Today’s memorial, the beheading of John the Baptist, can no longer be viewed as an ancient story. The story of James Foley brings that ancient event into the forefront of anyone who listens to both the news and the gospel. History repeats itself. In John’s day it was Herod, a crazed immoral king with too much power and too little scruples. His was an obsession with power, fueled by lust, and propagated by a society that placed an obscene amount of that power in the hands of one person. His blood thirst starts with the martyrdom of the innocents at Christ’s Nativity and continues through to the beheading of the Baptist. His entire reign was all about his control, his wealth, his kingdom, and his desires. Herod was not one that worshiped God; he is one who considered himself equal to God.
Move ahead now two thousand plus years and re-enter that same region. Within that same geographic region today resides the Mandaeans, a peaceful gnostic sect that has followed John the Baptist almost since the time he walked the earth. To this day they live by water which is so essential to their religion. Theirs is a small group of adherents, they do not preach to others, and they do not seek new members. Their traditional dress is the brilliant white robes so similar to the robes that Jesus is described as being clothed in. At one time there were 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq and Syria; today there are less than 3000-6000 due to persecution. Their “modern day Herod” is the religious-marketed fundamentalism currently branded as ISIS. The reality though is that what plagues the Mandaeans and all of the other minority religious today is identical to what cost John the Baptist his life 2000 plus years ago. That is a group of societies member’s consumed by power, wealth and their own self-interests. To achieve their goals, the modern Herod’s still rely on those same ancient tactics of violence and intimidation. They exploit human weakness, and human needs, and human emotions to accomplish their goals. They use their own people’s religious sensibilities as a way to incite fear. Their tactics are the same as those of every tyrant that has walked this planet. While they label their targets as a defense of God, it really is no more than a robbery of society and an insult to that same God they pretend to worship. While they fill their chests with the money and power that so interests them, their people lose much more than that material wealth. They lose the foundation of their civilization and the soul of their society. It is their own religion that becomes defiled by their atrocious actions; it is their own people that suffer the most. From what once was proudly called the cradle of civilization now lays a desolate graveyard. Disappearing are the Christians, the Mandaeans, the Yazidi and other small peaceful religious sects that once dotted the landscape. Disappearing are their traditions, and their contributions to those societies. What remain are fear, poverty, distrust, and suffering. More than the brutal slaughtering of an individual, it is the slaughtering of a civilization. History repeats itself. The sins of the first century still exist in the twenty first century.
For King Herod, his goal was to remove anyone who might undermine his power, be it a child king born in a manger or a fiery preacher. Today in the mid-east it is a return to the ethnic cleansing that has plagued the world for so long. It is a return to religious intolerance, and it is a return to that ancient desire of greed for money and power marketed as the will of God. The memorial of the passion of John the Baptist should be a reminder of that preachers cry for repentance and to make way for the Lord. It should be a reminder of all he preached and paved the way for. His passion should also be a reminder of the sins and injustices, and brutalities that he faced. Those are the injustices he preached against. His cry was to make way for the Kingdom of God, and leave behind that mess made by greedy men. That is something worth remembering.