The Naked Emperor and the Foolishness of the Cross

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There is a single light in the room, twin giraffes holding up the bulb beneath the shade. My daughters are in bed, their heads appearing from beneath the covers. I sit in an easy chair in the corner and read: “Many years ago, there was an Emperor who was so very fond of new clothes…” It is a classic tell, captured and known to us through Hans Christian Anderson; the story of an Emperor who is taken in by con-artists who weave a cloth they say is visible only to the intelligent and worthy. No one can see the cloth, of course, because there is none to see, but no one will admit it because they buy the lie. Eventually the emperor goes parading naked through the streets followed by his royal court holding the train of his invisible and non-existent new clothes. But no one in the city will admit that they do not see the clothes until a child, innocent and free of pride, exclaims: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” And in that exclamation the spell is broken as the people begin to say “listen to the voice of the child!” The Emperor just keeps going, walking on in his underwear.

My daughters fall asleep in the dark, but I stay up thinking. There is something in this story that reminds me of the gospel, of Herod and his drunken execution of a righteous prophet, of the way powers of any kind seem to lure us in so that we accept their lie without waking up to the truth. The Gospel today has a far darker tinge than Hans Christian Anderson’s satirical tale, but in this story of the death of John the Baptist we see a similar unmasking of power and its illusions.

Once upon a time there was a king named Herod, who wanted power more than anything else. He wanted to use it, to be able to control the means of life in his small state. He didn’t care, exactly where this power came from. He was glad to be a front for the pagans in Rome as long as he enjoyed–wealth, armies, authority, and lavish parties. But then a man named John began to call on him to repent, to change and return to the ways of Torah–something that would mean he would lose his power. Herod wanted to quiet John, and so he did what most kings do, he locked John up, safely off the streets.

Then one night all the the whos who of the kingdom gathered at the palace for a gala. The wine flowed, Soirée photographers snapped pictures, and Herod’s step daughter performed in their midst. She was talented and beautiful, and Herod, showing off before the guests, offered her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. He was like a gambler who goes all in, not because his hand is good, but because he’s so rich he can lose it all.

Then comes the twist. His step daughter doesn’t want money or land; she asks for the head of John the Baptizer. Land and money would be easy, but killing John worried Herod. John could be a real prophet and even Herod knew that killing a prophet might have consequences, from God perhaps, but almost certainly in the streets. But the chips are down, he can’t go back. So he goes on with the promise, like the king who continues his parade after everyone has realized he’s fallen for a con.

It’s a good story, but why does Mark tell it?

An answer begins to form when we go back to last week’s Gospel, which is really where this section of Mark’s Gospel begins. There the twelve are sent out to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom. They heal people, they cast out the anti-human realities we call demons, they live in the power and grace of God without any recourse to money or an extra change of clothes. They are dependent, relying only on God and their neighbor, and yet they are also radically independent from the structures and forces that managed and controlled life in their day–the State, the Economy, and the Temple. In their mission they begin to get a feel for the power of powerlessness, the strength that comes from living in the flow of God’s will.

And then, in the middle of all this, we come to this story of John and Herod–an illustration of what the alternatives look like. Herod represents all of the corruption and fickle machinations of the power of this world, the power that is behind every kingdom, or government, or institution that lays claims to the means of life for possession and control. It doesn’t matter here if possession and control are for good ends or ill. All earthly powers, in the Gospel’s understanding, are like Herod’s power–willing to sacrifice or undermine the righteous to maintain their continued legitimacy.

The lesson of discipleship, on the other hand, asks us to follow Jesus who did not come to take control of the institutions of power and turn them toward good ends, but rather to renounce earthly power so that God’s reign might break in. That is why John’s death is in the midst of this story of mission–it is here as a contrast to the reign of God and the beginning of the victory that will come when Jesus also suffers death at the hands of the leading institutions of his day, the Temple and the State.

The work of the disciple in the face of earthly power is to reject it as Jesus rejected it, which means at times, that the disciple must suffer at the hands of earthly power. As the priest and social critic Ivan Illich put it, “The rejection of power…[by] Jesus troubles the world of power, because he totally submits to it without ever being part of it.” When we free ourselves from the tangle of worldly power we become like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, who saves his neighbors from their illusions by innocently telling the truth.

It was the foolishness of the powerful and those who bought into the illusions of the powerful that led to the emperor’s naked parade through the streets. This is a reality that shows up in fascism in all its forms, not only authoritarian governments, but also the fascism of our hearts. As the philosopher Michel Foucault put it, “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” This is the force of Herod and it is the force that echoes in every effort to manage the means of life through the powers and authorities of the world.

Our liberation from this desire, this fascism of our hearts, can only come through the renunciation of power that is exemplified in the foolishness of the cross. Herod had his chance; John and Jesus called on him to repent; but he knew that that turning would mean the end of his power, as illusory as it was. But where hope may be lost for Herod, there is still hope for the people who hear the call of the child who knows no pride, who tells the truth in powerless innocence. And here we find the vocation of the disciple.

Reflecting on Anderson’s folk-tale, the Cistercian contemplative Thomas Merton wrote in his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”:
Have you and I forgotten that our vocation, as innocent bystanders–and the very condition of our terrible innocence–is to do what the child did, and keep on saying the king is naked, at the cost of being condemned criminals?…If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen, or criminals. It was the child’s cry that saved them.

The message of Mark is that we disciples cannot save ourselves from being condemned as criminals for our ancestors in the faith were certainly condemned as such. Instead, by keeping to our vocation of powerlessness and dependence upon God–no money and no bag–we have the chance to help save a neighbor from pride and the illusions of power that captivate us. As disciples who live in dependence upon God we can maintain the innocence to look at all of the institutions and authorities and powers of the world and say like the child: “the Emperor is naked.” Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield