By Iman Maleki, Morteza Katouzian, ca. 1910
Many stories in the Bible are disturbing, like the beheading of John the Baptist. The story goes like this: Herod imprisoned John, but Herod’s wife, Herodias, would rather see John dead. That is because John has the nerve to tell Herod the truth—his marriage is wrong, because not only is Herodias his wife, she was also his sister-in-law.
Herod throws a party, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome, is asked to dance for him and the guests. Herod is well-pleased with her dance and offers her anything she wants. Herodias tells her daughter to ask for John’s head, so she does—and Herod must oblige or look the fool in front of all his “friends.” A gruesome tale indeed (and we know it is true because it is recorded in other historical writings outside the Bible).
In this beautiful painting, the artist seems more concerned with the dance than the beheading, which reminds us that Salome had nothing to do with her mother’s vendetta against John—she’s just been asked to dance. She’s doing what she’s been told—and in the midst of it, is used by people of power.
This painting by Italian artist Andrea Solario (ca. 1507-09) shows the gruesome side of the story. We are struck by the contrast of Salome’s idealized beauty and jewels next to the horrific head of Saint John, held up by the arm of the executioner. There is not a hint of triumph in her gaze. I would say she hates what has happened (who wouldn’t?). She hates how this has played out. She hates having been a part of it and maybe even hates herself a bit—why didn’t she just say no?
As I ponder this awful story, I am reminded of the courage it takes to speak truth to power. John did it and it cost him his life—just as it has for many people throughout history (Dieterich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples). One blogger wrote: “Speaking truth to power means believing deeply in what you say and fighting every day to have that heard. It may not be popular; it means taking a risk; it means standing for something.”
Being Human connection: May we, as God’s people, have the courage to speak truth to power when we see injustice, corruption, discrimination, oppression, and inequity. It’s not easy. It takes courage. But what happens if we don’t?