On Asking Too Much
By Tripp York, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Elon University, NC
Dan and I went to prison because we believed that Christianity and revolution are synonymous. Jesus Christ was a nonviolent revolutionary; therefore, Christians have a duty to subvert society in order to create a world where justice prevails, particularly for the poor who must be treated with fairness and love.
The quote above comes from Philip Berrigan's autobiography, Fighting the Lamb's War: Skirmishes with the American Empire. On May 17th, 1968 Phillip, the first Catholic priest in North America to have ever been arrested for civil disobedience, and his brother Dan (also a Catholic priest), along with seven others walked into the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and proceeded to burn draft files. After that, they said prayers and submitted themselves to the government and were eventually sentenced to time in a federal prison. Rather than spend their lives just writing and talking about theology, they decided to perform it. In an attempt to expose to North American Christians the idolatry often demanded of governments, especially in times of war, the Berrigan brothers chose to burn draft files with homemade napalm to symbolically show what was being used on both combatants and civilians in Vietnam. The response of the Federal government to the Berrigan's confirmed their suspicions: For burning paper, you serve time in jail; for burning humans, you're a national hero.
This next story is slightly different but I hope we can locate the connections. In the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, we find the story of King Nebuchadnezzar's vain attempt to have all of those under his command worship his gods. The king, who only moments earlier had just proclaimed his undying loyalty to the God of Israel, creates a massive and magnificent golden statue and demands that all people of various nations and language, at the cue of his "entire musical ensemble," to fall down and worship it. As the music played, we are told, "all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped" the golden statue (Dan. 3:7).
This is not entirely true. There were a few who refused to bow to such obvious idolatry. Scripture says that there were "certain Jews" who had been "appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon" that had refused the orders of the king. Their names were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and their disobedience was quickly reported. This, not surprisingly, made Nebuchadnezzar furious. He sent for the three and immediately commanded them to fall down and worship his creation. If they persisted in their noncompliance they were told that they would be cast into a furnace to be consumed by fire. Alas, our heroes did not relent. They plainly told the king that they felt no need to make a defense for their actions, and, furthermore, if their God so chose to save them from the furnace then God would do it. "But if not," they continued, "be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue you have set up" (Dan. 3:18).
The story ends, as most of us are aware, with the three surviving the fire and the king going mad. What is most unnerving about this tale now is the manner in which it has been so easily domesticated and romanticized for the consumption of the kind of disembodied Christianity prevalent in North America. The first time I heard this story, for instance, I could not have been much older than six, and yet, it was told to me in such a way that I never got the idea that the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were either remotely radical or political. Of course, it may be a bit much to assume that at six years of age I should know anything more than the story itself, but following two decades of immersion into the church I would think that I would be weaned from the milk and fed solid food (I Cor. 3:2). Rare is the occasion that one would hear this story told in such a way that we might find ourselves threatened by something analogous to a furnace (at least a jail cell). Perhaps even more telling is how, despite the fact that these three men were well aware that God may not save them, they still refused to accommodate the king's wishes. Interestingly, they all actually worked in the service of the king. Yet, they were still capable of discerning when a leader had asked that of which cannot be given. I just wonder how this story could be told today so that we too could so easily see when what is demanded of us becomes an occasion for idolatry.
Perhaps this story is much too easy. The idolatry is plain to see even by a six year old child. What may be required, therefore, is a bit of that solid food intended for the mature in body and spirit (Heb. 5:14). That is, what kind of resources would be necessary for Christians today to understand when something is being asked of them that should not nor must not be given to those who call themselves our benefactors? This is something of a rhetorical question for I think we have the resources necessary to make such careful distinctions via scripture and tradition. I say scripture and tradition for we know that scripture is not self-interpreting. Scripture is easily manipulated to suit our own purposes, therefore we rely on tradition, as well as a community of faith-an actual body of believers-to help us interpret scripture well and to hold us accountable when we fail to do so.
Yet, part of what the above anecdote from scripture teaches us is that our best sources are biographical. The stories of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Ruth, Esther and Sarah; Hosea, Amos and Jeremiah; John, Peter, Mary and Paul all constitute a tradition of interpretation that is still exemplified in the lives of those who continue to conform their will to God. This is why the Catholic Church has saints. Saints are those people that the church, as a body politic, has agreed helps us to understand scripture by their very lives. Protestants and Anabaptists may use the word 'saint' a bit differently, but we still look to those who have followed Jesus well as exemplars of what it means to have one's will conformed to God. Though we may not agree with all of the actions performed by those rebel priests the Berrigans, is it not possible to see how, for example, their lives are made more intelligible through the aforementioned story from Daniel (or vice-versa)? If so, what does this mean for how we understand Jesus and how, in turn, we live Christ-like lives? What does it mean to follow the path of Jesus when our respective governments demand total allegiance? When Jesus demands that we love our enemies and our leaders demand that we kill them, whom do we obey? Caesar or Christ? Do we really understand the political statement: Jesus is Lord? If so, why is it not more obvious that all of the Presidents that we will ever have ask more of us than what is owed to them?
Unfortunately, the church is so often co-opted by the project of the state that she is no longer capable of offering a prophetic witness to the peaceable kingdom and, therefore, renders it difficult for the Christian to realize that her loyalties are being stretched thin. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters (which is exactly why it is so important for the state to dupe the church into thinking that they are both on the same trajectory). So in a time like this, where it is apparent that whoever is in charge of the White House is going to demand more than what is owed them (our bodies in service to the exact opposite of how Jesus calls us to treat our enemies) we must ask at least this one basic question: How are Christians living in a post-Christian climate, though still residing in a nominally Christian environment, going to be capable of discerning when it is time to say, "But if not [even if God does not intervene to save us], be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods . . .?"