Looking at Daniel: a critique of the modern Christian’s approach to changing the world
This post is for those who call themselves Christians. If you are not a Christian, but still feel interested, of course please also read on.
I am writing today because for some time and with an ever increasing severity I have been troubled and alarmed by the methods of Christians. Surely we are trying to change the world with the strength of our convictions spurring us on, but the tactics in use by seemingly massive numbers of Jesus-followers are obviously backfiring, with Christianity as a whole looking more silly, mean, and close-minded than ever before. So this post is for the angry believer, the righteously indignant, the politically religious. This post is for the Christian who, disheartened by the hellbent track of this great country, fling themselves wholeheartedly into every boycott and Facebook comment stream that they stumble upon. This post is for the fearful follower who believes that the church is in dire danger of dissolution at the hands of big government. Look with me at Daniel.
We all know Daniel. (Even those who don’t call themselves Christians may have vague recollections of Sunday School flannel graphs assembled with a group of hungry-looking lions in a gray den and an enrobed unharmed man standing victoriously among them.) He was a Jewish captive who was transported back to Babylon after King Nebuchadnezzar (Ne-buh-kuhd-NEZ-er) besieged Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The Babylonian norm in that day was for the brightest and most beautiful of a captive nation’s sons to be taken to their oppressor’s country to be trained in service of the ruling king. Daniel was part of this class of Jewish individuals and quickly began an entirely new life about 500 miles as the crow flies from his home.
The transformation of the former Jews-turned-Babylonians was to be utterly complete. Daniel was enrolled with the rest of his peers in Babylonian literature and language classes, they were renamed, given new food to eat and new customs to adhere to, all in an effort to make them competent to stand before the king. Many Christians have sat through too many Bible story lessons to think too deeply about the emotions these devout men must have been feeling, but suffice it to say the forced obedience to endless pagan practices and accompanying homesickness must have been horrific. They were alone in a culture they didn’t agree with or even find familiar.
Many did exactly what you would expect. Out of fear for their lives and with inner unspoken shame, they acquiesced. In Daniel 1, it seems that most of Daniel’s compatriots obeyed every order, silently accepting their fate as they ate the king’s food and wore the king’s clothes and acquired the king’s ideologies. But this is not a post about those individuals. Alas, we do not even know the names of those men. This is a post about Daniel, a man who tries. As a Christian you may feel more akin to him. He boldly stood by his convictions in a hostile environment that threatened his ability to practice his faith. However, on closer inspection, you will not find Daniel holding a picket sign in righteous anger. On the contrary, his methods of living in an ungodly land were completely different if not entirely opposite from the way Christians are trying to be Christianly in this land. In this post, we will look at four ways Daniel lived and, I hope, begin to think more deeply about our actions in the world.
1. The strength of Daniel’s convictions did not overpower his wisdom.
What makes Daniel an insta-hero in the Christian’s book is that his conscience did not allow him to do nothing. But in the face of overwhelming risk of adversity, Daniel was a man who tried to live by his convictions in a way that wouldn’t get him massacred. It’s not that he did not understand the risk, he did, and so he started small. He did not stomp into the king’s chamber and demand the king allow him to live out his theocracy in a foreign land and furthermore demand the king convert to Judaism. Although compromise is often an ugly word when it comes to religious beliefs, it seems that Daniel did what he could to obey the king and live well within his new culture while remaining devoted to God. So while his fellow captives were having their very identities changed, he suggested that in the area of food he be given permission to honor God by abstaining from the king’s bounty. While obeying the king in every other respect he found a way to maintain his identity as a Jew and worship God quietly in captivity.
Daniel understood something that Christians in America do not seem to understand at all — he needed to maintain his faith in a land that would never be Israel. He was a foreigner, a lonely sojourner in a culture that would always be at odds with his worldview. So he decided to live as peacefully as he could while maintaining his connection to the God he served. Christians are entreated to do the same thing, yet there are seemingly vast numbers of believers today who are convinced they cannot have peace until they successfully turn the nation into something it never was and never will be: the Kingdom of God. This belief has many Christians side-tracked with political agendas and mega conversion strategies while all along the greatest commandment is simply to love God and our neighbor. If we spent as much energy loving God and our gay neighbor as we do boycotting Kohl’s for encouraging their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” our vertical relationship with God would be strengthened and our horizontal relationships with those around us would perhaps look more like, well, a relationship. We could learn something from Daniel’s quiet and wise faith.
2. Indignation was nowhere to be found in Daniel’s methods for maintaining his faith in captivity.
On the contrary, Daniel consistently treated both his superiors and his fellow man with respect and humility throughout his time in Babylon. I can only imagine that this approach is partly why God granted him favor and compassion in the eyes of those over him. When presented with the mandate to eat the king’s food and drink his wine, he didn’t clamp his mouth shut and stubbornly refuse. Nor did he picket, rile up the other captives to revolt, or cry out with rage, even while his anger may have been justified. He asked with humility and respect that he might be spared. And when the chief of the eunuchs governing the captives expressed an understandable fear that Daniel’s plan would probably result in the swift death of them both, Daniel shrewdly suggested a compromise. He and a few others were given vegetables to eat for ten days and emerged on the other end of their experiment stronger and healthier than the other captives. In this endeavor, God blessed Daniel’s efforts and they were allowed to continue eating vegetables. Christians like to get cocky because we know how the story ends — God smiled on Daniel’s stand for his faith, we think, just as he does on mine. But we have to understand that until the experiment ended, Daniel didn’t know of its success or failure. What he did know was that acting toward his captors with humble respect was not only in line with his devotion to God but was the more helpful strategy in maintaining the goodwill of those around him.
While Daniel’s lack of indignation continued to be a mark of his life throughout his time in Babylon, indignation unfortunately seems to be one of the chief markers of Christians today. The Ten Commandments are removed from schools? We are indignant. The president doesn’t say the right thing on the National Day of Prayer? We are indignant. The Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage? We are indignant. While Christians declare that we follow a loving and compassionate God who accepts all who come to him, as a group we are on a merry-go-round of resentment, exasperation, and displeasure at every secular decision that does not line up with our beliefs. There are certainly exceptions but in the tidal wave of grievances oppressing the church, they are hard to find. We are building a reputation as a community of Scrooges. Our relationship with a pagan world requires listening ears and humble conversation, not bullhorns and angry Facebook comments. The world needs Christians who are respectful and kind, not belligerent old men bah humbugging everything they disagree with. Nobody likes an indignant person.
3. When it came to religious persecution, Daniel was willing to risk it.
Throughout his tenure in the courts of the king, Daniel walked a dangerous line between life and death. Nebuchadnezzar was known to be fickle and ruthless and at any given moment Daniel could have brushed the king the wrong way with his faith and been killed. When it finally came to the possibility of his undoing (several years later under a different king — the Lion’s Den story) over his persistence in praying to God, it becomes apparent, if it wasn’t before, that persecution was a reality Daniel fully accepted as the likely outcome of his perseverance in serving God. As someone living clearly outside the norms of his culture, he expected hostility and lived with gracious boldness. His goal was not to incite persecution but to be wholly prepared for the day his faith would become the hill he would die on.
It seems that Christians today are not only not prepared for religious persecution, we are offended at the suggestion of it. Instead of having Christ as our bedrock foundation, we have staked our claim on the 2nd amendment, a beautiful and yet frightfully changeable law. The time may very well come when Christian pastors will face persecution for refusing to perform gay weddings. Christians as a group are becoming the outcasts of society and instead of preparing ourselves to remain firm in our faith regardless of the country’s laws on our behalf, a great many Christians seem to think that if the country’s laws change the Church will crumble. We have forgotten that Christ is the head of the Church and it stands on his salvation. We have also forgotten that Christianity by its very nature is offensive. The Christian needs to ask himself if he is willing to risk the persecution of others because of his association with Christ. If the answer is yes, he should spend all of his energy on representing Christ well to the world. If the answer is no, go home now.
4. Lastly, Daniel was determined to live above reproach with those who believed the same as him but more importantly, with those who didn’t.
One of the most beautiful testaments to Daniel’s character can be found in Daniel 6:5. The instigators behind Daniel’s night in the lion’s den were looking for a way to get him in trouble with the king. By that time, Daniel had become prestigious in Babylon, to the point that the king planned to set him over the entire kingdom. Jealous rulers who would soon be under Daniel sought to find a complaint against him that they could bring before the king, in the hopes they would be rid of him once and for all. In Daniel 6:5, these men say, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.” Their words unwittingly shone a magnificent light on Daniel’s reputation in Babylon. They could not find a reason to reproach him except in his beliefs. He had lived honestly and humbly among them for years. This is not to say Daniel was perfect, but he was consistent in his efforts to be devoted to God and his excellent character was a mark of his faith.
There is something immensely captivating about faith accompanied by genuine loving action. When a person professing to follow Christ also lives as he lived, the world notices. It’s a truth we all know and rarely encounter. Living above reproach means that the character of Christ is the same character we strive for on a consistent basis, regardless of the pressures of culture to do otherwise. It means Christians should reflect Christ’s mercy by caring deeply for the poor, his holiness by remaining free from scandal, his love by serving those we disagree with, and his humility by removing the logs from our own eyes before removing the speck from another’s. The cross does not give us a free pass to cheat on our taxes, steal second glances, murder with our words, or lie when we’re scared. No one is expecting Christians to be perfect, but the world is desperately in need of Christians who practice what we preach. If these were the marks of a Christian, they would be just as alluring as Christ was and perhaps the way Daniel lived would not be so rare a thing after all.