Prisoners of Conscience on St John the Baptist’s Day

I always had a good appetite as a child, getting stuck into seconds and more whenever I had the chance. My mother, observing this, would often remark, “Son, you’d eat the head of John the Baptist.”

John the Baptist’s messy end is one of the best known of Bible stories. Like most Gospel stories, it is a short narrative and doesn’t go in for detailed descriptions of personalities and motives. As so often, much of the popular memory of the story doesn’t come from Scripture at all.

Oscar Wilde’s grotesquely brilliant play Salomé, later turned into the first true 20th Century opera by Richard Strauss and then into a Holywood epic by Columbia Pictures, has added much to the popular perception of John the Baptist’s death, even among those who have never seen any. Scripture does not record the nymphomaniac, borderline necrophiliac, Salomé of Wilde, Strauss, and Rita Heyworth, but instead a girl very much under the thumb of a ruthless mother with a personal grudge against John because of his uncompromising sexual moralism.

John, already a prisoner and in all likelihood an abused one, was easy meat for Salomé’s mother, the spiteful Herodias. Sometime before his death, Herod, Salomé’s uncle, had the Prophet thrown in prison because he pointed out that it would be sinful for the King to have sex with his sister-in-law, Herodias. When the opportunity came, she had John taken from his cell and executed, using a promise made by Herod to Salomé to pressure the King to overcome his misgivings on the matter.

John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, also stands as the forerunner of a long Christian tradition of speaking truth to power and, at times, paying for that with death.

That tradition has not come to an end. Two obvious recent bearers of the tradition are Janiani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda murdered by Idi Amin in 1977, and Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador murdered by a hard-right death squad as he celebrated Mass in his cathedral 3 years later.

Prisoners of Conscience Window, Salisbury Cathedral

Prisoners of Conscience Window, Salisbury Cathedral

There is something particularly poignant about taking part in the Mass for John’s feast in Salisbury Cathedral, whose East End is dominated by the Prisoners of Conscience Window. What, from any distance, seems to be an abstract, if attractive, collage of colours is revealed on close and patient examination to contain numerous depictions of human heads. Some represent prisoners of conscience, past present and future, while the central panels contain scenes from the trial and crucifixion of Christ.

Every morning, the faithful group of Christians who gather in the Trinity Chapel, immediately under the window, at 7.30 to pray and celebrate the Eucharist together, remember in prayer Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience for the month.

Occasionally I’m asked why, as a Christian, I “obey the rules of bronze age tribes”. On one level of course, that’s quite an inaccurate understanding of what Scripture is (it’s not a rulebook!) and what it contains. But one reason why we read the Scriptures is that we are not as distant from the Bronze Age as we might like to think. Morally, in particular, we delude ourselves about our ‘advancement’ as a civilisation and as a species. The same patterns of human behaviour, of selfishness and self-sacrifice, courage and callousness, repeat endlessly: among the Bronze Age petty hill fiefdoms that would later develop into “the Hebrew people”; in the teeming provincial cities of the Roman Empire; and in our own era of globalised money and information.

Speaking truth to power can be as deadly today as it was for John the Baptist. Nor are all who follow in the Baptist’s footsteps Christians, any more than John was himself. Just this week, for example, al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to 7 years in prison on charges that don’t hold water after a trial that verged on the farcical. Amnesty International’s list of Prisoners of Conscience are scattered across the lengthy gazetteer of countries of our early 21st Century world, from Bahrain to Vietnam.

We pray that St John the Baptist, patron saint of converts and the conscience that provokes them, might stand with them. And hopefully we do something practical as well.

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