Cowardly Power

There can be tragic consequences when powerful figures try to save face.

Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._-_Gastmahl_des_Herodes_(Wadsworth_Atheneum)

The banquet of King Herod Antipas, by the German artist Lucas Cranach, 1531.

Recently I was re-reading the Gospel of Mark’s account of the death of John the Baptist. This time I found myself dwelling upon the motivation of King Herod Antipas in ordering John’s execution.

The execution results from a raucous banquet the king holds for his courtiers and allied nobles. As dinner entertainment, the king’s daughter or step-daughter (the textual history is not clear) gives a dance performance. Popular culture assumes that the dance was lascivious. The text does not say so. But whatever its character it delighted the king.

The king promises to give her anything she wants as a reward, even half of his kingdom. Such a rash promise makes no sense unless the king was intoxicated. The promise of half of his kingdom shows how out of control the king was in his rational thinking when he makes the promise.

The girl does not know what to ask for, so she consults with her mother Herodias. Herodias is sober enough to realize her husband has given her the opportunity she has long craved. John the Baptist has criticized her marriage to Herod. She was after all not only the king’s niece, but also his brother’s ex-wife. She has been harboring a grudge against John for his criticism. She instructs her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter.

When the girl makes her request, we can imagine that Herod sobered up real fast. He is forced to confront the rashness of his promise. He now faces a decision. Does he live by his promise or does he uphold justice?

Though the king has imprisoned John, the text also indicates that the king protects him. Herod regards John as a holy man. And so he refrains from killing John. In this respect Herod comes across as a man with some modicum of morality.

His rash promise in the setting of the banquet, however, presents the king with a dilemma. He can uphold justice by denying the request, even if that means breaking his promise. Or he can live up to his rash promise even if that means taking the life of an annoying yet nonetheless innocent man.

Herod chooses to live up to his promise. The text indicates his reason is that he is afraid of what not honoring his promise will do to his reputation among his courtiers and allies. He chooses to save face. He is more concerned with his personal reputation and standing than he is with the cause of justice.

One thinks immediately of Pontus Pilate. The gospels make clear that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent of the charges made against him. Yet he colludes with the Jewish priests in condemning Jesus to death.

When we ask why, the Gospel of John suggests his motivation. The priests blackmail Pilate, claiming that if he does not agree to the death of Jesus, then Pilate is no friend of Caesar (see John 19:12). Ultimately Pilate seems to be more concerned with his standing with the emperor than he is with the justice of an innocent and powerless man.

One wonders how differently history might have treated both men if they had chosen not to save face, but to honor the demands of justice. The irony is that neither ultimately saved face in the judgment of history. Instead both come across as exemplars of cowardly power.

I say exemplars because history is full of examples of people in power who have made the same choice. And the consequences have been tragic for thousands, if not millions, of people. There is no greater example than the story of the Great War, World War I, a war in which rash statesmen stumbled into an abyss in an effort to save national face.