Sunday, 9 February 2020

Triangles of scapegoating

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 February 2020
Mark 6.1-29

Listen to this sermon here:

If you think that an obsessive interest in the private lives of the Royal family
            is a relatively recent product of the tabloid press, think again.
The sport of royal-watching is as old as the notion of royalty itself;
            and in the absence of the Daily Mail in the first century,
            I offer you: Mark chapter 6 and the Herodian dynasty;
                         a classic example of dysrunctional power, lust, and intrigue.

The precise ins and outs of the Herodian family are extremely complicated,
            and quite hard to grasp,
and its quite possible that Mark himself didn’t have a perfect hold on it.

It was a large and wealthy multi-generational dynasty,
            that fought amongst itself as furiously as any contemporary dictatorship.
Herod Antipas, the Herod we meet in our story today,
            was one of the many sons of Herod the Great,
who had famously executed two of his other sons some years earlier,
            leaving his young grand-daughter Herodias orphaned.

She was then made to marry her half-uncle Herod Philip,
            and their daughter, we know from other historical sources, was called Salome.

It is almost certainly this Salome,
            who is both Herod the Great’s grand-daughter and his great-grand-daughter,
                        depending on which parental line you follow,
            who dances the dance of the seven veils for her uncle Herod Antipas
                        and ends up asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

And you thought the House of Windsor was complicated!
            The level of scandal in the Herodian household
            would fuel enough documentaries to last a lifetime.

It’s worth spending a few moments
            unpicking some of what’s going on here in this story
                        that leads to the death of Jesus’ cousin John,
            because this is more than just a story about a sex-obsessed man
                        making drunken promises to a pretty girl.

Rather, what we see here in the life and relationships of Herod Antipas
            is a man who is prey to the disastrous consequences
            of what psychologists call ‘Triangling’.

Murray Bowen, the founding father of Family Systems Therapy,
            describes the Emotional Triangle
                        as the basic ‘molecule’ of every emotional system,
            whether that is a family, friendship group,
                        workplace, dynasty, or whatever.

He says Triangles form as a way of absorbing or shifting anxiety.

So a relationship between two people might be relaxed and calm
            when there is little stress,
but when the level of anxiety increases in one of the people,
            or tension arises between them,
            a third person is dawn in.

Involving this third person decreases the anxiety between the original two
            by spreading it across three relationships.
So two can gang up on one,
            and bitch about them in their absence,
            highlighting their shortcomings and scapegoating them for problems.

Which two collude against the other one can be dynamic and continually shifting,
            and can turn on a sixpence, depending who you’re talking with.

Friends do this with other friends,
            parents do it with their children,
            one parent and a child will do it with the other parent.

We all do it, because it is emotionally convenient and satisfying,
                        at least in the short term,
            to have someone else to blame;
and each of us will sometimes be the one triangled against,
            as we discover that we are being asked to take the blame
            for things that aren’t of our making or doing.

And it is always, ultimately, destructive;
            as Herod experienced to John the Baptist’s cost.

The first triangle in Herod’s life
            was that between him,
            his half-brother Herod Philip (same father, different mothers),
            and Herod Philip’s wife Herodias.

The issue here was the tension between Herod Antipas and Herod Philip,
            both legitimate sons of Herod the Great,
            and both with competing claims to be his heir.

Philip’s wife Herodias was, if you’re keeping up,
            the grand-daughter of Herod the Great by one of his executed sons,
            and so she strengthened Philip’s claim to the throne when he married her.

However, by the time of our story,
            Herodias has been divorced from Herod Philip
            and is now married to Herod Antipas.

And this triangle of Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, and Herodias
            is the key psychological background to what follows.

According to the rules of Triangling,
            the main reason Herod Antipas wanted Herodias
            was because she belonged to his brother.

Envy and desire are powerful motivators in our emotional relationships.
            Herod was, to coin a phrase, desiring of his brother’s wife.

But as with all desire born out of envy,
            once he had her, Herod found his desire to be as unsatisfied as ever.

It was almost as if he had needed the tension of the triangle
            to drive him to Herodias, and the desire faded once he had won.

Which takes us to our second triangle, that of Herod, Herodias, and Salome;
            who was Herodias’ daughter by her marriage to Herod Philip.

By now Herod had fallen out of desire with Herodias,
            having bested his brother and taken his wife.

Now it’s time for his next conquest
            - Philip and Herodias’s daughter.

In this second triangle, Herodias is no longer the desired other,
            she is now the obstacle to what Herod wants:
                        her daughter Salome.

And this is where the third triangle comes in,
            that of Herod, John, and Salome.

We’re told by Mark that Herod loved to hear John preach,
            even though John’s preaching was highly condemnatory
                        of Herod’s marriage to Herodias;
and I find myself wondering if there’s a clue here:
            If Herod could convince himself that his marriage to Herodias was unlawful,
            he could set her aside and start making moves on her daughter,
                        his current stepdaughter Salome.

We also get an insight here into why Herodias might want John silenced;
            he’s a threat to her stability and status,
because if Herod takes John’s condemnation of their marriage to heart,
            and casts her aside in favour of Salome,
                        she loses everything.

Honestly, with this much intrigue
            it’s starting to sound like a storyline from an Oscar Wilde play!

So here we have Herod, skewered into dysfunctional inaction
            by his triangulated relationships
            with Philip, Herodias, Salome, and John.

All it takes now to tip him over the edge into violence
            is a few drinks, a sexy dance,
            and the opportunity to show off in front of a crowd.

The whole scene by this point has the air
            of a sacrificial ritual in search of a victim.

With this much tension and anxiety in the room,
            it’s going to end badly for someone.

And of course, this is precisely the point
            that Mark wants his readers to take from this.

The death of John the Baptist is to be read
            as a precursor to the crucifixion of Jesus;
who is similarly triangled and scapegoated
            by both the powers-that-be and the gathered crowd,
as they seek a mechanism
            to violently transfer their dysfunctional anxiety and corporate guilt
                        onto an innocent third party.

The scandalous story of Herod, Herodias, Salome, and John
            becomes what the apostle Paul calls
            ‘the scandal of the cross of Christ’ (1 Cor 1.23).

And here I want us to pause for a moment
            and think about our own relationships.

I’m sure (I hope!) that none of us have achieved
            the scale of violently scandalous trangling
                        that Herod managed;
            maybe you need dictatorial levels of power for that.

But casting anxiety and guilt onto a third person
            and expecting them to bear the burden?
I think we’ve all done that.

So where, in our relationships, do we exclude
            or marginalise or disparage someone
in order to keep the peace with someone else?

Where do we find ourselves distancing from others
            to escape the tension of their anxiety?

We all do this.
            And the lesson of Herod is that it is always, ultimately, destructive.

So I wonder if we can hear some wisdom here
            to take a moment, take stock,
                        and make a resolution to be less reactive
            in the triangle relationships that we’re caught up in.

Can we find ways of staying more emotionally neutral
            in order to stay equally connected
            with each of the other two parties in the triangles that make up our lives?

Are we able to resist the temptation to scapegoat others,
            and to act instead as peacemakers who bring people together?

Can we be the calm presence in the midst of others’ anxiety?

This, I suggest, is part of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus.
            He doesn’t feature in the story of the death of John, except by allusion,
                        but if we look at how Jesus reacts in the earlier part of the chapter,
            we can see him modelling what we would probably now call
                        ‘the non-anxious presence’,
            and encouraging his disciples to do the same.

So when he sent out the twelve,
            two-by-two to go into the villages around Galilee
                        with authority over unclean spirits,
            they were sent with a kind of emotional non-engagement mantra.

Their mission was to do battle with the spirits of uncleanness
            that declared some to be ‘in’ and some to be ‘out’.
It was not, to use a modern phrase, to ‘feed the trolls’.

They were sent to declare as ‘clean’
            those whom the purity laws had declared unacceptable.
They were sent to undermine the very ideology
            that created and sustained destructive triangles
            of oppression, scapegoating, and isolation in their society.

But what they were not sent to do
            was to go round having massive arguments
            with people who didn’t agree with them.

If a place would not receive them or their message,
            they were simply to leave and move on.

I think that many of us who engage in social media
            would do well to hear this wisdom.
We can make our contribution with courage,
            declaring the truth, for example,
            that all are welcome in God’s kingdom of love;
but we are not go get sucked in
            by those who want to argue us into submission.

Many of you will have seen the video on YouTube from a couple of years ago now,
            of a same sex we held here at Bloomsbury.

You know the one, where the singer Sam Smith turned up
            and I didn’t know who he was….

Well, it’s had nearly 6 million views on YouTube,
            and it spent a week in the top 10 worldwide.

Just as an aside, I very much doubt Bloomsbury’s appearance
            on Songs of Praise next Sunday
            will have anything like this much impact,
                        but do set your recorders anyway!

That video was an example
            of this church casting out a spirit of uncleanness.

The evil spirit would say that LGBTQ+ people
            are not fully and equally welcome among God’s people,
but we say to that spirit that it is wrong
            and that we will not let it determine our behaviour or beliefs.

However, you only have to spend a few minutes
            reading the comments under the video on YouTube,
                        and there are thousands of them,
            to realise that not everyone can receive the message of inclusion and welcome
                        that we are proclaiming and enacting.

Honestly, I think I could have spent most of the last two years
            doing little else other than arguing online
with those who still cling to the unclean spirits
            of homophobia and exclusion,
and it would have taken all my energy and all my time.

So I don’t, and I haven’t.

I shake the dust off my feet and move on,
            because there are many others who need to hear the gospel of love
                        that Jesus has sent us to proclaim,
            and who will receive that message with gladness and joy.

Of course, it is the mission of the twelve to the villages of Galilee
            that triggers Herod first hearing about Jesus,
and in his fear and his guilt
            he at first thinks it is John the Baptist risen from the grave to haunt him.

And those of us who are obedient to the call of Jesus
            to proclaim his gospel of radical, scandalous inclusion,
and to cast out spirits of uncleanness wherever we find them,
            can also expect that we too will trigger opposition
                        from those powers in the world
                        that have a vested interest in resisting challenge.

Sometimes the opposition will be at the level of the popular crowd,
            making vile and anonymous comments on social media;
sometimes it will be at the level of structural authorities,
            as the powers-that-be close ranks to resist systemic change; and sometimes,
as Jesus discovered in his hometown,
            the resistance to the liberating gospel
            will take place among our family and our friends.

I may have mentioned this before,
            but I have a particular personal attachment
                        to the saying used by Jesus that,
                        ‘prophets are not without honour, except in their home town.’
            Rather peculiarly, this was my baptismal verse from when I was 14,
                        and I’ve taken the Latin Nemo Propheta in Patria
                        as my personal motto.
            If I ever get a coat of arms, it’ll be on there.

The thing is, the people who know us best,
            who’ve known us for years,
            who know all our faults and have long memories for them,
are the people who can find it most difficult to believe us
            when we tell them of God’s radical, scandalous, absolute love.

And let’s make no mistake - it is a scandal.

If Paul describes the cross as a scandal,
            and if Herod’s behaviour was scandalous,
here at the beginning of our chapter for today, in 6.3,
            Mark tells us that those in Jesus’ home town
            were scandalized by his words and deeds.

The phrase, ‘they took offence at him’
            uses the Greek word skandalizo,
            they were literally scandalized by him.

Robert Hammerton Kelly describes the scandal, or offence,
            that Jesus creates in his hometown
as being, ‘the love of what one hates, and the hatred of what one loves’,
            and in this tension between love and hatred
                        lies the pulsating heart
                        of envy, jealously, and incipient violence.

On the one hand they love Jesus, the local boy made good;
            but on the other hand they hate what he is doing and saying
                        as he unpicks and challenges all their deeply held assumptions
                                    about what’s right and what’s wrong,
                                    what’s clean and what’s unclean,
                                    who’s in and who’s out.

Unlike the woman in the crowd, who we met last week
            and whose step of faith opened the path to healing and inclusion,
those who have known Jesus since childhood
            end up closing ranks and closing their minds to his challenge.

This experience of Jesus, it seems to me,
            parallels the fear of every queer teenager
                        who has struggled to find the courage
            to be open with their parents, family and friends,
                        because they are scared that those who love them will also hate them.

This is the fear of every person who finds themselves put on the spot
            in what was once a welcoming place
                        but which has suddenly become a potentially hostile environment,
            choosing to speak out for truth and justice and inclusion
                        when they know they will receive indifference or condemnation
                        from those who had previously valued and loved them.

It’s often how I feel sometimes
            standing in the midst of by fellow Baptist ministers
                        at Association and Union gatherings.
The Baptist 'family' has been my family for many decades,
            and it can be tricky knowingthat some of my 'family' are deeply scandalised
            by both me and by the church I serve.

A prophet is not without honour, except in their home town.
            And this is the challenge I’d like to leave with us this morning.

For those of us who call Bloomsbury home,
            how can we ensure that we don’t miss, squash, or ignore
                        the prophetic voices that God still sends to us,
            to challenge us to take our faith journey further and deeper
                        into the scandalous love of God.

Who’s are the voices we ignore,
            because they do not come from where we expect,
            or because they say things we don’t want to hear?

I ask myself this question,
            because I am no longer the 14 year old with a message to proclaim
                        and a church not ready to hear it;
            I’m now the man at the front with a voice,
                        and a literal platform to stand on.

Last year, when we had our series on Inclusive Church,
            we made a point of inviting preachers
                        from each of the marginalised communities
                        to come and share with us from their experience.

This year, with Dawn on maternity leave,
            we’re getting a lot of ‘Simon’, which is fine,
but we need to make sure that as a congregation
            we remain open to hearing the voices from the margins,
from the young, from those who don’t normally get heard,
            because these are often where the prophetic challenge
                        to go deeper and more intentionally into God’s love will be heard.

Did you know that this year, on the Sundays when I’m away, with one exception,
            we are making a point of inviting preachers who are not
            white, straight, cis-gendered men.

And that is an important start!

But I wonder if we can do more, in our friendships, in our house groups,
            in the books we read, in the ways we are with each other,
to ensure that we don’t miss
            the scandalous voices of the marginalised prophets.

The danger will be that we triangle against them,
            conspiring to alleviate the anxiety they cause us
                        by scapegoating them into silence.

Whereas the path Christ call us to is the risky, difficult way,
            of intentionally listening to those voices
                        which make us most uncomfortable,
            because they challenge our preconceptions.

And the scandal, here,
            is that it is in these very voices
                        that we are most likely to encounter grace,
            and healing, and the path to becoming more like Christ.

So let’s listen carefully,
            and let’s listen well.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Looking forward to listening also to the preachers when you are away and learning from them.