God and Government 5: The Intersection

Don: Democratic liberty and the American system of government are neither self-derived not self-sustaining. Their history is deeply rooted in Biblical principles of liberty and justice. Therefore, I would argue, Christians have a stake and should have a voice in the current cultural wars and in the outlook of today’s government. Our discussion of God and Government has contemporary relevance.

In the first part of the book of Daniel are five stories that illustrate the intersection between God and government. In each story, Daniel or his friends made the decision to render unto God what Caesar thought was his, as Jesus might have put it. What then ought we to render unto Caesar? Which demands of the government—of Caesar—are we really obliged to meet?

The stories are amongst the most familiar in the whole of the Bible. The context is that Daniel and three friends (who were to become known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or the “three Hebrew worthies”) were captives from the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah. Being of noble and royal family, “without physical defect, and handsome,” versed in wisdom and competent to serve in the palace of the king, they were taken to Babylon to be taught the literature and language of that nation. But they refused to eat the king’s un-kosher food and wine. Their overseer feared the king’s wrath if the health of his charges were to deteriorate, but after ten days of nothing but vegetables and water the four emerged healthier than anyone. They were allowed to continue to refrain from eating the king’s food. (So here we see Daniel and his friends refusing to render unto Caesar something physical—eating the royal food.) When their training was done, Nebuchadnezzar found them ‘ten times better’ than all the wise men in his service and therefore kept them at court.

Meanwhile, God gave Daniel the ability to interpret visions and dreams, and in the second year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar had a dream apparently conveying an important message, so he consulted his wise men. Wary of their potential to fabricate an explanation, the king refused to tell the wise men what he saw in his dream. Rather, he demanded that they tell him what the content of the dream was, and then interpret it. When the wise men protested that this was beyond the power of any man, he sentenced all, including Daniel and his friends, to death. God revealed to Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of an enormous statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of mixed iron and clay, then saw the statue destroyed by a rock that turned into a mountain filling the whole earth. Daniel explained to the king that the statue symbolized four successive kingdoms, starting with Nebuchadnezzar, all of which would be crushed by God’s kingdom, which would endure forever. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the supremacy of Daniel’s god, promoted Daniel over all his wise men, and placed Daniel and his companions over the province of Babylon.

Here, Daniel rendered unto God something pertaining to the mind.

In the next story, Daniel’s companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to a new golden statue of the king and were thrown into a fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar was astonished to see a fourth figure in the furnace with the three, one “with the appearance like a son of the gods.” So the king called the three to come out of the fire, and blessed the God of Israel, and decreed that any who blasphemed against him should be torn limb from limb.

Next, Nebuchadnezzar recounted a dream of a huge tree that was suddenly cut down at the command of a heavenly messenger. Daniel said the tree was Nebuchadnezzar himself, who for seven years would lose his mind and live like a wild beast. It happened as Daniel prophesied, and when Nebuchadnezzar came to his senses he acknowledged that “heaven rules.”

In the next story, Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor Belshazzar and his nobles blasphemously drank from sacred Jewish temple vessels looted from Judah, offering praise to inanimate gods, until a hand mysteriously appeared and wrote upon the wall. The horrified king summoned Daniel, who upbraided him for his lack of humility before God and interpreted the message: Belshazzar’s kingdom would be given to the Medes and Persians. That very night Belshazzar was slain and Darius the Mede took the kingdom.

The final story shows Daniel rendering unto God something supernatural.  Darius elevated Daniel to high office, exciting the jealousy of other officials. Knowing of Daniel’s devotion to his God, his enemies tricked the king into issuing an edict forbidding worship of any other god or man for a 30-day period. Daniel ignored the edict and continued to pray three times a day to God, from an open window, towards Jerusalem. King Darius, forced by his own decree, threw Daniel into the lions’ den. But God shut the mouths of the lions, and the next morning Darius rejoiced to find him unharmed. Daniel’s accusers were thrown into the lions’ pit together with their wives and children to be instantly devoured, and the king acknowledged Daniel’s God as He whose kingdom shall never be destroyed.

Why did Daniel not pray in private (as Jesus said we should, in His Sermon on the Mount)? Like Daniel and his friends, should we render body, mind, and soul unto God? Must we render both the natural and the supernatural? If so, what is left to be rendered unto Caesar?

Donald: Two observations. First: I wonder if the word “render” goes more with “allegiance” than with paying taxes. Second: If the stories were not in the Bible, we might not give them so much weight. They would all seem far-fetched. Yet they are in the Bible, and we build our faith around them.

Don: Daniel’s faith kept him alive. But it was in the news that an Oral Roberts University graduate was killed this week by reclusive Andaman islanders. His faith did not keep him alive.

Jay: I think it’s important to focus on the possessive in the “render” statements: Give Caesar and God what are “theirs” respectively. The possessive is present also in Daniel: We belong to God—mind, body, and soul. He created us, so we belong to Him. But since we introduced sin into the world; its products belong to us.

Anonymous: To me, allegiance to God is loving Him with all one’s heart, soul, and strength. “All” means all—there must be nothing held back for oneself. Daniel and his companions demonstrated that allegiance, even while working at the center of government. Giving heart, soul, and spirit to God is the only way for Christians to live as good citizens in this world.

Don: Then what is left for Caesar? Is it that we have a covenant with God but only a contract with Caesar? A covenant has a spiritual dimension. It remains in effect even if one side breaks it. God covenanted with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the children of Israel, and others. They all broke the covenant, yet it remained in place. A contract, in contrast, is usually nullified and voided if broken by one of the parties. Is there a similar distinction to be made with respect to one’s relationship with God and with Caesar?

Jay: The relationship drives what we “render.” The relationship with Caesar is about human structure, about society. God is perhaps not overly concerned about that. Mankind brought sin into this world and has therefore to develop structure—social order, rules and regulations—to maintain order. These things are not necessarily bad, but are perhaps not of great concern to God. He doesn’t mind our rendering obedience to Caesar’s laws and regulation, but He is concerned with a broader, timeless set of principles to be rendered to Him.

Dr. Singh: The Bible says we must be grateful to our societies and follow their rules so that we can worship God in peace. Spiritual life is different from worldly life.

Jay: The question remains: Do the two ever come into conflict? Daniel’s praying in the window kept his covenant with God but conflicted with his contract with Caesar. The “render” statement seems easy to live by until Caesar demands we render to him what we believe belongs to God. The three Hebrew worthies knew what to do, even at potential cost of their lives. Would we know what to do if compelled to transfer our allegiance?

David: Chapter 49 in the Dao De Jing suggests (to me) that what is God’s and what is Caesar’s amounts to the same thing. If that is so, then there is no problem.

The sage has no invariable mind of his own;
he makes the mind of the people his mind.

[In other words, go with the flow.]

To those who are good (to me),
I am good;
and to those who are not good (to me),
I am also good;
and thus (all) get to be good.
To those who are sincere (with me),
I am sincere;
and to those who are not sincere (with me),
I am also sincere;
and thus (all) get to be sincere.

This Way there is no dilemma. Supposing Daniel had decided not to pray in public—but as a practical matter, without abandoning his principles in private. Everybody—God, Caesar, and Daniel—would have been happy. Conflict was unnecessary. (God is not explicitly mentioned in the Dao De Jing. To me, God is implicit in the Way. In this passage, He is reflected by the “good” in the sage. He has no need of mention by any name.)

Donald: We are wrestling with the words covenant, contract, allegiance, and render. Covenant has spiritual overtones; contract might be how we want religion to work: “Tell me what I need to do to earn my way.” I don’t know what it means to not have religious freedom, having been raised in religion and being free to practice it within the limits of my contract with my religion. Not everyone has this much religious freedom. When do we find our beliefs coming into conflict with our social contract?

Don: It puzzles me that Daniel and his friends didn’t just acquiesce to the new rules. They could have gone along with them almost as a joke, or as a simple matter of survival. It would have saved a lot of trouble. Their resistance was provocative, and it worked—Caesar was provoked. Did it have to be provocative? Could it not instead have been quiet resistance conducted in private?

Robin: It depends on the situation that God wishes to bring about. For Daniel and friends, for the apostle Paul, to have compromised would have destroyed their witness to the countless eyes watching them. People had to know Daniel was resisting. His friends could not avoid the fiery furnace by compromise, or their witness would be worthless. It’s true that God protected them, but that was the exception rather than the rule. The point was not God’s protection or lack thereof; the point was to witness faith.

Donald: When is it right, or appropriate, to speak up—to open the window, as Daniel did?

David: What if Jesus includes religion among the things that are Caesar’s? If we were born in ancient Greece or Rome, we would worship via a pantheon of gods. If we were born in modern Rome, we would worship through Catholicism and the Pope. If we were born in England, the Queen and her Church would be the religion of worship. If we were born in modern Arabia, we would worship through Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. If we were born in North Korea, we would worship Kim Jong-un and his father and grandfather—who are both god and religion. The fact is, we render our worship in terms set by the religion of the culture of the time in which we are born and raised.

In any of these cases, are people bereft of God? If Kim Jong-un is not God and if the religionization of the Kim family is a farce, does this leave a divine and spiritual vacuum in North Korea? Is there no goodness—no God—at all in North Korea? I don’t believe that to be the case. God is universal, in everyone’s heart and mind, in the form of the (more or less suppressed, depending on the individual) holy spirit.

Religion, in contrast, is Caesar’s. If we in this class had been born in Saudi Arabia and were sitting today around a table in Mecca discussing Scripture, what Scripture would that be? What religion would that be? Would that be wrong? Would we be rendering unto Caesar or God or both or neither?

Chris: We’ve often talked about the personal nature of our relationship with God. Is what we are required to render to God different for every person, based upon the state of their relationship? For example, if Daniel had closed his window and prayed in private, would he—given his particular relationship with God—have failed to render what he personally owed to God?

Anonymous: Yes. Was he rendering something from himself to somebody? Of course. Because he cared about the king’s edict. But he was rendering something that didn’t belong to the king.

Robin. It was a spiritual matter, not a tax, that Daniel was being asked to compromise.

Donald: Might David’s argument be re-stated as: A denomination and allegiance to a church are independent of God? It is pretty provocative, since most people put God and church in the same space, but they do talk about their relationship with church more easily than about their relationship with God. Is it better to substitute “faith” or “religion” for “church” in that statement?

David: Christians, Jews, and Moslems share a faith in the same universal God. Then what difference does religion make when the only thing that really matters is a personal relationship with that God? Even North Koreans have access to that relationship, despite their travesty of a quasi religion. Religion is Caesar’s, not God’s.

Dr. Singh: Some people are proposing a new universal religion called “Chrislam” or “ChrisIslam.”

David: That’s a step forward.

Donald: So are religions simply a conduit to God?

David: Yes, that is universal. If we had some Moslems and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists here with us in class today we could still have a spiritually enlightening discussion without rendering anything to Caesar’s religions.

Donald: Then when is it appropriate to speak one’s spiritual mind?

David: The last lines of Chapter 49 of the Dao De Jing says never:

The sage has in the world an appearance of indecision,
and keeps his mind in a state of indifference to all.
The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him,
and he deals with them all as his children.

Don’t speak your mind; simply accept what is. Be like water: Flow around obstacles. Daniel did not. He spoke his mind by praying at his open window. He treated the king’s edict as an obstacle. He was like King Canute in trying to stop the tide, but unlike King Canute he expected the tide to stop.

Don: In Islam, ritual prayer (salah) must be spoken in Arabic. Do all non-Arabic-speaking Moslems understand what they are praying?

Anonymous: It’s very short and easy to memorize, and they will have been taught the meaning.

Donald: We think that it is important to set aside the Sabbath for worship. Our belief implies that worshiping on days other than that particular day is somehow less ideal. Is that any different from saying that prayer should be in a particular language?

Anonymous: We are taught to care about others, not to care selfishly about our personal relationship with God. My personal beliefs ought not to stop me from caring for others. It is enough for God to know that we believe. It does not mean I have to be like water. I will open the window to pray, if that is what I believe God wants me to do.

David: It seems that Jesus would want you to close the window, judging by His statements in the Sermon on the Mount.

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