The world of John the Baptist was so different to ours, but there is a lot to relate to. In his day, the oppressed masses longed for a political leader that could finally deliver them from the hands of foreign armies patrolling their streets. There were invasions, riots and failed revolutions. The people rose up. And they were put down brutally again and again. Sound familiar?
Though John was seen as a political leader by some of his followers, he didn’t see himself that way. He spoke about another revolutionary who would take his place. But as John knew, that revolutionary, Jesus, would overthrow something much more powerful than the Romans. He would overthrow death itself.
As the dawn chorus of trading breaks out around me, I could almost forget that I walk through a stolen city. The white walls above us have been here for centuries, standing watch over streets filled with the descendants of those who built them. It is early, but already the temple, that earthly outpost of an absent God, is wide awake with worship.
But when I stop and listen, I hear, amidst the frenzied buying and selling and the whispers of gossip, the foreign words that have colonised our language. It is then that I remember what my country has been through.
A moment later, two guards arrive, on patrol in a city that is not their own. They cut through the square and the murmur continues almost unabated. They leave, and traders take their place in the crowd.
It has been decades, generations perhaps, since the first battalions arrived. Now they are omnipresent, and we live imprisoned lives. The invaders think they have taught us our place. Like the seedlings that sprout in the ashes of a burnt-out forest, we are finding new life in the face of destruction.
Resistance comes in cycles. It does in any place that has been occupied for over a lifetime. Time tames the radicals. The leaders give up. The angry give in. Then the people, shepherd-less, busy themselves with living. Until they realise that life is more than just living. Then the old outrage returns. Riots soon follow until the executions put an end to hope.
The cycle is starting again.
Moments after the guards leave the square, a man climbs up steps of the temple. He turns to the marketplace and points at the mansion opposite.
“Remember our ways! Remember our traditions! Remember the tyrant! And remember the martyr!”
I saw this martyr once. He was unhinged. He stretched out his scabby hands – they say he lived off wild honey- and yelled at the passing crowd: “The Kingdom of God is near!”
I saw them disappear into river, their heads bobbing up and down as he pushed them under the water. The new ritual reminded me of the way we wash before we enter the temple, scrubbing off the impurities that separate us from the sacred. No wonder the priests went to see him. Not that they stayed for very long.
But as for the people, they stayed. And they believed him.
I don’t know why. The Kingdom of God! After all this time? Even the religious leaders have reluctantly acknowledged that God has been a little…distant since the invasion. Invasions, I should say. None of my fellow citizens love this country as much as foreign soldiers do.
The Iranians, the Iraqis, the Syrians, even the Greeks… Every arrogant country with delusions of empire has graciously taken us under its wings.
The Kingdom of God has never seemed so far away. We don’t even have a king.
And to that rallying cry of nostalgia, that longing for the glory days of our broken country, the martyr added one more word.
Or turn away, as he sometimes put it. But turn away from what? From the ways of the foreigners, I assume. But, then again, he certainly wasn’t on the side of religious fanatics who still live by our ancestors’ rules. In fact, he seemed to hate them more than anyone. I could never really work out who he was for.
Himself, I imagine. They usually are.
They say he appointed a successor. “He who comes after me will be more powerful than me.”
Not that hard really- he was only a ragged nomad, after all.
And who did he appoint as his great and magnificent successor? Another man without power or money. His cousin, they say.
By all accounts, when they met, the skies tore themselves open and a dove fluttered down from heaven. I almost forgot the voice- “this is my Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” They claim it was God, chatting casually about the man who would undoubtedly fulfil some ancient prophesy.
Too much wild honey, if you know what I mean.
These bouts of religious or nationalist fervour never last. The powerful always win.
History, as the old cliché goes, is written by the victors, and they will write out this Jesus, just as they wrote out John.