Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Fiery Furnace

Yesterday’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel about the three Jews cast into the fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar is one of those memorable biblical stories, the grand drama of which may overshadow its complex and challenging message for believers in every age.
The story itself is straightforward enough. Having conquered Judea, King Nebuchadnezzar (presumably as part of an overall strategy for governing his multi-cultural kingdom) integrates some of his new subjects – "Israelites of royal blood and of the nobility, young men without any defect, handsome, intelligent and wise, quick to learn, and prudent in judgment" – into the kingdom’s administrative elite. Among these are Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael (their names Babylonianized as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago), who initially seem to thrive in their new role - until, one day, the king erects a golden statue (of himself?) and orders everyone in the kingdom to worship it. When it is reported that these three royal officials, despite their privileged position in society, refuse to conform, the king orders them thrown into a fiery furnace.
What one might miss amidst all this drama is, first of all, how successfully the three had served their king until then. To me, this reflects the desired state of affairs in a pluralistic society. Believers have a kind of “dual citizenship” – citizens of the kingdom of God, but also citizens of earthly kingdoms, which make legitimate claims upon them and which they in turn seek to participate in as fully and effectively as possible, engaging in all the normal activities that characterize social and political life. The crisis came about for the three men only when the king insisted on the state as the focus of everyone’s ultimate loyalty. This put them in a political dilemma that could be resolved morally in only one way.
The Book of Daniel is an “apocalyptic” book. Its point is to reassure its readers who are experiencing either the reality or the threat of religious persecution that (despite all present indications to the contrary) the future belongs to the just - for God will eventually vindicate his people. So it is no surprise when the three men survive their fiery ordeal. Indeed, “they walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord” - in a stirring song of praise which has for centuries been an integral part of the Church’s Morning Prayer on Sundays and feast days.
Again easily missed in all this drama is the stark answer the three give the king before being thrown into the furnace: “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O King, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Although the reader already knows that God will intervene miraculously to save his servants in this particular case, the reader also knows that that doesn’t necessarily happen every time. What the three themselves know is only that, whether it brings them success or failure, whatever the cost to whatever good they might otherwise accomplish by conforming, and even if it means giving up good and socially beneficial things - their privileged place at court, their place at the table in the implementation of public policy, and even in this extreme case their actual physical lives - they must still refuse to do the politically correct thing. Their only authentic and legitimate option is to stick with what they know to be unchangeably right.
A political philosophy of limited government can degenerate into an ideology of libertarianism or (in the American constitutional context, for example) an ideology of “states rights.” A balanced philosophy of limited government, however, concerns itself with the common good but recognizes that the State is not the source of ultimate moral value. It is precisely in this recognition – that the State cannot claim to be either the source of value or the arbiter of moral right and wrong – that freedom of religion functions not only for the benefit of individual believers and their religious, educational, and charitable institutions, but also for the larger moral benefit of the social and political community as a whole.

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