A growing number of American Christians are realizing that we are not living in the Promised Land, but in what increasingly appears to be Babylon. If that’s true, then like our Jewish forefathers, we should live here as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11–12), keeping our conduct honorable among the post-Christian Gentiles that surround us, while proclaiming the excellencies of Christ who has called us out of darkness into light.
The notion that we are to live as exiles (not only in America, but anywhere that we find ourselves) is not a new one. What’s more, it has special appeal to my own generation, the newly ubiquitous Millennials. In particular, younger Christians are attracted to Jeremiah’s call to his co-religionists to “seek the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). The prophet’s larger call goes like this:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4–7)
This Jeremian option encourages us to engage with American society, rather than war against it. Build houses, plant gardens, make art, take a seat at the multi-cultural table, join in with the big American stew being cooked up. Of course, we should do so as thoroughgoing Christians. But don’t withdraw from the city that we find ourselves in. Seek the good of the city and pray for this ungodly place, because our own welfare (at least in this life) is wrapped up with America’s welfare.
If we accept that our own situation is, in some ways, analogous to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and that therefore, we should heed Jeremiah’s call, then it seems incumbent upon us to know what it is that we’re heeding and what response we ought to expect if we do heed faithfully. And to do that, we need to continue to read that ancient story.
See the Next Episodes
Thankfully, the Scriptures provide us with the next chapter. It’s called the book of Daniel. The first half of the book is a basic narrative about Daniel and three friends as they seek to live out the Jeremian call to “seek the good of the city.” However, those who call for Christians to seek the good of the city by embedding ourselves in its institutions, and pursuing God’s justice, often fail to reckon with the fact that two of the main instances of this do-gooding in the Bible resulted in a lion’s den and a fiery furnace. Apparently some Babylonians don’t find our do-gooding to be all that good.
Daniel was cast into the lion’s den for defying the king’s edict that no one should pray to anyone except the king. In other words, he was told to stop doing the very thing that Jeremiah told him to do. What’s more, Daniel didn’t just keep praying; he prayed with the windows open, where everyone could see. He didn’t just disobey; he defied. He didn’t slink away into the corner and seek the city’s good in private; he openly and brazenly flouted the king’s edict.
The story is much the same with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When King Anthony Kennedy, I mean, Nebuchadnezzar, ordered the people to worship his golden image whenever they heard the sound of the horn, the pipe, and the lyre, the three Jews refused, even when threatened with the fiery furnace.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16–18)
High Defiance Against God
Which brings us to our present situation. The Supreme Court’s recent decree about marriage isn’t just a run-of-the-mill policy difference. It’s an act of high defiance against God, nature, and history. The State is attempting to arrogate to itself the right to define marriage — to define what men and women are, and what they are for. But God the Father Almighty did not give them that authority. (And for what it’s worth, neither does the Constitution. The fact that the Court found a right to same-sex mirage lying under a broken down penumbra in one of the amendments somewhere doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to pretend that we can’t read.) God has given all authority to his Son, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, and our system of government gives such prerogatives to the people, not our black-robed betters, or the Deep State, or even President Executive Order.
What I’m suggesting is that this is our Shadrach moment, and that, alongside other “options” being considered (whether “the Benedict Option,” or Constantine, Lincoln, or Buckley), we need a Shadrach Option. The Supreme Court is playing their funky music on the lyre, and demanding that we all become liars. Like the Roman emperors of the second and third centuries A.D., they are demanding that we offer a pinch of incense to Caesar, acknowledging his divinity. And we should refuse to play ball.
Now I can already hear the objections. “No one’s asking you to worship anything. Worship whoever and however you want. But you will issue the marriage license. You will bake the cake. Or else.” This sort of objection fails to reckon with what the public act means — whether it’s bowing down or offering incense or issuing lying marriage licenses. At the end of the day, Caesar didn’t care whether the early Christians worshiped him deep, deep down in their hearts. “Think whatever you want behind your eyes and between your ears. But you will acknowledge the absolute divine right of the emperor in public.” Had Shadrach and his friends fallen down when they heard the music, but in their minds thought, “I’m really worshiping the Lord God right now,” Nebuchadnezzar would not have known and would not have cared, because he would have gotten what he wanted: their participation in his public, brazen lie.
Because Shadrach and his friends, along with the early Christians, recognized the idolatrous claim for what it was, they refused to go along. They defied. They said, “No.” And here’s the clincher: They did so because they were seeking the good of the city.
MLK and the County Clerk
But perhaps the biblical analogy doesn’t move you. You’re not really into the Shadrach Option. Fine. Let’s try one closer to home. We’ll call it the MLK Option. Baronelle Stutzman can be our Rosa Parks, and Kim Davis can be the white elected official in Talledega County, Alabama — the hypothetical one that we all imagine that we would have been had we lived back then. You know? The one who defied George Wallace and his vile edicts? The one who registered blacks to vote despite “the rule of law”? The one who refused to prosecute the sit-ins at the lunch counter, and in doing so, galvanized others to resist that wicked racial tyranny — that’s who you are in the story that might have been, right?
“But these are different situations. Same-sex marriage isn’t the same as Jim Crow.” Sure, they’re not identical. But one of the key differences is that we’re attempting to prevent a rebellious legal regime from being established, whereas they were trying to remove one that had metastasized. But don’t miss the common denominator: Both seek to enshrine high-handed rebellion into law and force everyone to participate. Both want to decree lies and ensure that everyone repeats them. The old Supreme Court pretended that they could make separate be equal. The new one pretends that they can make men into women. But as Vaclav Havel famously wrote, “It always makes sense to tell the truth.” Even when you’re a county clerk.
Moxie on the Way to the Furnace
One of the things I love about Shadrach and his friends is their moxie. They didn’t concern themselves with the possible results of their actions, whether intended or unintended. “We’re going to obey God, whatever the consequences.” They were standing athwart history, saying, “Stop” long before modern conservatives brought it back.
And this response wasn’t because they were blind to the possible outcomes; they mention two of them, right there in the passage. But the outcomes were irrelevant to their duties. And what’s more, they aren’t led to the furnace with a hang-dog look, muttering an apologetic, “I’m so sorry; we’ll regrettably have to decline the king’s invitation to kneel.” Nor did they angrily rant and rave about the injustice of it all.
They walked to the gallows with clean consciences and a gleam in their eye that said, “Go ahead. Throw us in that briar patch. We know in whom we’ve believed, and our God reigns.”
If this is Babylon, let’s be Shadrach.