

OR the readings for St. James (p. 998)

Morning Prayer: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21, Mark 1:14-20

Evening Prayer: Psalms 33; Jeremiah 26:1-15; Matthew 10:16-32

I chose the readings for Friday of Proper 12

Herod Antipas becomes a major character in today’s gospel. Antipas was a surviving son of Herod the Great, who was so paranoid and jealous that he had several of his sons executed. Caesar Augustus supposedly quipped that it would be better to be one of Herod the Great’s swine than one of his sons, for the swine had a better chance at living. (Herod the Great was said to practice kosher.) In 5 BCE, Herod the Great’s oldest son and presumed successor Antipater was brought before Herod on charges of attempted murder. Antipas was named to succeed as king. But the following year, after Herod executed Antipater, the king changed his will to divide the rule among three of his sons. Rome confirmed Herod Antipas as tetrarch (“rule of a quarter”) of Galilee and Perea. His two regions were divided by the Jordan River and by the Decapolis.

During a visit to Rome, Antipas fell in love with his half-brother Herod Philip’s wife Herodias. (Herodias was herself the granddaughter of Herod the Great.) She apparently returned Antipas’ affections and promised to marry him. Antipas divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, the daughter of the powerful King Aretas IV of Nabatea. The resentments provoked hostilities during which Antipas suffered a significant defeat when Philip’s forces joined the Nabateans.

We see John the Baptist in prison having publicly accused Herod Antipas on account of marrying his brother’s wife. The gospel reading seems rather sympathetic toward Herod, laying the cause of John’s execution on Herodias and her daughter, named Salome in Josephus’ history. It is a sad and sordid tale, ennobled by the faithfulness of John’s disciples, who claim John’s body for respectful burial. (Mark’s account sharply contrasts John’s disciple’s courage and loyalty with the fleeing of the twelve at Jesus’ execution.)

One of the things that strikes me as I regularly read the Daily Office is how the Biblical narrative is so enmeshed in politics and intrigue. John the Baptist becomes a political martyr for his challenge to the ruler. Jesus is executed as a traitor and enemy to the state. Today’s first reading from 2 Samuel speaks of David’s anointing at Hebron as king over Judah. One of his first acts is to invite the city of Jabesh-gilead to join his reign, although that city lies in the heart of the territory of Saul’s immediate successor Ishbaal.

It takes a strong political stomach to read the Daily Office. The scripture’s occupation with such matters implies that we too are to pay attention to the politics and intrigue of our own day.

When I was in the process of formation toward ordination, a sincere and earnest priest gave me some fatherly advice. Be a good pastor, he said. Take care of your people. Teach them the doctrines, worship and prayer of the church, but don’t get involved in political controversies. Leave the church out of politics, he advised. That will only cause you problems and division. You’ll lose support and parishioners, he said. There’s enough to do just being a good pastor.

In giving me that advice, he may have been worried that I had been influenced by example. I had grown up in St. Peter’s Church in Oxford, Mississippi. My childhood rector was Duncan M. Gray, Jr., who had acquired some notoriety for his outspoken support of integration when that was the most divisive political issue of our day.

I was influenced by example. Although I haven’t lived up to his legacy, my childhood priest became a model of priesthood for me. As a priest, when I met faithful, Christian gay couples whose lives and loves had the same qualities as my own marriage, I recognized the same fears and conflicts over sexuality as I remembered from the racial conflicts of my youth. I began to speak out for what I understood to be a compelling cause for love, justice, and equality. To me, I was following a beloved example, although my mentor, now my bishop, did not agree with me theologically. With his great grace, however, he agreed to disagree, and he gave me his love, respect and support. (I commend to you the recently published biography, And One Was a Priest: The Life and Times of Duncan M. Gray, Jr., by Araminta Stone Johnson.)

There is an attraction about turning one’s attention away from the conflicts and ugliness of politics and the daily news to attend only to things spiritual. There is something comforting about keeping one’s mind and heart above. It’s surely safer for priests to be good pastors and take care of their people.

It is also very easy to become enmeshed in the pride and power and abuse that infects political conflict. We can easily lose our grounding when politics defines our interests. If we think we are following our Baptismal Covenant when we “persevere in resisting evil,” we also have to remember that we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” If we “strive for justice and peace among all people,” we must do so while we continue to “respect the dignity of every human being.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304-305)

I like Mark’s notice that Herod Antipas knew that John the Baptist was “a righteous and holy man,” and that Herod “protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” John accused Herod, and was enough of a threat that Herod imprisoned him. But John did so, it would seem, in a way that must have nonetheless respected Herod’s dignity as a human being.

Sometimes it turns out badly, as it did for John. But he did his prophetic witness with an admirable strength, integrity and grace.

Where are our boundaries and our callings? The example of scripture and history seems to demand our political engagement. But the same example also encourages us to practice that engagement in the spirit of being “in the world but not of the world.” I’m thankful for a good mentor. How can we confront the conflict and intrigue of our own day while remaining faithful to the call to compassion? How do we hold the Bible and Prayer Book in one hand, and the daily newspaper in the other?

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