WE WILL NOT!
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR
September 17, 2017 (15th Sunday after Pentecost)
3King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 3So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, 4the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.6Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.’ 7Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
8 Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. 9They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! 10You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, 11and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. 12There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good.* But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.* 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the statue that you have set up.’
One of the most popular television programs today is Game of Thrones, the Home Box Office (HBO) series about the struggle for power and supremacy in a mythical place called Westeros. In the program, one way the leaders of the various factions try to overcome their adversaries is plotting and trying to carry out schemes aimed at conquering their adversaries through violent means such as assassinations and wars. But another way is by trying, through various strategies, arrangements, and appeals, to persuade the leaders of would-be rival factions to “bend the knee,” meaning swear allegiance and be ruled rather than remain separate and autonomous. This sermon is about three young people who refused to “bend the knee” and who defied overwhelming imperial power.
What makes a minority people refuse to cooperate with a majority group of oppressors? This is big moral issue presented in the passage we ponder today from the third chapter of Daniel. There we read about three young Hebrew exiles who defied a royal decree and the threat of death in a furnace by refusing to serve the gods and worship a gold plated statue set up on the order of their Babylonian conqueror.
The Babylonian Empire ended long ago. Most people do not speak of it, let alone speak about the Babylonian king known as Nebuchadnezzar. But the story of how three Hebrew youth boldly defied an imperial command and refused to “bend the knee” to a royal order to worship the gods of their conqueror has survived the centuries thanks to the Bible. Children in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School continue to be taught that God delivered “the three Hebrew boys” from the fiery furnace.
The story of their bold defiance of majoritarian authority and popular sentiment challenges us. The young men – black elders during my youth typically called them “the three Hebrew boys” or “the three Hebrew children” had been named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah before they were taken to Babylon after Judah was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar. They are remembered by many people by the names they were assigned in Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Where did you first hear that story? How old were you? Who told you about it? What impression did it make on you then? What does that story mean to you now? Where do you see yourself in this story? And what does the lesson about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego mean as Little Rock, Arkansas, and the United States reflect on racial justice on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show us what it means to be faithful to God for people challenged by others who believe in the supremacy of their notions of Empire. Every empire tries to teach its citizens and force the rest of the world to believe that it is supreme. Its military is the most powerful. Its culture is the most enlightened. Its economy is the most prosperous. Its people are elite. It is not enough to be equal. Empires are built on notions of superiority and supremacy.
That is why notions of empire are ungodly. Faithfulness to God challenges every imperial claim of supremacy. Whenever any empire calls on people who know God to “bend the knee” and swear allegiance to imperial claims of supremacy –whether it is American exceptionalism, white supremacy, religious nationalism, or anything else – rather than God, people who rest their ultimate identity and faith in God know better. People who know God understand that the idolatry of empire always includes the heresy of imperial supremacy.
In the United States, the idolatry of American exceptionalism includes the heresy of white supremacy. White supremacy caused European adventurers to claim they discovered this land and disrespect the presence and right of people who were native to it. That heresy was responsible for the wickedness that resulted in the human trafficking, murder, rape, theft, fraud, and other evils associated with how this nation treated Africans, Latinos, Asians, and every other population of non-white persons.
White supremacy was the foundation heresy for Jim Crow segregation after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War. White supremacy is why public education was segregated based on skin color, with white children and black children being denied the chance to receive free, fair, and education together.
And in 1957, the heresy of white supremacy led to the Crisis of Little Rock Central High School when nine black students, supported by prophetic revolutionary people, bravely became pioneers for desegregation in public education in Arkansas. They chose to defy Governor Orval Faubus, the 1957 version of King Nebuchadnezzar in Arkansas. They refused to pay homage to white supremacy and continue going to school under Jim Crow rules. In the words of our text, the Little Rock 9 and the people of Little Rock and Arkansas who supported, advised, encouraged, prayed for, and otherwise embraced their entry into Little Rock Central said, in effect, “we will not serve your gods [segregation] and we will not worship the golden statue [white supremacy] that you have set up.”
Fast forward sixty years to 2017. The Little Rock School District is still the largest public school district in Arkansas. But public education has been on a path toward re-segregation for decades thanks to overt and covert schemes, practices, and policies driven by white supremacy. Sixty years later, a gala commemoration has been planned for this coming weekend. The eight surviving members of the Little Rock 9 will be re-united. Politicians, pundits, celebrities, and other people will be here. Mavis Staples of the legendary Staples Family music group will present a concert. The Little Rock School District and National Park Service are jointly sponsoring these and other events organized around this theme – Reflections on Progress.
The issue for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego involved keeping faith with God in the face of King Nebuchadnezzar’s claim about the supremacy of the Babylonian Empire and its set of religious deities. The issue for the Little Rock 9 and the revolutionary prophetic people who supported their defiance of white supremacy involved keeping faith with their divine and civil right to equality and liberty in the face of Governor Orval Faubus’s effort to keep black and white children from attending public schools together. The revolutionary defiance of Governor Faubus, white supremacy, and segregation was a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego response by the Little Rock 9, by their parents, and by their small contingent of supporters to white supremacy in Arkansas and the United States. It was a defining moment when people faithful to God said, in effect, “we will not serve your gods [segregation] and we will not worship the golden statue [white supremacy] that you have set up.”
Faithfulness to God demands a deep and abiding sense of identity – meaning knowing God, knowing who we are, and knowing what we believe about God and about ourselves. This involves a lot more than being able to recite a religious formula, be it the plan of salvation so often mentioned by evangelists or something else.
Knowing God, knowing who we are, and knowing what we believe about God and ourselves includes realizing that humans live in a moral universe with God. We live in a universe established by God as a place of harmony – think of the word community – where all creation is entitled to equal dignity, respect, protection, and nurture and where God alone is worthy of unconditional loyalty, obedience, and trust.
Let me be plain. God alone deserves our unconditional loyalty and trust. God alone deserves our absolute obedience. God alone is our source for ultimate meaning and the target of our hope. Anything that opposes that belief challenges God’s place in our lives.
People like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, the prophetic revolutionaries who inspired and supported the desegregation of Little Rock Central High, and other prophetic revolutionaries understand that humans do not live to serve empires. We live, along with the rest of creation, to be in community with God! Every human notion and manifestation of empire demands that we decide whether to live as people made free in a moral universe with God and established by God or live as subjects and slaves of empire.
Beyond that, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show that faithfulness to God produces a clash between people who trust the liberating and radically revolutionary power of God and people who have put their faith in notions of human empire. When – not if – that happens, people who trust God will be required to choose between comfort, convenience, and conformity and hardship, persecution, and vilification. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that meant choosing to incur the fury of King Nebuchadnezzar and his threat to have them burned alive in a fiery furnace. It meant risking the loss of their imperial titles, imperial perks, imperial dwelling places, and imperial privileges.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were probably not the only people who took moral and ethical offense to the notion of Babylonian supremacy. According to the Biblical account, they were part of a larger contingent of people from prominent Jewish families taken to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah in 605 B.C. One might assume that other Jewish exiles were morally and ethically offended by the idea of worshipping Babylonian deities and bowing before a 90 foot statue erected in the name of Babylonian supremacy.
What distinguished Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is their defiant refusal to lend their moral authority as followers of God to the idolatrous heresy of Babylonian supremacy at the risk of all the Babylonian empire offered by their obedience and all it threatened by their defiance. Empires depend on promises of privilege to those who submit and cooperate with imperial claims and threats of terrible consequences to those who resist their claims. However, they always seek legitimacy and validation from people who have moral authority.
Nebuchadnezzar needed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to comply with his imperial spectacle in order to make the idolatrous claims of Babylonian imperialism seem morally legitimate. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not fear Nebuchadnezzar’s threats. They were not willing to turn their backs on God and disown their identity as God-followers. The issue for them was not whether they lived or died. The issue was not whether they retained prominent positions in Babylonian government. The issue was whether they would disown God! Would they put their moral authority on the side of Babylonian supremacy? Their refusal to do so is a clarion call to faithful people in every age and place.
What would Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego think of us? What would they think about our eagerness to dress up, show up, and suck up for imperial claims of white supremacy and re-segregation disguised as a commemoration of the courage, faith, and bold witness of the people who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 under the bogus Reflections on Progress theme?
It is good that the surviving eight members of the Little Rock 9 will be re-united next weekend. But prophetic people should, in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refuse to pay homage to the forces of re-segregation and worship the symbols of white supremacy associated with the Reflections of Progress hypocrisy planned for that reunion.
Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we should say, “we will not!”
· We will not dress up and attend events designed to portray Little Rock and Arkansas as a progressive city and state.
· We will not be charmed by the soulful singing of Mavis Staples into forgetting that agents of white supremacy on the Arkansas Board of Education dissolved the democratically-elected governing body of the Little Rock School District in 2015.
· We will not lend our moral authority to ceremonies designed to pimp the commitment of L.C. and Daisy Bates, the Little Rock 9 and their families, and the other prophetic revolutionaries who defied segregation and white supremacy when schools that serve black and brown neighborhoods in Little Rock are being closed.
· We will not pay lip service to “Reflections on Progress” when the current superintendent of the Little Rock School District and the Arkansas Commissioner of Education have apparently agreed to sell the former Garland Elementary School property to a charter school management affiliate of the Walton Family Foundation.
· We will not pay lip service to “Reflections on Progress” when students in Paul Lawrence Dunbar Magnet Middle School – where each of the Little Rock 9 attended junior high school – are now threatened with loss of their gifted and talented classes and instructors.
Instead of attending the “Reflections on Progress” events, let us draw on the example set by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Let us take on a “we will not” posture. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, let it be said of us that we loved God so much, trusted God so much, and remained true to our identity as followers of God so much that we will not serve re-segregation.
In God’s name, we will not stand on the side of oppression against the oppressed.
In God’s name, we will not be fooled.
In God’s name, we will not be bribed by trinkets, titles, jobs, photo opportunities, and perks.
In God’s name, we will not be pushed, pimped, or have our commitment to equality, liberty, justice, and love poisoned by ceremonies, songs, and speeches orchestrated by those who actively scheme against desegregation and equality.
In God’s name, we will not “bend the knee” to the heresy of re-segregation and idolatry of white supremacy.
This week is a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego moment. What will you do?