Trial by Fire

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 14, 2018, based on Daniel 3.

When I was a child this was one of my favorite Bible stories. There’s an evil king with a fiery furnace, a supreme act of heroic courage, and the good guys win in the end. The heroes even have uber-cool names: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” What 10-year old wouldn’t like this story?

Even as adults, the story appeals to our natural desire for a clear “evil” and an obvious “good.” You don’t have to get far into the Ten Commandments to know that bowing down to a 90-foot idol is probably a bad idea.

If only the idols of our world were so easy to identify. If only avoiding idolatry in our day and age were as straightforward (if still as demanding) as this story suggests.

One way into this story for us is to reflect on two ideas: “civil religion” and “civil disobedience.” Civil religion, as the study material notes, is when the state or its leaders take on the role of a “god”: demanding allegiance expressed in acts of devotion, grounded in a founding narrative and reinforced with meaningful symbols and rituals. It isn’t difficult to spot these elements of civil religion in American or Canadian society.

Civil disobedience, particularly of the “peaceful protest” sort noted in the leader’s guide, is an appropriate Christian response to the idolatry of civil religion, especially when there is a clash of allegiances between God’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom in which we live. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, so we can thoughtfully and nonviolently, yet resolutely, refuse to participate in the civil religion of our day.

However, to be effective this needs to be more than simply refusing to say some words about a flag. It requires us to examine the deeper supporting structures of our nation’s particular brand of civil religion—the power imbalances in society, the ethnocentric nationalism, the coercive manipulation of truth, the belief in redemptive violence—and reflect on how we can challenge or even change these realities.

How specifically do you see civil religion in American or Canadian society? How have we as Christians unthinkingly bought into this civil religion? How does this lessen our allegiance to Jesus as Lord or weaken our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ? What specific steps can we take to challenge or even change the deeper structures that support American or Canadian civil religion?

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