For all of us who know the feeling of being spiritual exiles in our modern-day Babylon, while we “seek the peace of the city” to which God has sent us, the books of Daniel and Esther can give us insight and the comfort of knowing we’re not alone. The following is the first of my series of messages from those works of Israel’s exile:
LIFE IN THE NON-STOP IMPERIAL SPECTACLE
DANIEL, CHAPTER 1
At first glance, today’s Bible story is about a food fight: a fight between God-given fruits, veggies and whole grains, and a rich, royal diet. The story shows that, if you have a choice between donuts and a Slim Jim for breakfast, or oatmeal and an apple, pick the oatmeal and the apple and your body will be happy, hopefully also your taste buds. And so will your doctors.
But there’s also a deeper conflict happening in Daniel 1, and food is the battleground, or the weapon, of this fight. Its a fight between “singing the Lord’s song in an alien land” in the words of Psalm 137, and being bewitched and bedazzled by what I call “the non-stop imperial spectacle.”
This “non-stop imperial spectacle” is what greeted the few surviving Hebrew exiles, 2700 years ago, when they first saw the city of Babylon. There, they were treated to the supreme spectacle of imperial power for its age. The Hebrew captives were already in shock and awe from what Nebuchadnezer’s army had done to Judah, Jerusalem and their temple. But nothing could have prepared them for seeing city walls so tall and so wide that 4 chariots and eight horses could race atop the walls at the same time. There they saw massive towers, temples, monuments to emperors dead and living, and pyramids on the scale of anything known in Egypt or Mexico. On them were developed and practiced the imperial arts of divination and magic that underlie the daily horoscope in our local newspaper even today. Then there were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, known from China to Spain as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Imagine the Metrodome and the IDS Tower covered in trees and flowers, like a fifty story Chia Pet. Everyone within sight of such marvels would have been sore tempted to render up their worship, their loyalty, and their judgment to such self-evidently successful powers. That’s the point of the non-stop imperial spectacle.
The common wisdom of the time, among Israel’s neighbors, was that any nation, whose empire and armies were most victorious, prosperous, powerful and fearsome, had the gods most worthy of worship and loyalty. As warfare among the gods went in heaven, so it happened on earth, supposedly. In the year 587 BC, for all intents and purposes it looked as though Marduk, the supreme warrior god over all the Babylonian gods and goddesses, had proven himself in war to be more powerful and worthy than the God of the Jews. No surprise, said their so-called experts, the astrologers, and the diviners who read the signs of the heavens. Marduk’s eternal reign over all peoples and their gods was supposedly written in the stars.
That’s life in what I call, “the non-stop imperial spectacle.” Everything about the pomp, the pageantry, the architecture and the military might is meant to say to everyone, allies, subjects and enemies, in the words inscribed on one ancient Egyptian monument, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” The despair of the captive Israelites is recorded in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
But not only does the nonstop imperial spectacle mess with the heads of the enemy and the prisoner. It can do a similar job on the subject and the citizen. Here’s a recent example: I don’t usually eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. But one night in March, of 2003, twenty-four hours into the invasion of Iraq, there was a conversation taking place in a seat right next to mine in the Minneapolis/St. Paul international airport that I just could not ignore. My neighbor was talking on his cell phone to someone about the invasion of Iraq. The tone of his end of the conversation made him all the harder to ignore. He was pretty much happy, even chortling with glee, about what a quick cakewalk this war would be over the hapless Iraqis, about whom he spoke with a bully’s contempt for the neighborhood ninety pound weakling. He even said that he had watched the opening salvos of the American attack on a wide-screen TV while engaged in—and I’m not making this up—cosmic bowling at a bowling alley. So what was I to believe but that, for him, knocking over Iraqis was as easy and entertaining as knocking over bowling pins, and of no more consequence?
I was sore tempted to tell him, once his conversation ended, that any glee is premature; history tells us that no bullet fired, no bomb dropped, is without regrets, consequences and complications. I would have liked to ask him, “My friend, do you derive your self-worth and meaning in life from the fire power of those who claim to represent you? Are you experiencing a vicarious thrill of power through this bloody assertion of shock and awe in your name? Have you become so intoxicated by self-identification with invincible power that you have lost all compassion for the men and women of both sides who will suffer and die, and for all their loved ones who will be united in grief?” But such conversation was not to be. He hung up by saying, “They’re calling my flight, so I gotta go.” With that he jumped up and ran off.
It was still a valuable experience for me. That was when I began to understand that this exercise in shock and awe perhaps was aimed not only at the Iraqis. It certainly had an intoxicating effect on many fellow citizens, like that man who celebrated the bowling over of Iraq by the bowling over of pins in a bowling alley. That’s the whole purpose of what I call “Life in the Imperial Spectacle:” to shock and awe all of us, friend and foe, into surrendering our common humanity, and into worshiping the beasts of human and diabolical power.
So whenever a country embarks on a crusade of imperial expansion, like Nebuchadnezzar did to all his neighbors, it has also effectively declared war against its own citizens. Not only a war of impoverishment, as bread and butter get turned into bombs and bullets, but also a war against our souls and the better angels of our nature. The country’s crusade becomes the subjects of our lives, rather than the love story between ourselves, our Creator and our neighbors. We are encouraged to seek our own humanity by denying it from others. Instead of finding our sense of worth and meaning in love and submission to God, we are encouraged to find our sense of worth, self and meaning in that measure of power we have over and against someone who is defined as our enemy. We are supposed to be so much in shock and awe over our own power that we boast, with the worshipers of the beast in John’s Revelation, “Who can make war against the beast?”
That was the temptation facing our Hebrew spiritual ancestors, in that year when the whole people of God, starting with Abraham and leading to us, was narrowed down to a pitifully small remnant of demoralized, confused and traumatized slaves and captives, whose despair is recorded in Psalm 137. Four of these captive Jews are mentioned in the first chapter of Daniel: the young Daniel and his comrades, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were soon given Babylonian names: Daniel became Belteshazar; his friends became Shadrach, Meshcach and Abednego.
As kings did at the time, Nebuchadnezzar added these four young Judean noblemen to his collection of interesting and hopefully helpful people, from among all the different captive peoples he had collected. The Babylonians tended to do that with conquered territories: to pull the native people up and scatter them around the empire, and to plant new peoples in their place, so that future generations would blend into the Babylonian melting pot. Then they’d put the people with the most leadership potential to work in the service of their own empire. That’s how many tribes, countries, cultures and religions disappeared into the voracious, expanding whirlpool that was the Babylonian Empire.
But not the Jews. Some of them must have said, “Well, in Babylon, do like the Babylonians,” and adopted Babylonian customs and speech and even their religion, because it appeared to be the most successful thing. But even in the belly of the beast, within the walls of the imperial palace, with a front row seat at the daily, grandiose, spectacle of empire, four young Jewish men decided that they would give up neither their God nor their identity, whatever the cost.
These four young men were not violent rebels plotting to kill the king and overthrow the Babylonian empire. They may have heard the prophecies of Jeremiah telling them that God had given temporary dominion to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and that they were to submit to his political authority, if not to his religion. They may also have read Jeremiah’s letter telling them to seek the peace of this grandiose and idolatrous city to which they were called, which they would do, as counselors to the king. That very command is our banner verse and theme for this year. So they were very willing to learn the Babylonian language, very willing to learn the art and skills of Babylonian law, administration and counsel, and to work for the well-being of the people in the empire through law and public order. After all, not everything about Babylon was evil beyond redemption. We benefit today from strides they made in agriculture and engineering. Despite his claim to godlike status and power, Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian subjects were just human, worthy of love and care. But these four Hebrew men were not willing to defile themselves or dishonor their God with anything contrary to their God, to God’s law and God’s Word. That would get them into several conflicts recorded in the book of Daniel.
Their first conflict was over food. Food was one of those things that reminded the Hebrews, every day, that they were chosen and called by God to be his priests and people among the other nations. The kosher dietary laws of Moses served as part of a cultural buffer against the paganism of their neighbors. There were other laws of dress, conduct, ritual and ceremony, and things like circumcision, which reminded them daily of who they are and whose they are. On the face of it, I take it that they wouldn’t eat from Nebuchadnezzar’s kitchen because the imported and elite food violated their kosher laws, while simple grains, fruits and vegetables would not. As it turned out, they made a wise choice for reasons of health, too.
But I wonder if they considered something else that strikes me about dinner at Nebuchadnezzar’s table: it may have been tainted with blood and tears. The blood of soldiers sent off to expand his empire’s borders, the blood of enemies killed, the tears of conquered peoples, and of slaves made to live and die as drones and pack animals, just to make exotic foreign delicacies readily available at the king’s table, things like Greek olives, Egyptian dates, Indian mangoes, Ethiopian teff and Sudanese wild game, Chinese plums and Italian wines. I don’t know what was on the emperor’s daily menu. But those were the delicacies available at the edges of his expanding empire. Even dinner then was a non-stop imperial spectacle. And this, strangely enough, in the cradle of civilization, where wheat was first cultivated and bread first invented.
For Daniel and his friends, this was the first, but not the last, of their exercises in conscientious objection to Nebuchadnezzar’s nonstop spectacle of empire. They remind me of the Danish people, during the German Occupation. When occupation troops would goose-step in the streets to the sound of a marching band, to show who was boss, Danes in the streets would all turn their backs on the imperial spectacle. Or when the occupiers requisitioned Norwegian factories and assembly lines for weapons production, everyone quit and no one would work there. One person could get killed doing that alone, but not when everyone did it.
One chapter into the Book of Daniel and you start to wonder who really is most powerful here. As tragic and terrible as the exile was, you have to wonder, has the God of Jacob done something like what the Greeks did to the Trojans some 700 years before? When the Greeks left a large wooden horse outside the gates of Troy, allegedly as a peace offering, at the end of a long and inconclusive war? They took it into their city, only to find, too late, that Greek soldiers hidden inside it got out that night and opened the city gates to the rest of their army. Were these Hebrew captives only defeated and powerless prisoners, or did God use their defeat and redeem it, to make of it something of a divine Trojan Horse, by which God would open the gates of the alien, idolatrous empire to his influence? Because that is soon what happened:: the invader was being invaded.
The same story happened in the history of Christian missions. Two Syrian Christians were kidnapped by pirates during the Seventh Century AD and sold as slaves to the royal court of Ethiopia. Their witness is credited with making Ethiopia a Christian country.
One criticism often leveled against us by the world is that “we are too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.” And I suppose if people had to feed us and shelter us because we spent all our time contemplating questions about heaven that can never be answered here and now, when we could be working, that might be a valid criticism. But the story of Daniel and his three colleagues will show us they were most helpful to Babylon because their hearts were fixed in Zion. They loved the world best when they didn’t need to be loved by the world, because they were secure in God’s love for themselves, in spite of their recent national disaster. They were wise precisely because they were not bedazzled and bewitched by the non-stop imperial spectacle around them. In this conflict with King Nebuchadnezzar is proof that he chose the right people to be his counselors.
Not only did they go head to head with imperial policy and resist it, they also offered a positive alternative. And they did so in a way that was considerate and caring, winsome and hard to resist. If they’d just gone on a hunger strike or started beating their cups and plates on the table, innocent people, like their care-takers, would have lost their heads. Literally. Instead, they presented their alternative as an invitation and an experiment. “Give us some time to eat our fruits, grains and veggies, and then let’s see who’s healthier and happier. If we are worse for the wear, then we’ll go back on the imperial diet. If not, then we’ll all look good.” This is witness as “show and tell.”
Hopefully, in our witness to the world, we can also show and tell something practical and concrete about how God’s alternative to the non-stop imperial spectacle, God’s kingdom, has made real and visible improvements in our lives.
They also demonstrate to us how one might walk the tightrope of Christian discipleship strung between the seemingly contradictory commands, “Love not the world, nor the things thereof,” and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” writes John the Beloved in his first letter. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” What John describes as “the world and the things therein,” is what I mean this morning by “the non-stop imperial spectacle.”
But this same John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…not to condemn the world but to save it.” Either we have an impossible contradiction there, or the world that God so loves—and that we are to love, too—is something other than the non-stop imperial spectacle. The world that God loves, and that Daniel served with love and wisdom, and that we are to love as well, is the world that God created, a world of people, of communities, of animals, plants, rivers, rocks, mountains and molehills that God put together on this astounding and beautiful planet. We’re all in this together. God is working toward the redemption and renewal of all that he created and loves. And he’s doing it through people like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And through you and me.
My job as a preacher is to exhort us all to do the same as they did: 1) not to let ourselves be bewitched and bedazzled by the non-stop imperial spectacle in which we live; but 2) not to give in to hostility either, rather, to love God’s world without needing to be loved by the human-created world in return; 3) to look to God for our approval and our justification, and not be playing to the world, or any factions in it, for their approval and applause; and 4) to present our witness and God’s wisdom in a wise, friendly, show and tell manner–”Let me show you what God has done for me and how his love has transformed me, and see how it works for you,” we say in our best moments of witness.
But that wouldn’t be fair unless I acknowledge the ways in which we already do that. We already do some friendly “show and tell” through partnerships like the Relief Sale, Ten Thousand Villages and Urban Ventures. We have members and friends who offer help and counsel to international students, and to immigrants seeking refuge and adversaries seeking reconciliation. “Look what happens,” we say to the world, “when we make our way in the world based on God’s kingdom values like compassion and caring, rather than on fear and competition alone.” When we gather for worship, it is first and foremost for God’s sake. But we are also saying to the world, hopefully in a winsome and inviting way, “Check out what happens when we give our love and loyalty to the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.” And when we host our Somali friends here at the end of this month, that is for God’s sake as well as theirs. But it also says to the world, as Daniel said to his caretakers, “Just watch and see what happens when we try this Christ-like way of relating.” If this is wisdom of the kind Daniel and his comrades showed, then, as Jesus said, “Wisdom is proven right by her children.”