("The Severed Head of St. John the Baptist," Aguste Rodin, 1887, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him."
--Flavius Josephus' account of the death of John the Baptist
Sometimes, my spiritual director brings up some very touchy topics for me.
I had been relating my week to him, and one of the things I related was a small battle I had taken on against "corporate"--the corporation that owns the hospital that is the main client in my practice. I have been trying to convince them that the way they want some paperwork done is just stupid, and time consuming, and costly for my practice (of course, they don't care about MY costs as a vendor, they care about THEIR costs as a corporation,) and so far, they are not listening. Never mind their demand does absolutely nothing to further patient care. I have an ally in my connection to the matter, but all indications are above us, in the nebulous corporate headquarters, that anyone is listening.
So he looks at me and says, "You kind of like to fight authority, don't you?"
Now, this was a little laughable considering my spiritual director, who's a Roman Catholic priest, is always squabbling with his Bishop. Our meetings are often punctuated with calls from his Bishop's office.
But I respected his question and didn't react because, after all, "it takes one to know one."
"Weeeellll," I said, "It's not so much that I LIKE to butt heads with authority, but sometimes it just irritates me when authority is being stupid or petty or short-sighted."
Then he leans back and says, "But now, at the same time, you strike me as a person who is very obedient to authority. I mean, you took an oath as a physician. As best as I can tell, you have been very obedient to a higher authority--the history and traditions of medicine, the well-being of patients, things like that. You also submit to the authority of the federal government for Medicare billing, and you submit to the authority of insurance companies for reimbursement. What's up with those two sides of your personality?"
So as we talked, I realized there is an interesting paradox in my life story. Overall, under the auspices of "a higher authority," I actually grow and become a better person. But my history is one of occasionally being on the short end of a gross misuse of authority. Certain things make me distrust authority and that there will be a certain amount of conflict in me about that. It also has often resulted in me "going it alone," because I got tired of waiting on getting permission, or annoyed that no one else wanted to join me with something. Sometimes that has resulted in good things, but sometimes it has resulted in situations where I realize I had stepped over the line. I paradoxically need both "strong fences" yet will still "push at the fences."
So then he switched gears and said, "I'm thinking about one of your favorite characters in the Bible--John the Baptist."
My spiritual director has known for some time that I am quite fond of John the Baptist. I like to think of him as this Jeremiah Johnson sort of character--this mountain man sort of guy, wearing his hair tunic and eating bugs with honey. A guy like that has some pull when he's running around yelling, "Repent and be baptized!"
Likewise John recognized real authority when he saw it--he knew Jesus was the real deal, and made no bones about it. He was perfectly willing to accept Jesus' authority.
But that still didn't change the fact "the authorities" found John a dangerous element, and we are shown both in the Gospel version of the story and in Josephus' account, that both lap dancing and political unrest can have the ultimate result of your head being put on a platter.
It's a distinct lesson in "squelching the ministry of John vs. squelching the ministry of Jesus." As John Dominic Crossan put it, "John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise."
John was out there all by himself. Knock off John and you've knocked off John's influence on the politics of the region.
Jesus, on the other hand, gathered 12 disciples. Knock off Jesus and you still have 12 disciples and probably some other unnamed, unseen disciples out there. They have infiltrated the tissue of the region.
My pathologist's view of it is like this: In the eyes of the Romans, John was a benign tumor, but Jesus was a cancer. How much "good tissue" would have to be removed to clear the region of the cancer?
My spiritual director pointed out to me that Jesus instructed the disciples to go out and teach and preach in pairs. We talked about a crazy colleague of his from years back who would sit alone in his room and celebrate the Eucharist by himself. He confronted the guy and said, "You might be saying the Eucharistic prayer, but you're not holding Mass. You have to have two people for it to BE Mass!"
What I came to realize in this conversation was Christianity survived because it was a franchise, and what I need to always be mindful of in my own works and efforts for the glory of God is to strive to be a franchise player, not a free agent. There's too much risk in getting the heads of our good works chopped off.
That's a hard one when we consider our egos like "winning." We like wins, we like being shown in the box score, and we like being credited for the win. Even when our motives are honest, we often get hooked on the "good feelings" of our spiritual journeys, and sometimes that is a mistake. Of course we want our spirituality to feel good. That "feeling good" is what spurs us on to persevere. But not all of our journey is about feeling good. I'm reminded of a very recent quote by the theologian Richard Rohr: "Real holiness doesn't feel like holiness; it just feels like you're dying." We may well be dying into new life, but that doesn't exclude the dying feeling!
Ultimately, what it means is, when we do find ourselves butting heads with "authority," to be mindful of whether we are doing it for a higher reason, vs. our own egos. Never underestimate someone else's view of "political unrest," or the power of someone else's lap dancing!