Playing to the polls

Image by chayka1270 from Pixabay

Here it comes. A season that is all too often more sound bite than substance, a season of mudslinging and innuendo. Regardless of your affiliation, there are times you have to cringe at the campaign spectacle.

And through it all, the pollsters and their numbers rule. Tack left in the blue states. Now tack right in the red states. If you’re not sure, tack to the center. Follow the vote.

Such is politics in a media-dominated age. It can be an ugly business.

But just to keep things in perspective: it’s not as ugly as it was in the Roman Empire.

Remember the idyllic portrait of the first post-Pentecost believers in Jerusalem? They had all things in common, ate together with glad hearts, and had “the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:47, NRSV).

Ah, the good old days.

Ten chapters later, the goodwill had largely evaporated: 

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. (Acts 12:1-4, NRSV)

This is not, of course, Herod the Great, the villain of the Christmas story who died after Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt. This is Herod Agrippa I, his grandson (the “King Agrippa” we’ll meet in Acts 25 is Agrippa II, his son).

The Herodian dynasty was filled with ruthless politicians, Herod the Great chief among them. He killed anyone he perceived as a serious rival to the throne, even family. He killed all the boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem, just to make sure he had eliminated the one who was born king of the Jews.

And like grandfather, like grandson.  

The followers of Jesus worshiped him as Christ, Messiah — the anointed king of the Jews. That was intrinsically problematic for Agrippa, a man who held the royal title only by the favor of Rome.

By the time of Agrippa’s short reign, however, popular opinion had shifted against the Christian movement. There had already been a persecution against Hellenistic Jewish believers which had left the apostles themselves untouched. But then Peter broke custom by consorting with Cornelius; moreover, a Gentile church had been planted in Antioch.

A movement among Jews that embraced Gentiles??? It’s clear that there were hard-liners in Jerusalem, even among the Christians. One can imagine, then, what was being said among those who didn’t believe in Jesus.

The climate was right for Agrippa to act.

With some political savvy, he started with James, the son of Zebedee, rather than going for the more widely recognized Peter. He had James killed with the sword, marking it as a state execution.

Then he checked his poll numbers.

Ooh, that’s polling well

Thus emboldened, Agrippa went after Peter. If it hadn’t been the Passover, he might have executed Peter immediately. But again, this was a man of Herodian cunning. Better to wait until after Passover, then make a spectacle of Peter in front of the crowd!

Smart move. But as we’ll see, he never got the chance.