Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Monday, 08 December 2008
Tuesday, 09 December 2008 02:42

What's the matter with a head on a platter?

There is one very interesting event mentioned in the gospels that highlights the ruthless power of royalty in those days and the disregard of human rights. I am referring to the execution of John the Baptist.

It was a general policy of the Romans when they conquered a new territory to clone some little Romes for resident expatriate Romans and local romanizers, leaving the local religious, political and social structures in place so long as they accepted the dominance of Rome. The key to their survival was subservience. So long as Rome got their respect and its cut of their profits the local people were free to run their enterprises their traditional ways. That is why the Jewish religious authorities persecuted Jesus because they saw in him and his followers a threat to their carefully protected privileged status with the Romans. That is why Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great, still had all the prerequisites of a king with territory, royal court and treasury, though Rome gave him the official title of Tetrarch not King, since he was ruler of only one of the four sections of his father’s former Kingdom. So long as he did not interfere with or oppose the Roman presence, he could continue the façade of appearing to rule.

Herod like his father before him had few moral scruples. It is as though he never saw in his royal status any mandate to uplift his subjects, only a license to take whatever he could for himself and his cronies. Herod fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. Before that she had been married to Herod II Boethus, another uncle. John the Baptist was very vocal in condemning their subsequent marriage as contrary to Jewish law and tradition. Herod had him arrested, but was reluctant to execute him since he seemed to derive some consolation from their conversations in prison, much to the disgust of Herodias who wanted to silence once and for all the Baptist’s accusing tongue.

Every year on Herod’s birthday all the important people in his territory were invited to a big banquet. Present were all the Tetrarch’s closest friends, all the local and Roman authorities, the merchants and landowners who depended on the royal business and all those whose support and loyalty had to be bought and safeguarded. There was also lavish entertainment, the highlight of which was some marvelous dances performed by Salome, the daughter of Herodias. By this time, the wine must have been flowing abundantly, dulling the tetrarch’s mind and heightening his pleasure. So moved was he by the performance he made a solemn promise to grant Salome anything she desired, even if it was half his territory.

The girl was bright enough to know that this was a great opportunity and wisely consulted first with her mother. There is no doubt about what Herodias wanted: the head of John on a platter. The gospel narrative tells us very clearly that Herod was reluctant to carry out the execution, but finally bowed to the argument that he could not go back on his word, so Salome got the head on the platter which she gave her mother. So strong the bond between mother and daughter she was willing to give up whatever gold or power she was promised and come out with nothing for herself. Did she ever regret missing the opportunity of a lifetime, just so her mother could exact her revenge?

There is no record that anyone at that party objected to what happened, but I think we can be quite certain that the arrival of the head on a platter spelled the end of party gaiety bringing a gloom that sent the guests away as quickly as possible.

It is probably not fair to judge those people on the basis of today’s moral standards. Herod was just exercising an authority that nobody questioned. Did his reluctance to carry out the murder come from a moral doubt of whether it was right or wrong or just reluctance to lose a friend? Did Herodias have any feeling of guilt about running off with her uncle or killing John? One can probably count out Herod’s friends for any disapproval though some of them might have thought the timing was not right or they resented the hold that Herodias seemed to have over Herod. Some of those who only paid lip service to Herod for the sake of their own benefit must have been appalled at the crime, but no one stood up in defense of John. Objections there must have been back in the privacy of their own homes with no danger of being overheard, but no one dared to point out the fallacy in Herod’s reasoning. Had we been there would we have spoken up to point out that as a benevolent ruler, his oath would have implied only some personal benefit to Salome, not the murder of some enemy of her mother. Seeing the obvious dismay of Herod at the girl’s request would we have risked incurring the displeasure of Herodias by coming to his aid? Would we have disagreed with the violation of John’s rights, of the execution without trial, the vengeful jealousy of Herodias or seconded John’s condemnation of the marriage of Herod and Herodias? However much we may doubt the sincerity of Herodias or question her motivation for aligning herself with Herod, she did show loyalty and affection for him a few years later by freely choosing to give up her wealth and comfort to accompany Herod into exile in France when he fell into disfavor with the Romans.

It is easy with hindsight, modern codes of moral conduct and imagination to place ourselves in ancient situations where we would courageously make the “right” decisions and purge from the history books the sad consequences of evil decisions. Shouldn’t it be just as easy with foresight and the same modern codes of moral conduct to courageously prevent the potential consequences of present day evil intentions?

Well, at least today there are voices of warning and protest in public demonstrations, publications, special organizations and internet blogs, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to change or rectitude. Today just as in ancient times too often “might makes right”. The exercise of power and preservations of personal advantage often drown out whatever voices of conscience there might be.

Now is the time for those who do not believe this is the way things should be to make their voices heard.

Picture: Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

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Tuesday, 09 December 2008 02:37

A Lesson From the Blind

The blind amaze me. The very thought of not being able to see scares me out of my wits. Everything I do revolves around my ability to see. To have sight taken from me would leave me helpless. But most of the blind I know are not helpless, but neither are they without help. They bravely depend on the help of their other senses and they rely on the sighted. We have an awful lot to learn from the blind.

Touch and hearing serve as a blind person’s eyes. I would be stranded in the dark lost and disoriented. With training and experience they are able to weave through obstacles and know where they are and in which direction to go. Then there is the confidence they place in the seeing eye dog that guides them through traffic and keeps them from danger or in the stranger who guides them to their destination in the subway station.

Forty years ago I was in contact with some blind high school students from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson. There was one particular boy who stood out as very intelligent and optimistic. In every conversation he was always saying “I see”, but of course, in the sense of “I know” or “I understand.” I suppose that his saying “I see” so many times was a subconscious way of telling everyone that though he was blind it didn’t matter, but it had the opposite effect of showing how self-conscious he was of his blindness. But in spite of that his courage and ambition joined to his adaptation to his disability were sure signs that he was destined to be very successful in college and would lead a life as normal as possible, which is more than can be said of a lot of us sighted.

With our dependence on seeing, we leave our senses of hearing and touch remain undeveloped. If we could utilize them as well as the blind do, we would be much better endowed for the challenges of life. If we were not so afraid to reach out for guidance and help from others like the blind do we would have a better chance of realizing our ambitions.

Picture by Bendu

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