I didn’t watch the video. The news was sickening enough of the latest atrocity by ISIS. Why the title, then? Glorious beheading? Because the executioner, no doubt, is being celebrated in many quarters today. He is seen as a glorious man. He sees himself this way. Let me explain.
In the ancient world, what constituted manhood and glory was very different from our world. Thomas Cahill, in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, says:
“Where modern historians count the casualties and detect cruelty and inhumanity, the ancients saw only glory. Public action – that is, by war and conquest – was the most dangerous and, in consequence, the most noble of all human endeavors.” Using Alexander as an example, Cahill continued, “If Plato was the measure of all subsequent philosophy and Phidias of all attempts to carve a man in marble, Alexander was, therefore, ‘the Great,’ the greatest man who had ever lived … the measure of man himself.”
Alexander was the man who, upon taking command of his deceased father’s armies, slaughtered the inhabitants of Thebes, pulled down the city, and enslaved any survivors because they did not want him to reign over them. I’m sure many people were beheaded. It was a glorious endeavor for Alexander – although, of course the Thebans would not have agreed. Then, after settling this “dispute” about who was in charge, he set out to conquer the world because … well … that is what real men do.
It is this type of thinking that controlled the executioner – visions of nobility and glory. It is this type of thinking that pervades ISIS. It is a holdover from the ancient world and wedded to Islam, which, according to its founder, has as its goal the forcible takeover over the world by the sword if people will not submit, which, by the way, is what the word “Islam” means. Islam is ancient thinking.
This is what makes the message of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom, so remarkable. In a world entrenched with a wrong vision of manhood and glory, even among his own people, Jesus pointed to a new destiny and walked a new path. It undercut, completely, the dominant worldview and vision of every nation in his day, including his own. Predictably, both Roman and Jewish rulers did not like his message and executed their worldview against Jesus, literally, by nailing him to a cross. So much for humility, so much for servanthood, so much for mercy, so much for going the extra mile and praying for those who oppress you. Jesus’ new vision of glory and manhood was obliterated … until the third day when God raised him and enthroned him at his right hand as the true Lord of heaven and earth.
The way of thinking that led to the beheading of James Foley will be with us until the better idea of manhood and glory takes hold deep within the hearts of people and nations. It must change underlying worldviews and ideas of destiny and glory. Cahill concluded that the wrong way of thinking continues “to infect the brains of all those who take up weapons of destruction in what they believe to be a noble cause. Indeed, down the whole course of history, the invincible warrior with raised sword has been the archetypal hero of the human race.”
The world needs a new kind of hero and a better idea. That “better idea” we call The Gospel of the Kingdom. And it is more than an idea. It is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, the true Lord of heaven and earth. This is the message we are supposed to preach. This is what the early church preached. They proclaimed that Jesus was Lord which meant that Caesar was not Lord. That’s why they got into trouble with the authorities. You can check it out in Acts 17:5-8. Our message is primarily not a wimpy message of “pray this prayer so you can be sure of going to heaven when you die.” If that is all the early church preached they would never have been persecuted. Although that point is true, it falls far short of the historic Gospel.
Our message is that there is a true Lord of heaven and earth who has come to reign over all. He summons the nations to obey him, to follow his path, and to seek true glory and true humanity. It is the message ISIS needs to hear, the entire Arab world needs to hear, and for that matter, the message every nation needs to hear for all are still infected – to varying degrees – by the disease of wrong ideas of glory and manhood.
The only way to change deeply entrenched ideas is with stronger, more powerful, more imaginative, more compelling ideas. The Gospel of the Kingdom provides this, the Gospel that points to the one who lived it and who overcame all adversity, the Gospel that proclaims Jesus is Lord of all.