Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Ins and Outs of Purposeful Non-Conformity

Rev. Kathy Donley

03/19/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Daniel 1:1-21; Romans 12:1-2

 

“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.”  That is how English scholar J. B. Phillips phrased the first part of Romans 12:2 in his 1958 translation of the New Testament.  “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” 

 

The book of Daniel is the story of people in captivity refusing to be squeezed into the mold designed by their captors.    From the captors’ point of view, it is a textbook attempt at assimilation.  It is methodical, operating on more than one level.  First, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah.  Then he took objects from the temple in Jerusalem and put them in the temple of his god.  He did not melt them down, but kept them, to symbolize the captivity of their god as well as their people and land. 

 

Then he took the brightest and best of their young people, and set them on a three-year course of study which would teach them the language and literature of Babylon.  This would make them more understanding and sympathetic to the ways of Babylon.  It would also groom them for service on behalf of the empire in their home land in the future. 

 

Four of these young men were singled out for our story.  They were Daniel, Hananiah, Misahel and Azariah.   Those were their Jewish names, but they were given new names.  To name something or someone was to exert power over it.  Changing their names is just one more way that the Empire asserts its dominance.  Interestingly, only three of the name changes stick.  We remember the Babylonian names of Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego.  Daniel was also given a Babylonian name, but we remember him as Daniel.

 

Re-naming is still a strategy used by those in power.  Claiming our rightful names is an act of resistance.  I think of those in North Dakota who call themselves “Water Protectors”.  Their opponents have labelled them protestors, rioters, outside agitators, even terrorists, but they consistently assert the name that describes their mission.  “We are Water Protectors” they say over and over again.

 

The king also assigned these four young men rations of royal food and drink.  Which they refuse.  How are we to understand that refusal?  Again, this operates at multiple levels.  First, it is probable that the king’s food is not kosher.  It does not meet Jewish dietary requirements.  Refusing to eat it is an important way to assert their own identity.  But control of food is symbolic of power.  Biblical feasting can be a symbol of good power and God’s provision.  But “improper or impious revelries are seen as symbolic of wealthy excess and oppressive power, and are condemned by the prophets.” [1]

 

On St. Patrick’s Day, I was reminded that there was plenty of food in Ireland during the potato famine, the Great Hunger as the Irish call it.  Under the authority of the British Empire, tons of food were shipped out of Ireland while one million people starved.[2]  That is the abuse of power possible when one controls the food supply. 

 

When the four young men refuse the king’s rations, they are resisting his attempts to change their cultural and religious identity.  They are also staging a subtle protest against his assumption that he is sovereign over their lives.  They know that only God is sovereign.

 

There is one character that we might overlook.  That is the court official named Ashpenaz.  He is sympathetic to Daniel and seems to admire Daniel’s courage.  At the same time, he is also subject to the king.  Any help he might offer Daniel is weighed against his fear of the king.  Many of us in this room, and many American Christians, occupy a similar space.  We are relatively privileged --  not usually the direct target of oppression, like Daniel and his friends.  We may feel solidarity with those who are targeted and oppressed.  We may admire their persistence, their courage.  And like Ashpenaz, we may have to consider just how far we are willing to go, what price we are willing to pay, in showing that solidarity.

 

The king’s power is obviously also a factor in the lives of Daniel and his friends.  They live at the king’s pleasure.  They do not seek to anger him unnecessarily.  They become valuable to him, assisting him in running his affairs.  But in the midst of all that access to power, they never forget their primary identity, as people in covenant with God.  They never let themselves be squeezed into the Empire’s mold. 

 

* * *

Daniel Christopher-Smith is a professor of theology and director of peace studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  He is a Quaker.  Like Baptists, Quakers have long championed the separation of church and state, but Quakers have gone even further by refusing to participate in war, believing that allegiance to Jesus requires a lifestyle of non-violence.  In his commentary on the book of Daniel, Daniel Christopher-Smith says this:

 

“Christian faith involves the refusal to bow before the golden statues of Nebuchadnezzar.  But what is critical in the modern era is the realization that in our time Nebuchadnezzar is now perfectly capable of building his statues with the face of Jesus – evil appears as an angel of light.  [E.g. a U.S. nuclear submarine capable of dozens of Hiroshimas was named Corpus Christi, “the body of Christ.”!]  For Americans who believe that they live in a “Christian” country, it is far too easy to accept political or economic policies that involve bowing to golden statues in the name of national interests.  The bombing of Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and continued to wreak havoc for the poor of that society years after the cease-fire through the destruction of a vital infrastructure for distribution of medical supplies, food, water and other essentials of peaceful existence.  Yet, the bombing was accompanied by a political rhetoric of “faith and patriotism” that played as sweetly on international television as did Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra.  But the Christian is called to resistance . . . If chapter 1 was a call to resist the enticements of the king’s food and wine, chapter 3 is just as clearly a call not to lose heart before the sight of the monumental self-importance of the conquering regime, both then and now.  Modern Christians ought to refuse all attempts to serenade violence and exploitation with the tunes of patriotism.  It is precisely the responsibility of Christians to point out the falsehoods of using Christian symbolism and language to defend exploitation and military brutality.  The beginning of that task, however, is for us to refuse to be moved by the music of national interest.”[3]

 

* * *

 

Some of us Christians living in the USA are realizing that we do have a unique identity.  In the midst of a culture that would squeeze us into its mold of anxiety and fear, we claim the peace of Christ.  Within a country that champions rugged individualism and seeks to pit Us against Them, we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Within a would-be empire that seeks security through ever higher walls and aggressive posturing and violence, we practice the way of the cross. 

 

Stanley Hauerwas, now retired, taught Ethics at Duke Divinity School for decades. He has been described as brilliant and cantankerous. In 2001, Time Magazine named him America’s Best Theologian.  He responded “Best is not a theological category.”  That statement might suffice as evidence of both his brilliance and cantakerousness. 

For many years, Hauerwas has said that American Christians have got it wrong.  He argues that both conservative and liberal churches have assumed that the American church’s primary task is to underwrite American democracy.[4]  In the good old days, whenever they were, mainline Protestants were movers and shakers in this country.  Clergy were respected.  Journalists and government officials sought their opinions.  Many mourn the decline of that influence, but Hauerwas says that “American Christians are at last free to be faithful in ways that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure.” [5]  The primary task of American Christians is to be ourselves, to assert our allegiance to Jesus and to refuse the enticements of Empire.

 

One piece of this is very difficult.   Most of us in this room are not persuaded by arguments appealing to national pride.  Most of us recognize the Empire’s fear-mongering for what it is.   We, Emmanuel Christians, will not fall for tactics that pit Us against Them.  We, Emmanuel Christians, will not be silently complicit with oppression. But, most of us in this room are used to winning.  We are used to being in control of most aspects of our lives.  Right now, things feel very out of control.    And we may want a return to the days when we, American Christians, were offered the king’s food and drink.  We may be tempted to believe that if we only had the power that American Christians had in the good old days, everything would be OK again. We would be successful and growing and influential and people would be flocking to join us, here on the right side of truth and justice.

 

That kind of power, sisters and brothers, is the junk food offered by Empire.  It is what we must resist.   Those young men, – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – all they had to do was go along, or pretend to go along with the king’s command, but they didn’t. They said, “God will deliver us. And even if, God doesn’t, we will not serve your gods.” 

 

Who would have thought that three Jewish teens would survive the fiery furnace?  Who would have bet on Christians against the Romans in the Coliseum for the long haul?  In the despair of war, who would have believed that the name of the simple pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be elevated above the regime that called itself the Thousand Year Reich?   Who would have guessed that the peasants of LeChambon, France would have protected and preserved the lives of 5,000 Jewish people, right under the noses of the Nazi empire?   How foolish it would have seemed to trust the non-violent resistance of African-American citizens against the force of billy clubs and firehoses and dogs and lynchings.  

 

And yet, we know, in each of those instances and so many more, where the true power was.  It is the power of the cross, the love which lays down its life for others, which offers reconciliation, which can transform enemies into friends.  We, Emmanuel Christians,  are not called to be successful or influential or powerful.  Our primary calling is not even to change the world.  Our primary calling is to demonstrate the power of the self-giving love of Christ, to live out with integrity and purpose the counter-cultural ways of joy and love and hope found in the gospel. 

 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

 

 “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.”  Amen.

 



[1] Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996). p. 41. 

[2] http://ighm.org/exports-in-famine-times/

[3] Daniel Smith-Christopher, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996). p. 67. 

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon,  Resident Aliens:  Life in the Christian Colony,   (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989) p. 32

[5] Resident Aliens, p. 18.

 

 

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