Herod Is Always with Us

Politics & Other Illusions

When Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple, he has the prophet Simeon say to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).

That Jesus is someone whose presence means “that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” is at the core of the New Testament. Peter’s impetuousness, his avowal of faith and then his denial and repentance; Judas’s discipleship and betrayal; Paul’s persecution and conversion—all of these can be seen in the light of Simeon’s prophecy. So can Herod’s wickedness.

Told that the messiah has been born, Herod can think only of the threat this presents to his own continued control, and so the messiah must be killed. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of Jesus’ escape into Egypt and, in keeping with the theme of Jesus as the new Moses, has him come back out of Egypt, as Abraham and Moses did. But Matthew does not point out that, in some sense, Herod finally won. Jesus lived into adulthood, but then other people had him killed, essentially for the same reason.

In this world, on our side of death, Herod still wins. Every time someone dies because of a suicide bomber, a missile strike, or one of our drones, something of Herod’s spirit lives on. Everyone who kills in the name of some good cause has killed someone made in God’s image—someone for whom Christ died—for reasons that are apparently more important than venerating that fact. I am not saying that there is never a circumstance in which violence is the least evil option; I am saying that even when this is the case, we are implicated in evil, and this shows us how dark our situation is.

History makes it clear that there is something inevitable about the presence of evil, and no one who seeks power can remain wholly unimplicated. This is why it is a mistake to assume that one form of politics or another can be blessed, or presented as something Christians can endorse without serious qualification. There is a belief among many conservative Christians that the Right is somehow more Christian than the Left; and there is the reverse assumption by many on the Christian Left. For many people (nonreligious as well as religious), having the right sort of politics is seen as morally important, and sometimes even serves as a substitute for morality.

This is not to deny that politics has a morally important dimension, but to place too much faith in politics is a mistake and leads inevitably to disappointment. “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men” (Psalm 146) is not just a pious thought. The fact that all politics, right and left, democratic and fascistic, eventually involves us in coercion and death is tragic, and we have forgotten this in our time. St. Vladimir (d. 1015) wondered whether he should be baptized while serving as a monarch, since in that role he would be involved in wars and executions. In the early church someone who killed, even in self-defense, was expected to refrain from receiving the Eucharist for a period of time during which penance was called for.

We have lost this tragic sense. We think somehow that through power—through law or the right kind of politics—we can make the world into a good place. The world can be brought into a marginally better condition through political means, but there will always be a Herodian edge to our use of politics and force. Perhaps the early Christians retained this sense because they still expected the coming of God’s kingdom, as we should but generally do not. Metropolitan John Zizioulas has pointed out that the good news comes to us from a future that has not yet been realized. The Resurrection is not something that happened once and made our world a better place. It is a sign of the kingdom yet to come. In the meantime, Herod is in charge, to one degree or another.

This doesn’t mean that we are without hope until the second coming. The New York Times recently (December 31, 2009) told the story of two children being treated for serious injuries in Israel, one a brain-damaged Israeli boy, the other a paralyzed Palestinian girl. They were both hurt in the war that continues to consume a land we persist in calling holy. They have become close friends, as have their families. There is the hope of resurrection in the love that can come to exist even in the face of continuing evil. Their love is a sign of the kingdom to come, even as their suffering is a sign of the evil that will have power until that kingdom does come—a coming we must continue to hope for.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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