Thought for the Day - 29/08/2014 - Rt Rev Graham James

Good morning. The Christian calendar commemorates the Beheading of John the Baptist today. It’s rather neglected in many churches but the shocking execution of James Foley gives it a chilling relevance this year. What happened to him recalls similar atrocities. The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded twelve years ago in Pakistan. Next month it will be ten years since Ken Bigley, the British civil engineer, was decapitated in Iraq. The memory of Drummer Lee Rigby is fresher in our minds. Earlier this week a mass protest in a Brazilian jail involved prisoners beheading two other inmates. They were supposed to be protesting against prison conditions. It wasn’t a crazed religious ideology which drove their basest instincts but gang rivalry.

John the Baptist wasn’t a journalist in a war zone but he was in prison when he was murdered. He was a prophet in an occupied country with a puppet king called Herod. John was popular among ordinary people. He may have asked them to change their ways and repent but he also denounced Herod’s immorality, especially his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodias. So he had enemies in the royal household. When Salome, Herod’s young step-daughter performed her beguiling dance and the dazzled king offered her an extravagant reward her mother took her chance. John the Baptist’s head on a platter, please. That would put an end to him and the people would be cowed into submission.

All executions are an exercise of ultimate and total power over another person. Until relatively recently many nations and governments, including our own, believed they had the authority to take human life. Yet in the past fifty years there has been enormous progress towards the abolition of capital punishment in our world. We hear so many reports of increasing human cruelty that I believe we should celebrate this sign of our greater humanity. Just twenty-two nations engaged in the judicial execution of their citizens last year. Too many still, I think, and it seems no accident that capital punishment has been enthusiastically pursued – and sometimes in public – in some of the very countries where extra-judicial atrocities have been most commonplace. This convinces me to support more fervently the continuing campaign for abolition and especially public executions.

Even so, the commemoration of John the Baptist today highlights the truth that things don’t often turn out as tyrants or murderers think. Herod, Herodias and Salome are bit-part players in history. They’re insignificant when compared to the influence of John the Baptist. You can execute people but you cannot behead ideas, beliefs or even a call to repentance ringing down the centuries.

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