Reflections For Ramadan On Resisting Empire Based On The Story Of Daniel

I’ve been fasting during Ramadan with my Muslim friends and been reading the story of Daniel for my reflections.

The book of Daniel was probably completed c. 530 B.C., shortly after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 [1] The book is made up primarily of historical narrative (found mainly in chs. 1-6) and apocalyptic (revelatory) material (found mainly in chs. 7-12). The latter may be defined as symbolic, visionary, prophetic literature, usually composed during oppressive conditions and being chiefly eschatological in theological content.

For my purpose of using the story of Daniel as an example of nonviolent resistance to empire I will focus primarily upon the historical narrative of the book (in chs. 1-6).

The book begins with the invasion by Babylon, the conquest of Judah, the captivity of the Israelites and the pillaging of the temple which was the very heart of their culture.  

11In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in BabyloniaA and put in the treasure house of his god.

 It then goes on to tell the story of some of the captives’ attempts to resist to the empire.

 Part One – The King’s Invitation.

 3Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility– 4young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. 6Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

 Daniel and his friends – Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah – were captives like everyone else. But unlike many of the other captives – they were noble, handsome and smart – ‘the best and the brightest’ – the kind of young people that the Babylonian empire would find particularly useful as civil servants in furthering their imperial interests.

 Talented young people such as these are always sought by governments, corporations and denominations. And they are made offers that are almost impossible to resist.

 In this case they were offered the opportunity to get the very best education – in languages and literature – and the very best employment – with status and power.

 For the King to offer Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah such an unparalleled  opportunity for advancement must have seemed like an extraordinary act of generosity.

 And talented young people such as these who are given unparalleled opportunities by governments, corporations and denominations must feel like they’ve got a lucky break. ‘

Eating from the king’s table!’ How good is this? What an answer to prayer! In exchange for this, being expected to change your name, speak the language of the empire and serve the interests of the empire might seem a minor accommodation.

Part Two – Daniel’s Resolution. 

8But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel, 10but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.” 11Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12″Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

The text says: ‘But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine’. The word ‘defile’ Daniel uses here to describe the offer of eating food and drink from the royal table reframes the King’s invitation as a cynical, political stratagem of seduction.

 Daniel sees the King’s invitation as a seduction – an inducement to get him to conform to the system – an enticement for him to compromise himself and his faith in the process. Where others see an ‘opportunity’ at the King’s table for gratification and satisfaction, Daniel sees the inevitable and incontrovertible ‘possibility’ of temptation and corruption. Daniel’s objection to partaking in the rich food and drink on the King’s table is ‘grounded in the religious scruple of Jewish purity. Ritual purity is not a small matter to Daniel.’[2]

 Ritual purity may be a small matter to us, but personal integrity is no small matter at all. And there is no greater threat to personal integrity than the temptation of access to ‘rich food and drink’ and the corruption that can come from admittance to ‘the King’s table’. 

 Daniel knew controlling his appetite was the key to maintaining his integrity in captivity. He knew that if controlled his appetite there was no way the empire could control him. Daniel’s personal resolution was the foundation of his political resistance to the empire.

 The Viceroy of India once said astutely of Mahatma Gandhi – who was well known for his capacity to control his appetites – that ‘Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a (person) who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he (or she) believes to be right.  He (or she) is a dangerous enemy, because his (or her) body which you can always conquer gives you so little purchase upon his (or her) soul.’[3]

 Maintaining our integrity and liberty in any system that we may happen to be a part of depends on nurturing our capacity to control our appetite for pleasure, praise or power. If we can control our appetite for pleasure, praise or power then we cannot be co-opted.

 So if we want to enhance our capacity to resist the predatory consumer capitalist political economy we are a part of, learning to fast is a fundamental discipline for us to practice. 

And there is no better time for us all to learn together to fast than now – during Ramadan

 Daniel is defiant but ‘he does not flaunt his defiance.’[4] He acts freely, but acts carefully. He consults with his immediate supervisors – the chief officer and the guard. He negotiates room to move by getting them to give him permission to run a pilot project. He negotiates time to try it – a period of ten days to test his pilot project. And he gives his immediate supervisors the assurance that they can evaluate the success or failure of the experiment themselves and scrap it if it does not work, so there is minimal risk to them.

Note that Daniel acts – but he does not act alone. He conducts his defiance campaign with the help, support and participation of three friends – Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

And God – who has been nowhere to be seen or heard in the narrative thus far – makes his own subtle but decisive contribution to the defiance campaign by quietly encouraging the official ‘to show favor (hesed) and sympathy (rahamim) to Daniel’ and his friends. 

In totalitarian systems we cannot flaunt our defiance without being fired or shot. If we want to be free to act and to continue to act freely, then we need to act carefully. We need to find supervisors who are sympathetic to us, whom we can negotiate with to have room to move and time to try our experiments. And we need to minimize the risk to them. Controlled experiments – like one-off short-term pilot projects – usually entail minimal risk  

 We need to act – but if at all possible – we should never act alone. One person can make a point. Two persons can hold the line. But it takes at least three people to create the space we need to nurture a counter culture of serious resistance to the system.

And we need to remember without God’s subtle but decisive contribution – quietly encouraging people ‘to show favor (hesed) and sympathy (rahamim)’ to one another – all our attempts to nurture a counter culture of serious resistance to the dominant system will be in vain.

A Muslim friend of mine reminds me that the one thing we know we can count on is – God quietly encouraging people ‘to show favor (hesed) and sympathy (rahamim)’ to one another. Because God, he says, is best understood (in the Islamic tradition) by the invocation: ‘Bismillah-i-Rahman-i-Rahim’.

 Part Three – The Evaluation. 

 15At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

17To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

18At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

21And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 After ten days comes the evaluation.

The verdict is that ‘they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food’. The risk proved worth taking. The resistance has proved a success – even to representatives of the empire.

 At the end of their training Daniel and his friends receive the highest marks and get the highest ranking. ‘There is none like Daniel and his friends, not in the entire empire.’[5] The king assumes their knowledge and wisdom is as a result of his imperial training program. He does not know that Daniel and his friends have acquired the knowledge and wisdom they have not only because they completed the imperial training program, but also because they violated the terms and conditions of the imperial training program.

 And the king is totally unaware of the significant role that God is playing in the process. According to the author it is God, not Nebuchadnezzar, ‘who gave them knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning and visions and dreams of all kinds.’ Thus the author of the story is saying that while king may think he is in complete control, he is not. God is an alternate source of power operating subversively behind the scenes to equip and empower those captives who would seek to resist the power of the empire.

 The moral of the story is clear. Though we seldom see God or hear God like Moses did, God is always present – especially in situations where he seems most absent – quietly equipping and empowering people who would seek to resist any system of domination. And the best way for us to resist a system of domination is simply to refuse to allow the system to dictate the terms and conditions which determine the decisions that we make.

And the best way for us to refuse to allow the system to dictate the terms and conditions of the decisions we make is for all of us to draw a bottom line – a rock solid ethical limit to our willingness to accommodate the system – beyond which we will not go regardless.

For most of us those rock solid ethical limits to our willingness to accommodate the dominant system of our day will need to be worked out in the context of a predatory  political economy and will necessitate setting limits to our consumption. It is only as we act like Daniel and control our appetite for pleasure, praise and power that we will be able to maintain our integrity and our liberty in the context of our own ongoing captivity  

Dave Andrews

[1] Excerpted from Compton‘s Interactive Bible NIV. Copyright (c) 1994, 1995, 1996 SoftKey Multimedia Inc.

[2] Walter Brueggemann Finally Comes The Poet Fortress Press Minneapolis 1989 p118

[3] Gilbert Murray on Mahatma Gandhi in the Hibbert Journal 1918 quoted in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol 19 p652 Chicago 1990 


[4] Walter Brueggemann Finally Comes The Poet Fortress Press Minneapolis 1989 p118

[5] Walter Brueggemann Finally Comes The Poet Fortress Press Minneapolis 1989 p120

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