For the first couple days, everything was going fairly smoothly at the Mennonite Church USA national convention in San Jose. Delegates were beginning to discuss the health care issues that the church has been working through for the last number of years. Worship sessions had been filled with good music and inspirational speaking. People were starting to settle into the pattern of the week with all the different events blocked out each day. And then, part way into the week, something happened that shifted the tone. We were visited with a message that has continued to shape the way the church goes about its work. The message came through Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensinig, the speaker for a morning worship. Her message was focused on what it means to be both a follower of Jesus, and a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth. She gave a strong challenge for the church to recognize that our allegiance to the way of Jesus calls us to live out a radical witness to the God of justice, peacemaking, and compassion, and that the world needs us. It was the right message at the right time and it stuck. In the days that followed a new resolution was created and passed by a large majority of the delegate body – The National Identity Resolution that Matt read and that is printed on the back of the bulletin. Since that time we have all been encouraged to explore more deeply what is being asked of us at this time in history — as the resolution puts it, “the promise and the peril of living faithfully as Christians in the USA.”
In good 21st century fashion, one of the ways the church has responded has been by creating a presence on the web. At the Mennonite Church USA website one can now go to the National Identity page and find a number of resources around this subject. A video of Jennifer’s sermon appears on that page. There are essays and articles by scholars about allegiance, identity, and living in empire. There are stories from congregations about the ways they are responding. I encourage you to look through any of these when you have time. There are also a number of worship resources for congregations to have available to use for a Sunday gathering.
We have used some of those resources today in the liturgy and the bulletin and will also have this as a focus next week in our worship.
We do this at a time when we, the citizens of this superpower nation, may not be feeling so super or so powerful, given the economic realities we are facing. There is a lot of rethinking going on about how we go about our business as a nation. How to use power constructively. How to invest in future generations. But the underlying situation for us is much the same. We remain both citizens of a superpower nation, and servants of God’s kingdom, followers of the wandering preacher from Galilee who taught that allegiance must be given to God above Caesar. There are times when our commitment to God’s just reign enables us to celebrate and be glad in the good things of our culture, the many gifts that we have and the good that is happening around us. There are other times when we must resist the mentality of the culture and take our cues from a higher source.
One of the places in scripture where these kinds of questions are being worked out is in the book of Daniel. The story of Daniel is set at the beginning of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, and most of the Jews living in the land had been taken off to Babylon. The general summary of these events is in 2 Kings 24, describing the siege on Jerusalem, the looting of the temple, the carrying off of captives, and the new king of Judah that is set up to rule over the region and the poor who had been left behind to work the land. Daniel tells the story of one of these captives, and his companions, in how they deal with living under the rule of Babylon. The book itself is actually a product of a much later time, when the Jews were confronted with a set of challenges living under Greek rule in the 2nd century BCE. Through Daniel the Jews were exploring ways that a story about a faithful Jew in Babylon could inform their current struggle against the Greek empire, using a previous set of circumstances to better understand how to live in the present.
Daniel is written as resistance literature. Resistance to assimilating into the dominant culture and losing one’s identity. Resistance to having one’s soul colonized by the value system of the empire. And, in some parts of Daniel, non-violent resistance to the structures seeking to exert their power over the community.
The book of Daniel begins by describing how Nebuchadnezzar brought some of the vessels of the temple of God from Jerusalem and placed in them in the treasury of his gods in Babylon. But the story quickly becomes about the people of God from Jerusalem who are displaced into this foreign land. How will Daniel and his companions face the challenge of living in a superpower nation, while remaining true to the ways of God?
Right away we learn that out of all of the exiles, the king is looking to sort out those who may be of the most service to him. Verse 3 says, “Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace.” These youth are those who would have been at the top of their class back in Judah, the cream of the crop. Smart and goodlooking. They were, so to speak, the best of the treasures from the plunders of war.
All who met these criteria were enrolled and given a full ride scholarship to Babylonian University – room and board included. Here, as it says, “they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans (the Babylonian wise men). The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court.” (vv. 4-5). From the next verse we learn that four of these youth are named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all from the tribe of Judah. We recognize the name Daniel, but probably not those other three names, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. So the purpose of this education track that they are entering, is to prepare them to be competent and skilled ministers of the king – a king whose empire has just conquered their homeland.
It’s hard for me to see this note about three years of education without thinking about my time in seminary. The Master of Divinity program that I participated in at seminary was also a three year program. And this is actually a standard length for all Master of Divinity programs in any denomination. For three years we are trained in theology, biblical studies, ethics, and ministry, so that we can be competent and skilled ministers in whatever congregation we would find ourselves in.
Interestingly, three years was also the maximum length of the early church catechism process for new converts into the faith. Catechesis didn’t always last this long, but for those Greeks who had little familiarity with the Jewish tradition and the emerging Christian teachings, the process could take up to three years. Here’s how Nelson Kraybill summarizes catechism in the first several centuries of the church: “The candidate, accompanied by a sponsor, meets with teachers of the church. They ask questions about lifestyle to determine whether (relationships), occupation, and values are consistent with the gospel. Unacceptable professions include gladiator, astrologer, and many others. Those who enlist in the military are rejected, and soldiers already enlisted may not kill. New believers ‘hear the word’ for up to three years, with attention to lifestyle. Teachers ask whether candidates have honored widows, visited the sick, and ‘fulfilled all good works.’” (Vision Journal, Fall 2003, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 8-90). After this training candidates were ready to receive baptism and be welcomed into the church.
At some point along the way, humans must have made a collective discovery that the time it takes for us to be formed into a tradition, a culture, a worldview, is about three years. If that time is one of immersion, of intensive study, it has good potential to result in the transformation of the person – an education and also a re-education, even a conversion. A time to learn and also un-learn previous habits and perspectives. During such a process we can become, for better or for worse, re-socialized into a certain way of being and seeing.
The length of time isn’t as important as to recognize that what we’re up against here is the formation of the human self and identity. I think it’s fair to say that we are constantly being educated by our environment. Culture has a way of putting us through a subtle catechesis, telling us what’s important, who’s important, where we should focus our energy, what we should ignore. We may not always be taking notes, we may not have homework, but we are being shaped by what we experience, by what comes in front of our eyes.
There’s nothing in the text to indicate anything sinister about these three years of education of these Hebrew youth. There’s no sign of brainwashing going on that we are told about. They are being immersed in a tradition, the tradition of the Babylonian sages and the political and cultural and religious philosophies of this culture. It’s a position of privilege in many ways. They are being schooled by the leading scholars of the most powerful empire on earth. But it is also a position of danger. What exactly from their previous formation in the Jewish community will they be asked to unlearn in order to be fit to serve in the court of this king? What all will this resocialization involve? There is the opportunity for gain, but also for loss.
The experience of loss and resocialization gets carried one step further. After we learn of their schooling, and are told the Hebrew names of four of these youth, verse seven says: “The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. Now we recognize those other three boys. We know them by their Babylonian names and they will later serve as an example of resisting the empire by refusing to give allegiance to the king, getting thrown in the famous fiery furnace that is unable to harm them.
We don’t have to think too long about the history of our own country to recognize that the re-naming of captives can have devastating results on a people. For the African slaves to the Americas it meant the loss of an entire heritage, being cut off from the identity of their ancestors and being given a new identity – slaves, possessions of other people, often being assigned the family name of their owner. The new names of these Hebrew youth also indicate that they have been brought under a different power and different identity, with each name containing variants of different Babylonian gods – Bel, Marduk, and Nabu.
Up until this point there have been massive shifts going on for the exiles. Relocation, re-education, and renaming. But then beginning with verse eight Daniel makes an important decision. Daniel resolves not to partake of the royal rations of food that are offered to him. This is more than just choosing not to eat certain foods, following certain dietary laws. This is an example of the ways that Daniel refuses to fully give himself over to the expectations of this setting. This is where the resistance starts to show up, acts of conscientious objection. It’s possible that some of the dietary laws of the Jews originally arose as acts of resistance, differentiating themselves from the masses. Helping them keep a sense of sacred identity. That everything they did they did for God. This is Daniel negotiating his way through this new setting. Accepting some of what is offered, refusing other things.
The result of their veggie and water diet is that Daniel and the other three become healthier than all of the other trainees and eventually are singled out for their great wisdom and insight.
As I once heard a preacher say after speaking for a while: I have some bad new and some good news. The bad news is that this sermon is only half way over. The good news is that the second half is next week.
But here are some the questions that we’re left with. How are we being formed and educated? Where do we take our cues from regarding our core identity? Who names us? Who tells us who we are? When are those times when we must resist the commonly accepted path and take a different path?