A Reflection on King Herod after the Breach of the U.S. Capitol Building
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | January 7, 2021Twice this week we’ve heard the story of the Wise Men from the east traveling to visit the Christ child. The Wise Men observe a peculiar star at its rising, and this new light sets them on a journey to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
I’ve been reflecting on this story all week, mostly from the perspective of these Magi. The shining of the star in the night; a finite journey through the desert; the relief of unburdening ourselves at the feet of our Savior; how despite the gloom, a pinpoint of hope lights our way. After the events at our nation’s Capitol building on Wednesday, however, I am confronted with the reality that I’ve tried to sneak by the darker side of the Magi narrative. The drama turns on the figure of King Herod.
In Jerusalem, King Herod receives word of the Magi’s quest for the child who has been born King of the Jews and is immediately afraid (Matthew 2:3). A large part of Jerusalem is afraid with him. He hatches a plot, trying to trick the Magi into divulging to him the location of this new King (2:7-8). What is only implied at this point is that Herod has no intention of paying homage to the Christ child, but intends to eliminate him as a potential rival. This becomes gruesomely clear when Herod, having been tricked by the Magi, flies into a fury and has all the children in Bethlehem killed who were born around the same time as Jesus (2:16). Herod wants to be sure there’s no chance of his losing what little power he has.
From the perspective of the Magi, this Epiphany reading is one of journey, of seeking and finding, of entering into a world illuminated by a new light. There are dangers on the journey, to be sure, but they are peripheral to the journey itself. The dangers are things to be overcome or avoided so as to focus on what is most important.
King Herod and his courtiers, however, experience these same events as a direct existential threat. If the King of the Jews really has been born in Bethlehem, as the Wise Men say, then clearly Herod’s own kingship is at risk. His anxiety turns to fear, his fear to paranoia. His actions are duplicitous. He increasingly sees the world as falling into two categories: pro-Herod and anti-Herod, so much so that he resorts to killing children.
Whenever we read a story about a really bad guy like Herod, we tend to focus on the specifics of their horrific actions. Tyrants executing people, imprisoning rivals, sending their most dead-eyed goons to Bethlehem to do the unthinkable. We are rightly appalled by their actions, but our fixation on their actions frequently gives us an artificial distance from the characters in question. We would never do that. Our communities would never stand for that. That could never happen here.
More often than not, we are blessedly right about the actions in question, but we mistakenly accept this as evidence that we have nothing in common with the souls of the characters we read about. “Those men (it is usually men) do not exist today,” we say, “at least not here.” Or, “surely a psyche like Herod’s could never wield any real influence, surely not here!”
After this week’s events, it would be more accurate to say that, while societies like ours have made progress in limiting the scope of the damage that a paranoid or narcissistic Herodian can cause, we still very much revere, follow, and empower characters like these. There’s no point in being coy: President Trump has revealed himself to be one such Herodian.
The distinguishing characteristic of Herodianism is a combination of idolatry and cowardice. At its most basic, idolatry is attaching our devotion to that which is not God. In the biblical world, this was easily seen because idolatry usually involved literal idols. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, says idols are worked from wood by an axe and bedecked with gold, but have no power for evil or good, for there is none like the LORD (10:3-5).
The essential mistake of idolatry, then, is attaching our hopes and desires for our Creator onto a creaturely object: a silver statue, a golden image, a Caesar. Idolatry is confusing that which is lesser for that which is greater. This definition is helpful in our own day, when we tend not to have literal idols that are objects of religious devotion. It also helps us see what is going on with Herod of Jerusalem, where idols were verboten, and what’s been happening in our country.
If idolatry manifests as confusing a lesser good for a greater good, then we see Herod confusing the greater good of Israel’s rightful kingship with his own ability to sit on the throne. There is no honest investigation or curiosity on Herod’s part. He goes straight from hearing about the birth of Israel’s King to fear, duplicity, paranoia, violence. The reaction is automatic and instinctive; it admits of no possibility beyond that preordained by his ego needs. “What could be greater than my continued kingship?” This is a rhetorical question for Herod.
The parallel to President Trump’s recent "we will never concede" speech, which came after numerous election recounts and court hearings, is obvious. On Wednesday, an extreme minority of our country (and a minority within Mr. Trump’s base of supporters, at that) adopted and enacted this idolatry with President Trump as their chosen object. The greater good of a legitimate democratic election—the very thing which brought Mr. Trump into the White House—was eclipsed by the lesser good of having their chosen standard bearer remain in power.
It is worth noting that it is in the nature of greater goods that they can be shared by a greater number of people than lesser goods. Everyone can share in a legitimate election; far fewer can share in whatever goods were perceived in a forced takeover of the Capitol building. To return to our scripture narrative, it is worth wondering what would have happened if Herod himself had journeyed with the Magi to visit the Christ child. How happy would Herod have become? How much more at peace? How much better at offering his gifts for the betterment of all?
The cowardly aspect of Herodianism is perhaps less obvious. Cowardice is a lack of courage, the virtue which enables us to endure or persevere through that which is dangerous or distressing. When we think about courage, we usually think about soldiers defending our country, or of police officers entering into harm’s way to enforce the law. Rightfully so: battle is dangerous, as is confronting violent criminals. Without courage, the dangers of these situations would send one running for the hills.
The virtue of courage manifests in other ways, too. The very refusal to fight can itself be a kind of courage: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:53-54). The greater good is Christ’s conformity to His Father’s will; the lesser good would be fighting for His survival in the face of utterly unjust persecution. It requires courage, then, to pass through adversity without resorting to idolatry.
Herod lacks this courage. Again, he pursues no honest inquiry; no openness to the possibility that this new King could be the real deal, let alone that the Christ could be good news for him, too; no imagination for a world without Herod himself in the center. The birth of Jesus brings too much discomfort, too much change, too much surrender. Herod lacks the courage to endure these and resorts to sheer force.
Again, the parallels are obvious. President Trump lacks the courage to endure the discomfort of loss, to persevere through the change rapidly approaching in his life, to surrender his position at the top of the free world. He sees no options but a kind of battle, so he created one and abused the trust our fellow citizens at the Capitol had given him in order to do it. Let’s be clear: this isn’t choosing battle as the wrong response to an actual injustice. There was no injustice here. This was a takeover of the Capitol after having participated freely in a legitimate election alongside everyone else.
I, like you, am weary of so much. Throughout our myriad national struggles, I have tried to speak from an intelligibly Christian point of view. This has included my trying to address incidents of racial violence, the immediate violent backlash of protests against that violence, the struggle in which so many of our police officers find themselves, and the bitterness around our recent election—all that since May. In recent years I have also been directly critical of President Trump's leadership when I thought it acutely warranted.
In all that I have said and written about what we as a country have done and suffered, I have tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to focus on events, issues, speeches, or what a given text of scripture might demand. I have tried to avoid focusing on persons. The reality, however, is that our single biggest stumbling block at the Capitol, the Herodian in this narrative, is exactly that: a person, and what we most desperately need is that person’s public remorse and repentance. It was President Trump who gathered the crowd; it was he who egged them on; it was he who turned on his own Vice President for refusing to act unconstitutionally; it was the Trump name on the flags they carried into the Capitol; and it was his actions that allowed the Confederate flag into the halls of Congress this week.
As I am writing this, there have been various condemnations of the President, of the crowd who stormed the Capitol, and even some calls for the President’s removal from office. Many of these are from prominent Democrats, too many of whom are themselves Herodians and are rightly open to charges of mere partisanship. Thankfully, after Wednesday, many calling for a peaceful transition of power, and an end to ludicrous theatrics, are Republicans and the President’s onetime allies.
In an environment like this, cries of treason abound. Remove him from power, send him to jail, lock them all up. When I am able to resist my own small-mindedness, what I honestly want for President Trump, and for us, is his repentance. God knows, he is not our only Herodian. Nor is repentance something that he needs to do but that I and the rest of us somehow don’t need to do. The Christian life is nothing without repentance; repentance is the name of our road home. President Trump is simply the one with the most power, the one who raised the stakes almost to the breaking point this week, the one whose repentance in all this would have the most far-reaching effects for our common good. What is there left to us now, but repentance?
God came to us in the flesh of a particular man who lived a particular life; thus, so too must our discipleship walk a particular path—with repentance for particular sins. When the princes of the earth repent of princely sins, the wide and visible road home which they walk becomes a highway the rest of us can share. Their repentance gathers us in its homeward motion, freeing us from our constant emotional and ideological wars. We become traveling companions. We begin to heal.
Remember: it is in the nature of a greater good to be enjoyed by a greater number of people, and that God in Jesus Christ is our greatest good. The Wise Men find him, yes, as do countless poor Galileans, fishermen, demon-beset sufferers, women of ill repute, corrupt tax collectors, adulterers, even violent thieves hanging on their own crosses. There is a place for the Herodians of the world with Him, too, if they—perhaps we—have the courage not to settle for anything less than the vision of God, knowing full well that it will cost us all our crowns.
Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace.
 See the Collect for the Holy Innocents on page 238 of the BCP. Holy Innocents is a little observed holy day on December 28.
 The parallel stops with the mere fact that both Herod and President Trump are being replaced by legitimate powers. In case it needs saying: the natures of those legitimate powers are in no way identical.
 Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois has called for the removal of President Trump from office by invocation of the 25th Amendment. Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming has said there is no question that President Trump both formed and incited the mob that stormed the Capitol, and that this is an abuse of the trust his supporters have placed in him. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said “enough is enough” and repeatedly affirmed the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, calling attention to the fact that all legal challenges to the election have either failed or been dismissed outright, including by judges appointed by President Trump himself. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence both condemned the disruption to the Electoral College count, Leader McConnell going so far as to call it “insurrection.”