Prophetic humor, and being free as God is free
(See Photos of our day with Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego).
It takes a certain gift, in the midst of a dark and terrible situation, to use humor to make a point. It’s a particular way of remembering, or grieving, or stirring people to hope, Comedy is. Up to this point we’ve seen prophets who have thundered criticism at the empire. Prophets who have embodied deep grief and sorrow. Prophets who could inspire to a distant hope in the future. But they have all been so serious.
And this is a serious story too, I mean, the men themselves were not laughing, and neither was Nebechenezzer. But the telling of the story is that sharp, political humor that highlights the power as foolish and lifts up the powerless as hero. Comedy can be enormously prophetic.
I think of the movie Life is Beautiful, an award-winning comedy about the Holocaust, in which writer, actor and director Roberto Benigni plays a father who creates a fantasy game for his young son in a concentration camp, so as to spare him from the horrors of reality.
But the genre has us laughing and crying at the same time, recognizing the loss of humanity and truth and dignity on the part not just of the prisoners but of their captors as well, who have bought into a reality where this evil is practiced and accepted.
By refusing to accept it, in fact making up a false reality, this father and son live a more true reality, in which humanity is upheld and people are respected and life is meant to be lived in harmony. Their game is a prophetic act, and viewing the holocaust through they eyes of comedy is prophetic as well.
Comedy can point out the absurdity of the empire, can highlight evil and remind us of truth in instinctive, nearly unspoken ways. Begnini says of the film, “I am a comedian and my way is not to show directly. Just to evoke. This to me was wonderful, the balance of comedy with tragedy.”
Our story today is this kind of film. It’s recounting a tragic or horrifying situation in a funny way. And that humor is serving a purpose. It’s reminding, inspiring, reawakening hope, perspective, frustration. It’s doing what the prophets do: criticizing and energizing.
Most likely the last book of the Old Testament to be written down, the Book of Daniel was probably written four centuries after the Babylonian exile in which its stories are set, when the people of Israel found themselves again facing immense persecution. So they reached back in their collective memory for these stories of another time of persecution, when their ancestors had been driven from their land and taken captive into foreign territory.
And is it ever foreign. For the Israelites in exile there is no collective identity like they’ve known, no recognition of the God who had delivered them, or the law given them in the time of Moses. There is no temple to center their worship or promised land beneath their feet. They must adapt to foreign language and customs and religion and way of life in almost every way.
In the midst of this time four reportedly cultured and good-looking men from the upper strata of Israeli society are taken into the palace to serve the king. Daniel, and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, whom the king promptly renamed them the much more palatable Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego.
And together, they become for one another the prophetic community. They nurture the memory of who God is and who they are, they grieve and hope and through conversation deeply rooted in tradition, prayer, and shared language, they remind one another of God’s promises and their part in the covenant relationship with God.
For example, when everyone else in the castle was gorging on un-kosher bacon feasts, they asked the steward to give them only fruit, vegetables and water. And so as not to get the steward in trouble with the king for starving these four, God made sure they were robust and healthy- even compared to all others in the palace. And so the steward kept up their secret diet, and they maintained faithfulness to their God in the tradition of their ancestors.
Daniel had a gift of interpreting dreams, although it doesn’t sound like he even knew this was the case until King Nebechenezzer had a doozie of a nightmare and none of his wise advisors could sort the thing out, so he planned to execute everyone in the palace for their lack of insight, until Daniel offered to give it a go, and whispered a prayer on his way into the throne room, “God, help me know what the dream means.” And then he did. The king was so grateful and impressed, that Daniel kept rising through the ranks –eventually making governor of the city, and continued bringing the three boys up the Babylonian political ladder with him.
Daniel, who is star of the rest of this book with his lion-defying and dream-interpreting and apocalyptic-visioning, doesn’t show up in this story, for some reason, but his three companions do, his best mates, his fellow comrades in exile. And they continue, by their words and actions, to be a thorn in the empire’s side, to embody – quite literally – an alternative reality to the one set before them all as complete and inevitable. And not only do they do this by refusing to bow, they also do this quite powerfully in what they say just before they refuse to bow. “Our God might save us, but even if God does not, we will not bow.”
Even if God does not…
There’s radical freedom in this story. The freedom of these three not to participate in what everyone else does. The freedom of God to meet them how God will. And God does meet them – not by sparing them from the fire, however, but by joining them right there in it. But perhaps the more prophetic moment here is the one where they name both their own freedom and God’s.
We will not bow. And God may not act.
Both of these things go so deeply and shockingly against the wisdom of the day, against the empire mentality, the royal consciousness, where the king is in charge and no one is really free, not even the king, but really, not even God. Gods are made and manipulated, pleased and coddled.
But in their words is an echo of Moses’ encounter with the Divine on the mountain and in the burning bush, I am who I will be. You cannot contain me. And also I, who brought you into freedom, will reach out to you and care for you and show you how to live free and in harmony with one another.
And these three boys believe it. In the face of death itself, they stand for a reality bigger than what is in front of them, an authority greater than this foolish, blustering king, a power more formidable than a raging fire, a way of being that does not bow to humiliation, punishment or even death itself, but to the God who stands outside life and death, beyond and yet within it, and they remember.
And so to trust in this God is not necessarily to trust that they will be saved, it is to trust in the Savior God, whether or not God chooses to save them. It is not to trust in what God does in exchange for our pleasing God, it is to trust who God is, regardless of our good or bad behavior, and regardless of God’s specific intervention in the time or the way we think God should act.
To trust in God is to trust in one who is free – more free than we can ever know or understand or grasp as human beings. But who has made us in the image of this very same freedom. And it is such a radical freedom that it is not free from- free from obligation to others, free from work or contribution to the whole, free from accountability – that’s the empire’s freedom, that is the crazy king’s kind of freedom: to make a arbitrary idol and demand everyone agree with you.
No, God is not free from. God is free for. Free to be for us, to be with us. Free to create and recreate. Free to share Godself with those God has made. Free to change God's mind. Free to act, and free not to.
And we are made free for as well. Free to see our neighbor and act for her, free to give of ourselves expecting nothing in return, free not to compete and judge and compare, and get our worth and value from what others think of us or our own intellect or power or charm, free to love unconditionally, free for unrestrained joy, free for deep connection, for forgiving and apologizing and restoring, free to live fully present, free to be known and to know, free to share and to give.
We are free because God is free, free to live. Fearlessly, honestly, fully, joyfully. And every other person with their face in the dirt before that monstrosity, that enormous and ridiculous waste of gold, that ego on a stick that Nebechenezer had set up in their presence, every other person there was not free. Forgot their freedom. Bowed to the King’s hunk of gold, which is to say bowed to their fear of punishment, to their fear of humiliation or loss of honor or home or title or life. Every other person swallowed the lie that we are not free. We are owned. Bought. Slaves to the system, whatever our particular system might be.
But when the three stood up to the king, when the three survived the flames, they revealed to everyone that the wizard was just a schmuck behind a curtain with a loudspeaker and some pyrotechnics. The only thing the king can do to maintain his empire at this moment is to now demand everyone bow to their God, or he’ll have them torn limb from limb. But it’s too late. The emperor has no clothes and the kid on the street has screamed it for all to hear.
There are lots of ways of being prophetic, and humor is not to be underestimated - it can expose, criticize and energize. Sometimes laughing at the situation frees you just enough to suddenly envision an alternative, and if you can envision it, perhaps you can even live from it, and if you can live from it, then the alternative is more real and more possible than the situation would lead you to believe.
Even right in the middle of it, even when you can’t change it, even if it is a huge idol and peer pressure from the entire nation and a violent and unstable ruler and a blazing fire ready to consume you- there is something outside this, another option for how to be in this. In such a dire moment, when faced with the command: “You will do A, or B will be done to you.” The boys answer, “Be that as it may, we choose C.”
This is a story you tell when you’re persecuted and scared, when you’re struggling and weak, when the empire is bigger than you and you think you’re going to lose your place, and you might even forget who you are, or that you are free. You tell the story of the ridiculous, over the top king enslaved to his ego and his power, and the comprehensively demanding, death-threat pressure on everyone there, and these guys who stood up anyway. And who let God be God, and who remembered God was free and they were too – whether or not God saves us, we will not bow, they said.
You tell the story of the God who joins them in the most terrible part, the part that should kill you but miraculously doesn’t.
When you’re struggling and things are serious and ominous, and you need a dose of truth, you tell this story of the true God who shows up much differently than the vociferous, domineering, power-wielding king. The true God who slips silently into the fire and stands alongside, incognito, and without engaging the power players or validating this circus with so much as a word.
And perhaps in the telling, in the absurdity and severity of the story, it will dawn on you, even if just for a moment, that in the middle of it all and despite all evidence to the contrary, you are more free than you act, and in fact, life is beautiful. And when this realization washes over you, I defy you to keep a straight face.