“The Violence of Political Expediency”

Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind

Proper 10B
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 – Psalm 24 – Mark 6:14-29

Violence is an everyday occurrence. A man murders his wife. A woman kills her newborn child. Students kill classmates. Angry employees kill co-workers. Rebel armies and government troops kill both enemy soldiers and innocent civilians. Suicide bombers and mass murderers kill random individuals. Gang members kill sleeping infants. Police kill unarmed men, women and children. There’s a lot of killing in this world.

Violence doesn’t have to involve murder. Drivers display road rage.. Athletes start fist fights on the field. Teenagers beat each other up. Women are raped by angry men. LGBTQ folks are attacked by those who don’t like or understand us.

Violence doesn’t have to be physical. Parents yell at their kids. Kids yell at their parents. Couples yell at each other. And, strangers yell at whoever will listen. Violence is as old as the Bible. Cain killed Abel; Sarah wanted to kill Hagar; Judah raped Tamar; and the sons of Jacob tried to kill their youngest brother Joseph. Even King David, who in this morning’s Hebrew Scripture passage danced before the Lord, was said to have killed “tens of thousands.”

Violence is a cycle of anger, frustration, misunderstanding, hatred, fear, ignorance, superstition, bigotry, and scapegoating. Violence is at, or close to, the heart of human nature, and we never seem to overcome it.

Today’s gospel lesson is a tale of violence carried out as a spectacle for the display of power and expediency. King Herod gave a birthday party for all of his cronies. His daughter entertained the guests. Her father responded by offering her whatever she wished. The daughter turned to her mother for advice. The first lady of Judea asked for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered at the banquet on a silver platter.

The text tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved;” for though the king feared this prophet, he considered John to be a “righteous and holy man,” and thus, while sending him to prison, the King actually had tried to protect him from execution. However, Herod did not want to disappoint his new wife who couldn’t stand the guy and wanted to have him killed. And so, Herod called for John’s head, thus gifting his daughter, satisfying his wife, amusing his guests, and getting rid of one more political irritant with a simple nod to “off with his head.”

This violent act, reminiscent of scenes in the television series House of Cards, was a foreshadowing of things to come. It was a preview of what would happen to Jesus when he was betrayed by his disciple Judas and handed over to the will of an angry crowd by Pilate, another cunning and spineless politician.

This is a particularly insidious form of political violence called expediency. Herod, Pilate, and yes, good old King David (who arranged to have his lover’s husband killed in battle) were pros at a game that is all too familiar in today’s political landscape.

We witness political expediency all the time, and it often goes unstopped. It’s a third rail that nobody wants to touch. Consider for instance: the NRA, white supremacy, the Palestinian situation, the immigration crisis, COVID, abortion, and in many states, school funding, voting rights and the death penalty.

Often, those in leadership – political, corporate, civic and even religious – throw up their hands and say, “I’m powerless. I can’t do anything about this or that; if I do, I’ll lose my base of support. Sometimes they say, “The timing isnt right; or this issue will be too divisive.” And often, we respond, “Oh well.” It’s so pervasive that many of us have become numb to the violence of political expediency.

I live in a state with both “open carry” and “stand your ground” laws and a gun lobby that is really powerful. There are a ridiculous number of fatal shootings in my hometown of Cleveland (68 homicides so far this year, which translates to nearly 3 every week). It has become so commonplace that, in early June, I actually missed the news of a mass shooting at a high school graduation party, killing three and injuring thirty-five.

My state has an energy lobby that is both powerful and corrupt, but our state legislature won’t stand up to it. In what has been called “an unholy alliance,” some of our legislators, including the recently indicted and removed house speaker, have lined their pocketbooks with substantial pay-offs. Ohio is a state where COVID became a political football. It’s also a state with gerrymandering and legislative attempts to suppress voting. It’s so overwhelming that some days I don’t even want to read the newspaper.

What should be our response to the violence of political expediency? Should it be one of flight or fight? Should we express outrage and anger with more violence – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – leading to violent protest, uprising and insurrection; or should we passively ignore, overlook, and accept violence, becoming or behaving as if we are numb to it?

According to the teaching of Jesus, the Christian response to violence, including that of political expediency, must be non-violent resistance. As Walter Wink, one of my seminary professors, taught: nonviolence is a third way, Jesus’ way – what our Lord called the “narrow path.”

Martin Luther King claimed nonviolent resistance as both a value and strategy of the civil rights movement. In a Christmas sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King preached::

To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you….But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Think about the 600 men, women and children led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, who on March 7, 1965 peacefully marched into Selma on what became known as “Bloody Sunday, ” or those who sat at lunch counters and those who integrated schools. While the struggle to end racism and white supremacy still goes on, over time, Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance has moved the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Other great justice movements have also been grounded and empowered by nonviolent resistance. Remember the 60,000 men (and a few women) who were beaten and arrested as they joined Gandhi on his 1930 march to the sea in protest of British rule in India. Let us not forget the women suffragists who in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries were arrested, beaten, imprisoned and force-fed as they sought the right to vote.

I vividly recall the early years of LGBTQ Pride Parades. As we held hands and marched down city streets, angry “religious” folks yelled condemnations in our face. During those marches, wearing a black clergy shirt and collar, I and other gay clergy would respond: “God bless you.”

Nonviolent resistance is more than just marching in the face of evil. It is also speaking out against evil. And that too is as old as the Bible. Think Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.

Jesus, following in the prophetic tradition, spoke directly with love to the rich and powerful. He condemned hypocrisy, selfishness, and deceit. He repeatedly named the elephant in the room. Speaking out is a form of discipleship. It is a way of going forth in Christ to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Speaking out is a way of repairing the world for God’s sake.

In the news this week, we heard from a woman who has spoken out about the violence of political expediency when it would have been easier to keep her mouth shut. Award- winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, recently declined an offer of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after learning that a powerful board member lobbied against her, using his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school. In a public statement, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes:

Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love. These times demand courage, and those who had held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.

Kudos to Nikole Hannah-Jones for following the narrow way of nonviolent resistance. It’s not easy being brave. It can be downright scary and costly. Many times, as a rector, cathedral dean and nominee for bishop, when I spoke out for the cause of justice, I got hammered. When I named racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, or xenophobia from the pulpit; or when I blessed an abortion clinic, a community of commercial sex workers, and a sanctuary for the undocumented; I got attacked as pushy, arrogant, disloyal, uninformed, unorthodox, and even unfaithful. Sometimes, my credentials were challenged, and I was even threatened with ecclesiastical discipline and physical attack.

During the heat of the 1995 heresy trial over gay ordination, when I preached about being gay and was really under attack from some colleagues and parishioners, a friend said to me: “What do you expect? You follow a man who was crucified.” Yes, we follow a man who was crucified. Let us never forget that truth.

Prophetic words and action can get one in trouble. But, this is the work of discipleship. This is what Jesus calls us to do – to get up and go forth – empowered by God’s grace, walking two-by-two, carrying just what we need as we face violence, confront political expediency, speak truth to power, look in the eye of our enemies, and bless them with God’s love.