Article by: Bruce Ashford
The past decade has made one thing clear to many evangelicals: the social, cultural, and political ground is shifting beneath them. We’re not “winning the day” with our vision of the good life. Although we’ve seen incremental progress on the pro-life issue, we’re experiencing consistent regression on other important issues, such as religious liberty, human dignity, gender and sexuality, and free speech. And many of us have given little attention to opposing racial injustice.
As we’re marginalized in this uncertain day, the Old Testament offers important lessons for us. Especially prescient is the story in Daniel 3 about three Jewish men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who are Babylonian captives under King Nebuchadnezzar. From these mid-level government officials, we learn four significant lessons about being faithful witnesses in a pagan public square.
1. We must not bow to the false political gods of our day.
In Daniel 3, we learn Nebuchadnezzar had constructed a 90-foot-high gold statue on the plain of Dura. He gathered government officials from across his kingdom and ordered them to worship the statue. It was quite an event, replete with celebrity musicians and politicians from around the world. Anyone who didn’t bend a knee was threatened with fire. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow.
Similarly, evangelicals shouldn’t submit to the false political gods that flourish and abound in the United States of America. How do we identify the “false gods” in our own nation? We look for anything raised to a level of ultimacy that God alone occupies.
One way to gain perspective on false political gods is to identify perennial idols—sex, money, and power—and observe the way they shape political platforms and public policies. Another way is to identify dominant political ideologies and excavate their idolatrous underpinnings. Divorced from the corrective influence of the gospel, every ideology mislocates “evil” and then deifies some aspect of God’s creation to redeem us from that evil.
Classical political liberalism takes on such ideological dimensions. It elevates individual freedom and autonomy to ultimate status. This can manifest in a sort of social progressivism, because when individual autonomy is made the chief moral arbiter, norms are liable to constant change. The epitome of our societal obsession with the liberal ideology (and idolatry) is the cliché “Follow your heart.” It’s another way of saying, “I have the right to do whatever I please.” The deleterious fruits of such an attitude—elective (and frequent) abortion, embarrassingly high divorce rates, disregard for biblical sexual mores, the diminished religious liberty—are legion. Other ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, and social conservatism are similarly idolatrous.
2. We must stand strong in the face of immense social, cultural, and political pressure.
Once the three Jewish nonconformists refused to bow, a group of rival government officials arranged for them to be brought to trial in front of Nebuchadnezzar, whose initial rage soon turns into puzzlement. The king offers them another opportunity to capitulate, promising that the Jewish God couldn’t possibly save them from his own powerful hand. In response to Nebuchadnezzer, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego state the God of Israel can in fact save them—but even if he doesn’t, they will not worship the false god.
In the United States, evangelicals will experience opposition in many forms, including corporate pressure, legal sanctions, social ostracism, and social media flash mobs. These will increasingly coalesce to put evangelicals under immense social, cultural, and political pressure. We should remain convictional, refuse to compromise on biblical beliefs, and capitalize on every opportunity to decenter ourselves by pointing to God’s power to redeem.
3. We must retain our Christian composure in the heat of the battle.
Nebuchadnezzar responds to the Jewish nonconformists by having them thrown into the incinerator. They don’t resist arrest or spew vitriol, but retain composure as they are punished for their righteous deeds.
The lesson for American evangelicals is pointed, even painful. When we’re trusting God and decentering ourselves, we will not resort to unchristian behavior as a means of promoting Christian goals. We will not demonize, degrade, or misrepresent our opponents in order to score political points. We will prioritize long-term witness over short-term political victories. We will trust God is working in and through our convictional witness, even when it seems he’s not.
4. We must trust God will display his kingship through our witness.
In the conclusion of Daniel 3, God saves the three Jewish non-conformists. Just after Nebuchadnezzar throws them in the fire, he notices that the men aren’t being consumed and that a mysterious fourth person—whose appearance was like “the Son of God”—has joined them. Nebuchadnezzar casts aside his royal dignity, runs toward the incinerator, and invites them to come out. In an astonishing reversal of his position, Nebuchadnezzar praises the Jewish God, legitimizes the Jewish religion, and promotes the nonconformists.
Let’s be clear: American evangelicals should not conclude that God will give us visible political victories in response to our witness. Sometimes God gives us visible victories, and sometimes he doesn’t. We’re called to be faithful rather than victorious, witnesses rather than winners. Christ alone “wins” politically, and one day, his triumphant kingdom will be made manifest. The lesson to be gained, therefore, is that God will work in and through our faithfulness to glorify himself.
The narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego offers the church in America an incredible vision of how to live faithfully in the midst of such social, cultural, and political idolatry. In fact, the book of Daniel reminds the church that Babylon is nearer than we think. And like the three Israelite men, God has sanctified and sent his redeemed people into the public square to proclaim with our lips and lives another King reigns—even if the furnace is “heated seven times more than it was usually heated” (Dan. 3:17).
Bruce Ashford serves as provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He co-authored One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (with Chris Pappalardo) and is the author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians. You can follow him at www.BruceAshford.net and on Twitter.