IT WAS RECENTLY reported that a bone found buried beneath a Bulgarian church may belong to the New Testament prophet John the Baptist.
Archaeologists have confirmed that the bone dates from the first century AD, the time of John’s life, and the DNA was consistent with someone from the Near East. However experts warned that it is impossible conclusively to state that these are John’s remains.
What is more certain is the event recorded in tomorrow’s gospel reading where we have the account of John’s violent death at the hands of King Herod. The key player in this was Herodias, Herod’s wife. Their marriage had been denounced by John the Baptist on the grounds that she had been previously married to Herod’s brother Philip, and John was thrown into prison for his trouble. However, Herodias wasn’t prepared to let it go at that and her opportunity came when Herod promised her daughter Salome a favour of her own choosing. Prompted by Herodias she asked for the head of John the Baptist and the rest we know. So this influential woman got her revenge with the help of those around her. No moral considerations entered into the decision and no concern of any kind was shown for their victim.
It is easy to dismiss this as a reminder of how bad things used to be long ago, but the abuse of power by people in high positions is still very much with us, only in more subtle and devious ways. Nowadays it often involves people and institutions we once felt able to trust – but sadly no longer.
In recent days we have been hearing of more scandals in the business world, this time in the banking and pharmaceutical industries. Barclays Bank has been in the news, fined for improperly adjusting interest rates which must at times have been to the disadvantage of their clients. It is sad to think how far this once great banking institution has fallen, given its connections with the Quaker community, a people noted for their integrity and social responsibility. Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, for example was a member of the Barclay family on her mother’s side.
Perhaps even worse is the pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline which was fined $3 billion in the US, having admitted bribing doctors to promote its products and, it is alleged, encouraging the prescription of unsuitable antidepressants to children. It is truly shocking to think that members of the medical profession could have facilitated this exploitation of sick people. It is even more shocking that there are senior business people willing to stand over such activities or refuse to accept responsibility when wrongdoing is exposed. This is about the misuse of power, often for money and prestige, with tacit support given by shareholders and other interests.
Fr Adrian Hastings maintains that things go wrong when religious faith disconnects from everyday life. “Every time prayer is detached from the politics of the market place leaving the marketeers free to proclaim a God concerned with the spiritual only, the core element of the specifically Christian is lost. Public things are material things; things that are spiritual only are private things. A religion of pure spirituality is a privatised religion with a privatised God, and a privatised God cannot or should not exist. God is the God of everything or of nothing. Without such a God and without the human prayer that makes us conscious of such a God there can be no absolute critique of evil government and corrupt politics, no tradition of prophecy.
“We can only prophesy out of an objectivity of truth and goodness. If love is absolutely preferable to hate, truth to lies, whatever an individual chooses to think or do, then there exists over and above us a moral order, unchangeable, objective, absolute.”
John the Baptist represents those who dare to question people with power who mock the moral order. And in this world of spin and half-truths, courageous prophetic voices like his are needed more than ever. His death and the manner of it remind us just how dangerous that can be. – GORDON LINNEY