I often make the mistake of assuming that what I experienced as a child growing up is somehow typical of my generation. With that said, I am going to assume that the typical American child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and who went to church on any semi-regular basis has heard the children’s song, Dare to Be a Daniel. In case I am making an invalid assumption, here’s the chorus to the song:
Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm
Dare to make it known
I’ve sat through countless children’s programs where this ethical lesson is recommended to young Christians. Dare to be a Daniel, which interpreted means: stick to God’s principles even when doing so puts your life at risk. As it goes, that is not an invalid piece of advice and it’s demonstrated throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments, not just in the case of Daniel. But it is worth asking the question: “Is this the only or even the greatest lesson to be learned from Daniel?” Typically, this lesson is often cast in terms of the believer standing up to the reigning power structures at all costs, prevailing norms be damned. To be honest, I’m not convinced that that’s the lesson we should glean from Daniel’s story.
The children’s song and its attendant moral lesson is derived wholly from the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel. That is–as far as chapters go–just 8% of the whole book. Granted, the reason this chapter in particular has become such a successful morality tale is that it is just a really good story. Daniel has become a trusted advisor to the king, causing his fellow advisors (not believers) to become jealous of Daniel, his influence, his wisdom, and his relationship to the royal court. Plotting against him, they convince the king to make an unjust law specifically designed to entrap Daniel. They know it will work because Daniel is, above all, faithful to God. The law they devise makes it illegal for any resident of Babylon to pray to anyone other than the king for a month. The penalty for disobeying is death. Daniel, of course, continues praying to God. When he’s caught in the act, he is exposed and the king, by force of the rule of law, puts Daniel into a den of hungry lions. The next morning the king discovers Daniel alive and well due to a miracle. He has Daniel’s enemies put to death and issues a royal proclamation commending worship of Daniel’s God. The End.
Except it isn’t the end. It’s not even the beginning. It’s right smack-dab in the middle of Daniel (chapter 6 of 12 chapters total). Throughout all twelve chapters, Daniel’s main job is that of royal advisor. He’s essentially a cabinet officer for three successive administrations. Daniel is a politically-appointed civil servant. Beside the fact that all of the Book of Daniel is saturated in politics, I see this as perhaps its greatest lesson. Although, I do admit some bias since I am (1) a Christian who (2) serves in government that (3) is a serious academic student of politics. Nevertheless, hear me out.
I propose that one overarching lesson of Daniel’s story is that Christians can, if not ought, serve their governments in ways that bring public good and value to the community.
Daniel was a citizen of Judah when it was conquered by the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar. In 597 B.C., the kingdom of Judah was made a vassal state of Babylon. After ten years or so of political intrigue, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and deported members of the royal family and nobility back to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-20; Daniel 1:1-5). Daniel was one of these deported nobility. He and others like him were sent back to Babylon for the specific purpose of receiving a Babylonian education and placement in the service of the Babylonian court.
Throughout the narrative of these events, there is no indication that Daniel refused either to serve the Babylonian king nor to take advantage of the Babylonian education. Instead, he only asked that he not be forced to do things which would violate his religious commitments. That, of course, is the set-up for another famous story in Daniel–the fiery furnace–but there is no need to digress on that point. Rather, what’s important to note is that at the time of the Babylonian invasion, Daniel was probably a teenager of noble birth, predisposed to being educated, and took part in a common practice of drawing in the learning and ability of conquered peoples.1 Daniel adapted himself to these new conditions and served the king of Babylon.
Of course, this is not an example of contemporary thinking. Today, we have a hard time imagining service to an administration of a different political party, never mind a foreign, invading, and conquering culture. But this is precisely what Daniel did. Not only that, but God equipped Daniel in such a way as to endear him to the Babylonian court. His skill at the interpretation of dreams was highly relevant in the Babylonian context (this is also an interesting parallel to a similar figure in a similar situation–Joseph)2. And it helped Daniel develop a reputation for wise counsel and truth-telling that allowed him to last in such positions for sixty years.3
Daniel not only served the government that conquered his native land, he served in the government that conquered that one and then continued on into the new administration. He went from the Hebrew kingdom of Judah to the pagan kingdom of Babylon and stayed after the transition to the Medo-Persian and then the Persian empires. It is in the midst of these transitions where we encounter him daring to be loyal to God in chapter 6. The Babylonian Empire had fallen to a conquering force of Medes and Persians. There are some historical issues in identifying the individual named Darius in chapter 6,4 but those issues are not important to the overall lesson. That lesson is that one can serve within secular governments while not only remaining faithful to God but doing good in ways that often defy our contemporary visions of what doing good means.
Daniel did not use his influence to destroy the native Babylonian culture. Daniel did not attempt to turn the Babylonian government into a new Jewish kingdom. Instead, he simply applied his ethics–derived from the Law of God–and his knowledge–derived from both Jerusalem and Babylon–to serving these governments in a way that brought value. He told the truth to the king, even when the truth did not mean good news for the king. And it was this commitment to truthfulness that endeared him to each successive administration.
Now for a few clarifications.
First, I am not saying that it is a Christian duty to serve in or for government. Rather, I’m driving more at saying that service in government, or in particular aspects of government, is a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). And like all spiritual gifts, it is provided “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Second, I want to place what I’m saying here into the context of my prior post saying that the church ought to be anarchist in orientation. I think it is exactly this anarchist orientation of the church that allows individual Christians to serve productively in government. In other words, if Christianity distinguishes itself as being loyal to the Kingdom of God above all other loyalties, then Christians in government (ideally) can be trusted to do their jobs, do them well, and in pursuit of the common good without the typical motives of power and wealth coming into play. I’d even go so far as to say that the concept of bureaucratic neutrality is itself, in many ways, derivative of certain aspects of Protestantism.5
Finally, I want to correlate Daniel’s submission to the Medo-Persian rule of law in chapter 6 to the New Testament ethics of submission I discussed in that prior post. Essentially, that correlation boils down to the fact that Christians can serve in many posts and perform many tasks up to the point at which doing so violates the Law of God. When that point arrives, it is the duty of the Christian to submit to the consequences. Note: this is not a duty to the state, its government, or any overweening political ideal of loyalty but it is, rather, a duty to God.
Peter admonished first-century Christians: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). Darius knew Daniel was innocent of any real wrongdoing, and Daniel’s obedience ended up bringing a strong witness to the culture around him. Daniel did not run away. Daniel did not resist the law by violence. Daniel trusted God to do whatever it was he had planned through Daniel’s obedient witness. It is not our good deeds as public servants that Peter is referring to here. Recall, again, that this was written during a period of active persecution against the church. Instead, this was referring to the willingness to suffer the consequences for obedience to God rather than men. Tying this into Daniel’s story, the advisors who saw him as a rival completely misinterpreted Daniel’s motives. They assumed that he shared their motives–power, influence, glory–when Daniel’s faithfulness to Darius, and Nebuchadnezzar before him, and Cyrus after him, was really a reflection of Daniel’s faithfulness to God.
Just today, while mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed, I was brought to a stop by this observation: “You have no idea what God is doing at any given point in time.” That’s really a profound thought, one that does not often occur, at least not to me. All too often we are in the business of convincing ourselves that we do know what God is doing. Of course, in the grand scheme of things we do know, but do we know how all the small moving pieces of that grand scheme come together? In the present? We do not know.
Daring to be a Daniel is not, necessarily, as the classic retelling of chapter 6 as a morality play would have it, resisting the powers that be. Instead, daring to be a Daniel means jumping in and doing the work required by the powers that be to bring public goods to fruition with the understanding that the powers that be are not always aligned with God’s Law. That means being willing to suffer the consequences when the power structures’ intentions and yours diverge. In many cases, when it comes to service in government, that means nothing more than walking away from the halls of power and influence. Doing so might not kill you, but it might be just as hard as walking into the lion’s den.
- Zvi Ron, “Daniel as the Embodiment of Exile and Redemption,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 2017): 23.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 25.
- For an overview of these issues and possible resolutions, see William H. Shea, “Darius the Mede in His Persian-Babylonian Setting,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 29, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 235-257. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol29/iss3/2/
- For an interesting take on the theological meaning of bureaucratic neutrality, see Camilla Stivers, “Rule By Nobody: Bureaucratic Neutrality as Secular Theodicy,” Administrative Theory & Praxis 37, no. 4 (October 2015): 242-251. https://doi.org/10.1080/10841806.2015.1083825.