When Lewis Carroll wrote “Alice in Wonderland,” he knew nothing about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But he knew about the insanity of power in the high places of his own culture.
As portrayed in the Disney film, the Queen of Hearts asks: “Who’s been painting my roses red? Who’s been painting my roses red? / Who dares to taint / With vulgar paint / The royal flower bed? / For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.”
The Card Painter responds: “Oh no, Your Majesty, please! It’s all ‘his’ fault!” The Ace blames the Deuce. The Deuce blames the three. The Queen explodes.
“That’s enough! Off with their heads! I warn you, child … if I lose my temper, you lose your head! Understand?”
The very thought of beheadings chills us to the bone. It would be hard to imagine a more horrifying spectacle than what we have recently seen of American journalists losing their heads in the Middle East. The fact that British and American citizens have joined ISIL is nearly as chilling as the killings themselves; we ask why one of us would dare “to taint with vulgar paint the royal flower bed.”
There is no excuse for a beheading. It makes no difference if it’s at the hands of ISIL or David, as in the beheading of Goliath the giant Philistine, or those who sought to demonstrate their zealous support for David, sneaking into the bedroom of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, beheading Ish-bosheth and presenting his head to David at Hebron (2 Samuel 4:9-13).
To their great surprise, David, who had beheaded Goliath, is not pleased. “ ‘[W]hen wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?’ And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.”
We don’t hear readings like this in church. But you will hear such scriptures read daily in a Benedictine abbey, as I did while visiting St. John’s Abbey to get my own head and heart straight in anticipation of the death of my stepdaughter. The reading I’m remembering was just as ghastly as the beheadings of Goliath and Ish-bosheth and of David’s response cutting off the killers’ hands and feet on the public square for all to see.
“Why,” I asked my Benedictine spiritual guide, “do you read those readings? They’re horrible!”
The answer, he said, would take too long to really explain, but, in essence, such stories are lifted up in the Benedictine daily worship because that sordid history — that capacity for violence and brutality is a part of us still. We must never forget.
The pictures and stories of the ISIL beheadings are meant to terrorize the group’s opposition in places like Iraq and Syria, and here in the United States. But there is evidence that they also produce a widespread determination to stop ISIL before it’s too late.
“That’s enough! Off with their heads! I warn you, ISIL … if I lose my temper, you lose your head! Understand?”
Moral outrage is in order. Yet a friend asked a question I didn’t want to hear and could not answer. “As grizzly as the beheadings are,” he asked, “what’s the difference between that and blowing people’s heads off — enemies and children who are ‘collateral damage’ — with bombs dropped by a drone?”
President Obama has his hands full on this one. Some argue that he’s been too cautious. But before we go much farther down the road of exercising American power in ways that have produced hatred in the past and that will undercut whatever consensus of moral outrage is developing toward ISIL, we do well to remember the brutal response of David, whose cruelty at Hebron equaled or surpassed the wrongful beheading of Ish-bosheth.
Like the Benedictine brother said, we must not forget our history. Otherwise we paint the roses red, and we all lose our heads.
The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He blogs at Views from the Edge, where this article first appeared.