Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Motive Doesn’t Matter

In chapter two of Daniel, the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar dreams of the end of all this world’s great secular empires ... including his own. A great stone representing an eternal kingdom set up by the God of heaven destroys the image of which Babylon was the golden head.

The weak point of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was its feet, which were a less-than-sturdy composite of iron and clay. Perhaps with this in mind, the king eventually decided to build an image of his own. His version was ninety feet high, with no weaknesses which might be easily targeted by other would-be empire builders. Anyone who observed it saw nothing but gold from head to toe.

Racism and Politics

Now, when Nebuchadnezzar built his image and commanded it be worshiped by all peoples, nations and languages, he was not specifically targeting Jews. He wasn’t thinking of them at all, though he probably should have been, having already encountered Daniel, the man who had interpreted his dream. Nor in all likelihood was he deliberately and consciously defying the God of Israel, who, for Nebuchadnezzar, was merely one more local god among many. His act was indeed colossally arrogant and incredibly unwise, but the motive behind it was surely pragmatic.

It was politics, plain and simple.

I can’t prove that, of course. It’s perfectly possible Nebuchadnezzar was engaged in a flagrant act of provocation directed at the living God, and that he was a flaming anti-Semite. But Daniel’s narrative doesn’t read that way, and it seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the king had promoted Daniel and his friends to the highest places in his kingdom and had acknowledged in word, if not in practice, that their God was the “God of gods and Lord of kings”. It was only when a certain faction of malicious Chaldeans identified the Jews as non-compliant that Daniel’s friends became a target.

No, it is far more likely Nebuchadnezzar was struggling with an age-old problem having to do with the inherent weaknesses of empires.

Factionalism and Unity

Like all great world empires, the Babylonian Empire was composed of many disparate factions, each with its own religious practices and deities, customs, histories, loyalties and national agendas. Assyria, Syria, Phoenicia, Moab, Edom, Arabia, Philistia, Israel, Judah and many other nations had been absorbed into the whole, and the same simmering ethnic tensions were apparent to Nebuchadnezzar as are currently apparent to everyone who longs for a united and prosperous America. The same insoluble dilemma lay before the Babylonian king 2,700 years ago as has confronted all the rulers of the world’s major empires down through history, the same dilemma as lies before Joe Biden and his advisors today: how do you make iron and clay cleave to one another? (The answer is that you can’t, but that was not an acceptable response to Nebuchadnezzar.)

There is much to be commended about the desire for unity. After all, civil wars are bloody. Dividing up an empire is messy and complicated. Who wants that? And if national identity is a source of division, surely one must give people something greater than their nation with which to identify. The king’s image, had it done its job as he hoped, would have been a source of great unity between the factions in his empire; Phoenicians worshiping side-by-side with Arabs, Assyrians bowing cheek-by-jowl with his own Chaldeans, all focused on and devoted to the same thing. Unity problem solved. Empire protected. Bloodshed and disintegration averted.

So then, the building of Nebuchadnezzar’s image probably had little or nothing to do with targeting Jews or confronting their God. But frankly, Nebuchadnezzar’s motive doesn’t matter. Daniel doesn’t even bother to tell us, though he surely knew as well as anyone in Nebuchadnezzar’s court what the king was up to and why. What really matters is not the motive of the king in defying the God of heaven but the real-world effects of his edict on the people of God. Even if the king did not deliberately target Jews with his order to worship the great image he had built, his edict had the effect of putting him on a collision course with the God of Israel and his remnant from Judah.

Simmering Down

Christians are split over the motives behind the current lockdowns. Some are teaching that Satan is using the secular governments of the world to stifle the message of the gospel. Others are convinced the powers that be are not deliberately targeting believers, and that we need to simmer down and stop pushing back. They tell us governments are only concerned with public health and packed emergency rooms, and that their rules are being enforced on unbelievers and believers alike. I am not entirely sure the facts on the ground in my home province of Ontario support the latter argument, where churches are closed but Neil Patrick Harris is shooting a movie in downtown Toronto and police take a hands-off approach to thousands of protesters gathering on the lawns of Queen’s Park, but let’s assume the government is indeed acting in goodwill and that the Christians who say so are putting forth their arguments in good faith rather than from less noble motives.

I do not believe Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego wasted much time speculating about the king’s motives. The issue before them was as simple as this: obedience to the king’s edict would be disobedience to God. They were not prepared to disobey God even under the orders of the greatest power then on earth. The reasons for his orders made no difference to them, whether they were good, bad or neutral.

This, I believe, is the same dilemma with which Christians are currently confronted under the present lockdown orders. Obey God or man? Sometimes you can’t do both. So then, whose church is it? Is it ours to open, close and give away authority over as we see fit, or is it Christ’s, as we have always claimed until so recently put to the test?

The motives of Western authorities in locking down the ekklesia — whose very name means “assembly” — are entirely irrelevant to the issue. The question before us has to do with how we define “gathering” and with obedience or disobedience to Christ, who has directed us to gather in his name.

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