Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Daniel 3) transports me to the cafeteria lunch table today at Eastern Mennonite University, where the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s annual gathering, aka Peace Camp, is underway. I got to spend some time catching up at lunch with an old friend from Toronto, Lee McKenna, who does the most amazing work in nonviolence training and community building work around the world. Her work in recent years has taken her to Africa, where she has trained several hundred who have gone on to train several thousand leaders in the new South Sudan in the processes of building a civil society across lines of tribal and religious differences. At the core of her training is the understanding of the economic factors that lie deep at the core of violence. In South Sudan and in much of Africa, it is the age old Cain and Abel struggle between tillers and shepherds over control of the land. Add to that the idolatry of all those resources that lie beneath the land – oil, gold, diamonds, and coltan (that precious metal we all carry around in our pockets, as it is necessary to cell phone technology). As much as we’d like to be separate from this world, we are fully integrated into it, including its violence. Wars continue to rage over these idols that demand our homage, if we want to enjoy the lifestyle we are accustomed to.
Daniel’s companions were fully integrated into the world of the Chaldeans, where they had been exiled. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not isolate themselves from that world or form an alternative community. In fact, they proved themselves so trustworthy to the Chaldean King that they had risen in his administration to levels of important leadership. But there came a day when they had to make a radical heart decision – a choice of ultimate allegiance. Did God have their hearts, or did they bow down to the idol of gold? For them, there was no choice. Their hearts and their lives and their way of life belonged to God. Threats of the hell of a fiery oven did not dissuade them. And at the end of the day, as the famous story tells us, they were joined in that furnace by a fourth figure who appeared as a god, and the fire had no power to harm them.
As encouraging as this story is, it is also troubling, when you consider how many people with the faith of these three Hebrew children do get harmed and violated by the furnaces of hate and violence that rage in our world. Today I got to play guitar and sing along with some young Burmese refugee teenagers, whose lives are marked by great loss from the persecution that has plagued the Karen people of their homeland. They give the most amazing testimonies, and ask the most honest questions as they struggle to grow in faith and learn how to forgive the enemies who have killed so many thousands in the ethnic cleansing of this tribal people. The song they taught us today is translated in English as “love your neighbor.” When I spend time with them, and see that there is a deep joy and a wonder of life that has not been dispelled from their lives, I begin to understand the Daniel story a little better. I believe there is a place deep in our hearts, in our souls, that is inviolate, that cannot be singed by the fires of violence that burn in our world. Whenever people anywhere in the world refuse to bow down to the golden statues that demand allegiance, there is a likelihood that the Chaldean culture we live in will recognize the subversion and will engage in persecution, perhaps even death. But there is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God, a place deep in each of our souls, where we can walk through the fire without being harmed. And it is this witness of the presence of God in the midst of the fire, that the story tells us has the power to transform the idolatrous culture at large. It’s enough to make me want to simplify my life, to learn to do without a cell phone, and quit paying homage to the coltan idol that drives our way of life.
How about you? Where does this passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.