MAKING DECISIONS UNDER PRESSURE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [HEB 13:1-8; PS 27:1,3,5,8-9; MARK 6:14-29 ]
As leaders particularly, we are often pressured to take a position, make a statement or execute a decision on matters pertaining to our organization. Some decisions are difficult because often they have to be made quickly and decisively. When time is not on our side and there is coercion all round, it is difficult for leaders to remain cool, detached and sober in their decision-making. This was the case for King Herod in today’s gospel. Even as individuals, making a conscientious decision is fraught with struggles and dilemma, especially when it involves a moral issue. We do not know whether we should report to the authorities or just pretend that we are not aware. Yet our conscience strikes us and we feel uneasy both ways. To blow the whistle might cause us our livelihood. Not to do so means that we are allowing evil and injustice to triumph.
What are the pressures that impact us when making decisions? Firstly, pressure can come from morality. When a decision concerns a question of justice and right and propriety, we feel pressured to take a stand. Such issues could include human rights, right relationships towards our fellowmen, the dignity of life from birth to death. Herod was faced with the moral issue of taking his brother, Philip’s wife. John the Baptist reprimanded him, saying, “It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herod knew it was morally not the right thing to do but he succumbed under temptation. So moral pressure would affect the way we make a decision. Our conscience will prick us and unsettle us.
Secondly, pressure can come from the dimension of faith. This was particularly so for Herod, because in his conscience he knew that John the Baptist was speaking the truth which comes from God. “Herod was afraid of John, knowing him to be a good and holy man, and gave him his protection. When he had heard him speak he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” Herod knew that he was disobeying the commandments of the Lord. Indeed, many of us in truth know the right thing to do but we lack the will and we lack courage to do the right thing. We postpone, hoping that the situation will pass us by. We do not want to confront the pain either in ceasing the wrongs we are doing or in making decisions that will affect our interests. Yet, in making judgment, whether we like it or not, our faith will determine the values we have and the way we look at moral issues. This explains why some cannot accept our interpretation of moral laws, whether with regard to abortion, euthanasia, human embryos, same sex union, divorce, etc when they are grounded on nature enlightened by faith.
Thirdly, pressure can come from politics and power. At times, we succumb to pressure from political powers, fearing we could be discriminated or penalized. This political pressure need not necessarily come from the political authorities but from the common good of the people. As a minority in a secular country, we need to respect that the laws formulated must express the will of the people. Laws enacted must be wise, just and for the good of all. It does not favour one religion over another, but they are for the promotion of justice and equality. So in making decisions, a leader must also consider the larger dimension of society as a whole, and not just from his limited responsibility to his organization, since we are inter-dependent and inter-connected. In the case of Herod, he was motivated by the wrong use of political powers. He was more concerned about what his officials would think of him if he did not carry out his promise to keep his word to his daughter. “The girl hurried straight back to the king and made her request, ‘I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, here and now on a dish.’ The king was deeply distressed but, thinking of the oaths that he had sworn and of his guests, he was reluctant to break his word to her.” Going against his conscience, although there was no necessity to fulfill an immoral wish of his daughter, he agreed to do the wrong thing to show off his power,.
Fourthly, another source of pressure comes from society. Today with mass digital technology, internet and social media, news, especially fake and distorted news, spread quickly. Pressure is being built up whether a leader speaks or not. If he keeps silent, he would be accused of cowardice and not protecting the members of the organization or the people that he serves. If he does speak, those who disagree with him will react strongly, not just expressing disagreement but even hate and insults. Either way, the leader is being pressured. Today, people use social media to influence the minds and hearts of others and win them over. With relativism, the truth is hardly heard but only the popular voice which is spread through half-truths and lies. People champion a cause not for the good of others but to protect their vested interests, which are sometimes at variance with the good of society. Herod too wanted to save his pride and show off his generosity and power, but he was pressured to make an offer he could not fulfill. In his conceitedness, he promised Herodias’ daughter, “‘Ask me anything you like and I will give it you.’ And he swore her an oath, ‘I will give you anything you ask, even half my kingdom.'”
Fifthly, pressure often comes from our loved ones. This is perhaps the most difficult to resist because we love them and are afraid to lose their love or we have no heart to say “no” to their request. Again, this was the case of Herod. He was pressurized from all corners. He was forced to behead John the Baptist against his wish even though Herodias, who was humiliated by him, was vindictive towards him. She wanted to silence John the Baptist completely so that she would no longer have to be reminded of her sin and guilt and be shamed publicly by him. For a long time, Herod was passive. To appease Herodias, he had “John arrested, and had him chained up in prison…” But that was not enough to pacify her. She was so revengeful and would want nothing but the head of John the Baptist which she did eventually get by manipulating and putting pressure on her daughter to ask for his head after she performed a beautiful dance before Herod.
The truth is that when we do not decide rightly, justly and courageously, our reticence, our mistakes and our cowardice will come back to haunt us for failing in our responsibility. This was how Herod felt. It was a decision that he deeply regretted when he made the offer to Herodias’ daughter which led to the execution of John the Baptist. So much so, he lived in constant guilt throughout his life, never able to forgive himself for killing a man of God whom he knew so well. This was the reason why he was haunted by nightmares about John the Baptist coming back to life. Indeed, “King Herod had heard about Jesus, since by now his name was well-known. Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Others said, ‘He is Elijah;’ others again, ‘he is a prophet, like the prophets we used to have.’ But when Herod heard this he said, ‘It is John whose head I cut off; he has risen from the dead.'” The price of being pressured into silence, or speaking or acting foolishly will cause us greater distress, loss of credibility, and result in more harm to those people under our charge.
In the first reading, Christians were told to be calm in the face of persecution. As Christians we must hold on to our faith in good times and in bad times. We must abide by our Christian principles regardless of the outcome. This is what the author of Hebrews asked of us. He reminded us, “Jesus Christ is the same as he was yesterday and as he will be for ever.” Instead of succumbing to external pressures we must respond with personal conviction from the values of the gospel. Some of these fundamental principles would include, love for our brothers and sisters, including strangers, “for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Whatever we do must be done out of pure love for all regardless of who they are. Secondly, we must empathize with those who are suffering. As in the case of the early Christians, they were told to “keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being badly treated, since you too are in the one body.” Thirdly, we must protect marriage and family life because this is critical to the survival of society. “Marriage is to be honoured by all, and marriages are to be kept undefiled, because fornicators and adulterers will come under God’s judgement.”
In the final analysis, we are called to put our faith in God’s providence and love. The psalmist assures us that God is our light and strength. “The Lord is my light and my help; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; before whom shall I shrink? Though an army encamp against me my heart would not fear. Though war break out against me even then would I trust. For there he keeps me safe in his tent in the day of evil. He hides me in the shelter of his tent, on a rock he sets me safe.” Let us surrender our lives to Him knowing that He will look after us. “Put greed out of your lives and be content with whatever you have; God himself has said: I will not fail you or desert you, and so we can say with confidence: With the Lord to help me, I fear nothing: what can man do to me?”
Lastly, to find strength and courage, the author invites us to “Remember your leaders, who preached the word of God to you, and as you reflect on the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.” Our faith will remain strong when we think of our Lord, the prophets who died for truth and justice, the martyrs who died for their faith in Christ, and the many holy men and women who had served God and humanity. Remembering the good and saintly people will give us strength and courage to follow their example in being true to the gospel, resisting the negative pressures that come from the Evil Spirit, the Flesh and the World.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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