Of Flags and Furnaces

12onsports2-master768“As a pastor, how are you helping your people navigate all of this?”

This was the question a friend asked me earlier this week over coffee in response to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner that has spread across the NFL—and even reaching Pop Warner leagues and even the MLB.
In all honesty, I stumbled over my response to him. I partially piecemealed some semblance of an answer together, mumbling how our ministry had prioritized restorative justice in its mission since its inception. I rambled on how I have the opportunity to lead congregants who have both served in the military, and others who have repeatedly endured racial profiling from the police. But his question helped me realize that people must be challenged and equipped to think biblically and theologically about issues such as these before flippantly weighing in on matters of this gravity.

A mentor of mine once said that the task of the pastor is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. It is my hope that these thoughts, offered amongst the litany of responses that has become white-noise (pun intended) on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds, would do just that. The chief tool to offer both comfort and affliction is scripture. As a pastor, I weekly walk our church through the Bible, connecting the Word of God to the world around us, and challenging our people to think theologically about the text.

And so, I write this pastorally.

Last night, while reading scripture I was impressed by the similarities between the NFL kneeldown and the account of Daniel, exiled in Babylon—particularly the events that precipitated the oft-cited Sunday School story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In Daniel 3, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar issues a decree pertaining to the gold statue that he had constructed.

The herald proclaimed loudly: ‘Peoples, nations, and languages! This is what you must do: When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, you must bow down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.”—Daniel 3:4-6

Of course, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow, causing king and country to become irate. The temptation for us would to be to dismiss this account as merely a few coincidences. However, probing into the narrative with open eyes and an open heart reveals a haunting parallel to what we are viewing now in the NFL.

Kaepernick has said that he is refusing to stand and honor a flag to draw attention to the systemic injustices people of color have had to endure. While these injustices are seen clearly now sprouting in the form of gentrification, racial policing, and things of that ilk, America seeded the roots of racism in colonialism, conquest, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Conversely, Daniel and his Jewish peers knew all-too-well what it felt like to be a people displaced from their homeland by empire. They knew the scorn and marginalization that came from being a Jew living in Babylon. This shared experience also shapes their stubborn refusal to bow before a heap of gold.

Significant amounts of scholarship seem to concur that the construction of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue coincided with the pillaging and destruction of Jerusalem. The Septuagint even implies that the dates of these two events line up rather well. Thus, it’s no wonder that a contingency of defiant Jews living in Babylon would resist Nebuchadnezzar’s agenda—the statue stood for the desecration of their home, their culture, and their rights!

Furthermore, even conservative scholarship asserts that Nebuchadnezzar’s statue was not so much a religious icon—as much as it, like the American flag, was a political fetish. John Walvoord, the former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote that bowing before the gold statue was “in effect a saluting of the flag.” This salute was, like America’s, elicited with an anthem as well, and composed with “every kind of instrument.” C.F. Keil writes that such a response to the statue was conducted to recognize the power held and promised by the empire, and to acknowledge allegiance to it.

But wait, didn’t Daniel’s companions resist because it was worshipping a false idol?

Sort of.

In some way, national deities were attached in meaning to national objects within Babylon. However, the ire of the king was drawn not from an offense that Babylon’s gods were not worshipped by young Jews—it was because there was not a blind allegiance to the king or empire. Nebuchadnezzar’s power to lead was predicated upon having an unwavering sense of enthusiasm and nationalism by the people for the State. Without it, Nebuchadnezzar was only a paper tiger.

And paper tigers have a tough time striking fear in people; a fear that is needed for exploitation and oppression, a fear that is needed to control.

Paper tigers thrive on the creation and proliferation of idols. Idols are born when ordinary objects—be it statues of gold, or strips of cloth dyed red, white, and blue—are given meaning. Idols become deified when the meaning begins to matter more than what it was intended to stand for. Worshippers of these national gods can always be identified by the visceral responses elicited when people resist the command to bow.

But here’s the thing. . .

There is only one God in the universe.

And any allegiance to a false god is a lack of allegiance to the one true God.

So what does this mean for us?

To our brothers and sisters, comfortable standing with hand over heart, be afflicted in knowing that the same characters your laud and use as an example in Bible stories and Sunday School lessons, are the same people you vilify and demonize in your Facebook comments. Be afflicted knowing that God and empire are mutually exclusive.

To our brothers and sisters of color who are afflicted, be comforted by scripture which is a narrative of a tapestry of God’s children who kneel with you! Colin Kaepernick is our own collective “Daniel.” His teammates, colleagues, and peers courageously kneeling week after week in the furnace, those derogatorily called “sons of bitches” by our own elected Nebuchadnezzar are each “Shadrach’s, Meshach’s, and Abednego’s.” Know that like those three, you are not alone in the furnace! Thank you for giving us the challenge to bravely kneel with you in our common quest for justice, restoration, and wholeness.

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