The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dn 3) is a story of faith. It is a story about competing nationalistic, tribal gods. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzer’s god. They are faithful to their god who saves them from the fiery furnace.
Over the ages, men and women have died rather than abandon their gods. Over the centuries, men and women have killed others in the name of their gods. We killed commies for Christ. We have killed Muslims for Christ. Muslims have killed Christians for Allah.
What’s going on with our gods? Or better, what is going on with our feeble concepts of God? God is not the God of any one nation. God is the Creator of the universe—the Creator of every human being. God does not have to grow. Our concepts of God have to grow.
We need to look beneath the words used to describe God to grasp the deeper realities. Rushworth Kidder’s Shared Values for a Troubled World helps us identify the core values underlying all religious beliefs. When we look beneath our narrow concepts of tribal gods, we find the Creator. We find peace, justice, equality, truth, freedom, love, mercy and forgiveness. These are the values worth dying for regardless of one’s religious persuasion.
Merton gets at this in today’s selection from Seasons of Celebration in today’s reflection in Jonathan Montaldo’s Lent and Easter:
If a person has to be pleasing to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. Not that love can console or reassure! But if I demand first to be reassured, I will never dare to begin loving. If a person has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If a person has to be black of white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. (At 76)
We are to love others regardless of race, class, creed, gender, national origin, political party, or sexual orientation. These are the principles that underlie our feeble attempts to conceptualize our God.
We encounter a narrow concept of God in Jesus’ ongoing confrontation with the “Jews” (Jn 8: 31-42).They refuse to accept Jesus and his teaching. Their God is the God of Abraham—the tribal god who asked Abraham to kill his own son. Furthermore, they are not even doing the works of Abraham because they are so intent on trying to kill Jesus.
We will probably hear more than one preacher remind us during Holy Week that Jesus died for our sins. Not so. Jesus lived to show us how to live. Jesus died because he stood up against the vagaries of empire. He was crucified as a common criminal but he arose in the young community as they experienced the Risen Jesus. Even today, we honor person who died so that people might have life. Oscar Romero has arisen in the people of El Salvador.
Jesus challenged the values of the Roman Empire which occupied his country. He challenged the views of some religious leaders (“Jews”) who were more interested in binding people than in setting them free. They needed to kill this troublemaker from the backwoods of Galilee. He was challenging them to reexamine their narrow concept of God. God is the God of all nations and all are called to sit at the banquet table. Jesus told them that what he was teaching came from God. Jesus spoke the truth to power and they could not see past their nationalism or tribalism. They could not broaden their concept of God—the God who loves every person and every nation.
Jesus came to set us free. His truth will set us free. Jesus did not formulate a lot of dogmas. He told stories about God and faith in God. Pope Benedict XVI has mounted an all-out assault on relativism; however, there are very few absolutes in life. Gandhi says, “We all have a piece of the truth.” Haitians say, “I see from where I stand.” These perspectives allow for unity without artificial uniformity.
These readings challenge us to examine our cultural values and beliefs. What does “God bless America mean?” Does it mean that we are the “light on the hill” and that we are favored by God over other peoples? Does it mean Manifest Destiny compelling us, the superior nation, to “save the world?” “No” to all of this. This is nationalism and tribalism at its worst.
These readings challenge us to examine our religious values. What does it mean to be children of Abraham? Does it mean that God favors one people or group of people over others? Does it mean that God singles out a people and rewards them, even allows them to slaughter others to get land? Of course not. Again, we have to move beyond religious tribalism and grow a bigger picture of God.
Think about it. Why would the Creator of all favor and bless any one group? She would not! The faith story that begins with Abraham continues with the inclusive call of Jesus the Christ—“Come to me all you who are burdened and labor.”