Operation Rescue, Civil Disobedience and Civil Obedience
John C. Rankin
[excerpted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]
When “Operation Rescue” hit the national scene in 1988, it advocated a strategy of physical blockade of abortion centers. Its founder, Randall Terry, published a book by the same name shortly thereafter, and in it he made a case for civil disobedience, arguing that all abortion centers could be shut down if the numerical force of blockaders were large enough. I first encountered this idea two years earlier in Philadelphia, and immediately rejected it.
I wrote Terry in early 1989 to pose some biblical questions about his strategy, and was able to arrange a meeting with him on April 1 in South Boston. But he was unreceptive to my concerns, and thereafter shunned all further discussion about the issue. I then concluded that his entire approach is opposite to the six pillars of biblical power and six pillars of honest politics. The very idea of blockade is predicated upon coercive tactics hatched in secret against police authorities and pro-abortion organizations. Terry’s position, as he articulated it in his book, and in the meeting I had with him, effectively placed politics ahead of the Gospel.
Now, my interest is to be positive and biblical in what I do – and this is how I will address the larger topic. But since Terry’s leadership led to the most arrests of any civil disobedience movement in U.S. history (some reports cited 100,000), and galvanized public attention, I cannot address the subject without minimal reference, where appropriate, to his blockade rationale.
As well, and importantly, many well-intentioned Christians did participate in blockade. I do not wish to impugn their motives, only to challenge all of us to be biblically critical in our thinking about this subject. Pro-life Christians participated in Operation Rescue largely because there was a vacuum in vision. There was, and still is, very little political success in moving toward the legal protection of the unborn. And though Crisis Pregnancy Centers were and are doing wonderful work, they can only reach a small portion of abortion-minded women. In 1986-1987 it seemed that the possibility of persuasion within the political process was remote, so the violence of blockade was embraced by a number of pro-life advocates. As it was embraced, it was a public confession that they were forfeiting the power of persuasion en masse. They had admitted defeat in the court of public opinion.
When I began to raise questions about the tactic of blockade, many friends who had joined Operation Rescue asked me to reconsider. One person told me that half the Operation Rescue volunteers in Boston were evangelicals I had recruited into the pro-life cause directly or indirectly (I do not know if that was actually the case, but her point was well made). So I went to hear one Operation Rescue speaker with an open mind, but my questions only sharpened. And then I wrote Randall Terry after reading his book.
In my meeting with him, several items stand out. First, he criticized me for not taking the “risk” of arrest, assuming, I guess, that this is why I said no to blockade. I responded in part by stating the true risk is that of loving your enemies, as I sought to do on college campuses in the face of this debate (at that time, then beginning two months later, in front of the abortions centers also).
The Idolatry of Saving Babies Apart from the Doctrine of Salvation
Second, in my proactive understanding which would preclude vigilante actions such as blockade, I defined the power of informed choice, and asked him if God forces people into eternal life. He said no. Then I asked him why he was trying to force women into choosing life for their unborn. His response was straightforward, “We’re talking about saving babies, not saving souls,” and then said that I did not understand the nature of choice.
Here I saw the idolatry of “pro-life” as clear as can be. Politics were placed ahead of the Gospel. This thinking actually reverses the biblical order of creation where it is God ® life ® choice ® sex, making it into sex ® choice ® life ® /God. The idolatry of “pro-life” serves the idolatries of sexual promiscuity and “pro-choice” by giving such advocates more self-justifying energy to maintain their sin if we are seen as being coercive. If the preaching of the Good News is not our ultimate and defining purpose, then we labor in vain to protect the unborn. If the saving of the unborn from abortion is not a subcategory of the doctrine of salvation, then why do we bother?
In his book, Terry called for the “rescuing” of the unborn by any means possible. He said to me that Jesus would not stand by and let innocent children die, and thus we must physically intervene by means of blockade or otherwise. I asked him: “Why then did God not only ‘stand by’ when Herod slaughtered the innocent boys, but also called for the death of children in the pagan nations that sought Israel’s destruction?” No answer. Also, why did Jeremiah take the leaders of Jerusalem out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom where child sacrifice was happening daily, prophesy against it, but did not take the law into his own hands to stop it? Rather he called on King Zedekiah to stop shedding such innocent blood.
Third, and critically, I then asked Terry if he believed, like me, that all Scripture is defined interpretively by the doctrines of creation, sin and redemption outlined in Genesis 1-3. He said yes. Then I asked, “Can you then show me where you root the strategy of blockade in these doctrines?” He answered quickly, “Well, how do I know that your strategy is rooted in these doctrines?” He then dismissed the subject and refused to entertain the question again.
Within several years after its inauguration, Operation Rescue (OR) was not only a failure, but it hardened the hearts of many people against the Gospel, and provided a windfall for abortion-rights groups for fund-raising. Sadly, Terry proved to be a perfect foil for them to demonize and raise money by fear, since his language against abortion advocates was so condemning. His face and name was splashed on Planned Parenthood fund-raising letters to motivate their donor base to give more (and very successfully), and likewise with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I once had lunch with then executive director of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, and gained an inside perspective on their delight with the fund-raising benefits of having OR to vilify. The impact of OR, and spin-off efforts, greatly affected this nation’s view of the abortion debate.
Also, it allowed pro-abortion groups to lump Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) in with OR in their public rhetoric. And for anyone who participated in the blockade of an abortion center, it reduced their ability to participate in political dialogue, for they had already forfeited that arena by their vigilante actions. Thus, I contend it was a large net loss both for the pro-life witness in this culture, and for those Christians and churches who participated in or supported it. Since then, Terry became an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1998, but in order to do so, he had to sign a consent decree with the National Organization for Women (NOW), promising never again to be involved with blockade or cognate violative actions. He signed the decree in order to avoid further lawsuits against his former actions and make himself more “politically viable,” and in particular, to avoid the loss of his campaign funds to those lawsuits. What moral or intellectual integrity does this represent, if truly he believed that the strategy of blockade was biblical?
So much energy, time, money and resources were expended on OR. I knew people who spent hundreds and even thousands of dollars to travel around the country to participate in various blockade efforts, who also had to pay court fees and who lost much income from the time they spent in jail. As well, there were practical deficits the strategy could not avoid. First, it took great personal and financial sacrifice to organize a blockade, and its sustainability was limited. For up to several hours at a time they could block an abortion center before being hauled away to jail. And as best I recall, I do not believe OR in Massachusetts during that era was able successfully to block access to an abortion center on more than a dozen or two occasions, before they were too worn out to continue.
Second, I am biblically convinced that if a woman, with or without the pressure of a boyfriend or other party, is blocked from an abortion appointment, she will often become more adamant on following through with the abortion at the next possibility. Some women were dissuaded on their abortion plans by OR, but I am convinced that virtually every woman who was, could also have been easily dissuaded by a peaceful witness. But as well, I am convinced that many more could also have been dissuaded by a peaceful presence, women whose hearts were hardened by the violative strategy of blockade.
Third, when a women’s heart does become hardened by the tactic of blockade, she is much less likely to seek out pro-lifers later if she is dealing with post-abortion trauma. She is not likely to seek out people who were blocking her or yelling at her. But for women who walk past a peaceful witness and secure an abortion, if they later do have regrets, they are far more likely to seek out pro-life counselors.
A Former NOW Activist
To cite one example where blockade harmed the witness of the Gospel, I once received a letter from Amy Tracy, who used to be in a high profile position with NOW in Washington, D.C., working closely with Patricia Ireland. She is now a Christian, and she saw the video of my 1994 forum with Patricia at Smith, then president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) College. She wrote:
“First, I am so glad that the Lord raised up a “normal” Christian to present a positive vision of Christianity to folks like Patricia. You stood up for truth with grace and humility, without compromising your position. I noticed that your style and peaceful presence rattled Patricia more than any of your arguments.
“In that forum Patricia spoke of her experience with Christians. Like her, I experienced real violence at the hands of the anti-abortion and anti-gay activists. In the five years I wrestled with O.R., the ‘Lambs of God’ and similar groups I rarely, if ever saw the Christ I know.
“Likewise, in the heat of the battle, I sometimes responded to their hostility and fear with violent behavior. But I never claimed to be non-violent per se (though I did theoretically believe in it). Nor did I claim to be “Christ-like” or “holy.” My words matched my actions. Not that this should excuse my behavior.
“As a brand new Christian, I harbored a lot of anger toward the Christians who I felt had grossly misrepresented Christ. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about the hope, the joy or the freedom! I knew nothing of God’s promise of love beyond comprehension. What role had their self-righteous anger and arguments played in drawing me closer to Christ? If anything they drove me further away from the God who was tangibly wooing me. Three months into my Christian walk, I called my pastor wanting to know whether I really had to spend eternity with these folks.
“The Lord helped me bury the resentment …”
This is a gracious and remarkable letter, and its value to me is in the context of her comments, as we glean from her perspective of Operation Rescue when she was an abortion-rights activist. Amy testifies to God’s love drawing her even in the face of Christians who behaved hatefully toward her. But do we want God to work in spite of us, or through us. And at what point do we cross the line into false teachings? In truth, it is false ethics that are more dangerous than false teachings per se, and in my experience I now see overwhelming evidence that the reason people teach falsely, is that they bend teachings to suit their sinful egos. That is very different from the humble who may stray into a false understanding – we all do it. But are we willing to be corrected? If we really believe it is the Holy Spirit who convicts people of sin and righteousness, then we will put aside the folly of trying to argue or pressure people into eternal life. It cannot happen anyhow. Winning a debate is easy. So what if we win the debate only to witness a lost soul untouched by God’s love in the process? The real goal and courage is to love our enemies and witness the power of God’s Spirit convert the soul. What good is it to win a debate but lose a relationship?
The Definition of “Rescue”
The name “Operation Rescue” is derived from Proverbs 24:11-12, which Terry used as an all-encompassing hermeneutic:
“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?”
It is a powerful passage, and the church should be committed to do everything possible to “rescue” the unborn and any others who are in harm’s way. The question is how to do it, and whether our hermeneutic is eisegetically or exegetically based.
The book of Proverbs was composed mostly by Solomon, at a time of national peace in the theocratic state of Israel, in the tenth century B.C. It presupposes a godly king and a godly people who both submit to the Mosaic covenant. There was agreement on Yahweh Elohim as the Lord, and the goodness of the moral and social order he ordained, ultimately rooted in the nature of the biblical order of creation.
Thus a proverb – as a pithy statement about right and wrong with the freedom to use hyperbole – given in this setting, was universally received as generally true. But it only applied within the nation of Israel. The Jews were not being called to go to Egypt, Assyria, Greece or Babylon, and intervene against the practice of child sacrifice. They were called to intervene in their own nation against covenant breakers, in concert with the authority of the king. Thus, if an Israelite saw a family taking their child to a place of human sacrifice, he was to notify the king or his appointed officers to intervene and rescue the child. Moreover, the parents would be held accountable, and any high places for such sacrifice would be duly destroyed. This is what reforming kings such as Josiah were ordained by Yahweh to do.
In the assumptive context of such social order, we can look at two other proverbs:
“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way” (19:2).
“Mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger” (29:8).
In Jesus’s first coming, the Jewish Zealot party was eager for him to lead an armed rebellion against Rome. They wanted deliverance now, and did not understand the difference between the two comings of the Messiah. One of Jesus’s disciples belonged to this party, and was called “Simon the Zealot.” Even after Jesus’s resurrection, his disciples were eager for the physical kingdom of Jerusalem to be restored at that very moment, not grasping the eschatological history that had yet to unfold, not grasping the goal of the New Jerusalem. The ethos of Operation Rescue seeks to force the theocracy of the Second Coming upon a people who have not chosen it, contrary to the power of informed choice which defines the nature of Israel’s theocracy from ca. 1446 to 586 B.C., and the nature of the eternal kingdom of God. We live between those theocracies, and therefore we cannot apply a theocratic rule to a non-theocracy. What we are called to do is preach and live the Good News in the context of our earthly citizenship so as to invite people into an eternal citizenship, to embrace the community of choice that God’s eternal theocracy equals.
Zealotry without knowledge is hasty and it misses the way, and this is the fruit of the blockade strategy. Blockade and its articulation oftentimes mocked believers who disagreed with it, mocked the image of God within unbelievers, put stumbling blocks to the faith in front of many, and stirred up cities as few others have done in the United States in the twentieth century. Wisdom will turn away anger, and not miss the most effective way to win the legal protection of the unborn within a constitutional and democratic republic – in this non-theocracy.
Snatch Away from Within the Womb?
In Proverbs 24:11, the verb for “rescue” is natzal, and it is in the hiphil form (hatzel). The basic meaning is to “deliver,” and in the hiphil form, “to cause deliverance.” It can be accurately translated here as “to snatch away.” So the language is very strong, yet we have a basic problem with its applicability to the unborn. How can we snatch away a child who is inside the womb? We have no power to literally rescue the unborn. The only rescue that can be effected involves the mother as well, which means the need to deal with the power of informed choice and her willpower – it requires the engagement of her power to give to her unborn child. There are two ways of affecting her will – by the pagan ethics of coercion or by the biblical ethics of informed choice. If she is physically blocked from an abortion appointment, but her will is unconverted, then she will find another means to abort her child. If her informed choice is won, then the unborn child has been rescued.
The Parallel to Child Sacrifice
As well, if natzal is applicable to our culture and the blockade of abortion centers, the theocratic issue notwithstanding, what is the closest analogy in Scripture by which we can make comparison? It is the matter of child sacrifice, and Terry is correct in his book when he shows the parallel between the sacrifice of children to the pagan god Molech, and human abortion today. Thus, if he is correct in his blockade strategy for the unborn, can a parallel use of “rescue” be found in the Hebrew Scriptures with respect to blocking Jews or others from sacrificing their children to Molech, Ba’al or other false gods? The Mosaic prohibition against child sacrifice is first found in Leviticus 18:21, with additional detail in Leviticus 20:1-5. These texts read:
“ ‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.’ ”
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him. I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people; for by giving his children to Molech, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut him off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech.’ ”
The first observation to make is how child sacrifice is regarded as a sexual perversion, as the structure of Leviticus 18 emphasizes. So too human abortion. The subject of Leviticus 18:1-30 is unlawful sexual relations. It opens with the command not to follow Egyptian and Canaanite customs, and concludes with the same command, with the caveat that if they do so, the land will “vomit” them out just as it did the pagan nations beforehand. It is predicated on the assumption of the moral order of God, life, choice and sex.
In its lists of sexual perversions, the first subject addressed is that of incest, followed by the subjects of fornication, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality. It seems a logical order of increasing perversion, or to put it another way, of concentric circles of deviance away from the center of one man, one woman, one lifetime as ordained in the order of creation. Leviticus 18 gives many details of proscribed incestuous relationships. The focus was not on who could be married (Cain married one of his sisters, as there was no concern for unhealthy inbreeding at that time; Abraham married his half-sister, pace the same reality many years later; and today we prohibit marriage to anyone as close or closer than a third cousin). The focus was on maintaining marriage and both the nuclear and extended family units, and keeping lineage lines clear. After incest is listed, a type of fornication is defined that intrudes upon and violates a separate family unit, then adultery, and thus both of these are prohibited. After child sacrifice is then proscribed, homosexuality and bestiality are outlawed.
Homosexuality and bestiality do not produce children, so there is a logic where the prohibition of child sacrifice in v. 21 is placed – after prohibited sexual relations which can procreate, and prior to those which cannot. It is also the only subject in this chapter that does not describe a sexual act per se. Child sacrifice is a perversion of true sexuality, where the offspring of a legitimate or illegitimate union is sacrificed to false gods. The reason for the sacrifice was due to the fears of pagans in the face of destructive gods and goddesses. They believed that to secure good crops, peace, fertility and material blessings, they needed to sacrifice at various levels to the capricious gods and goddesses, bargaining for their “protection” and forbearance of destruction. The costliest form was child sacrifice, and ironically, many times it was prescribed for future fertility. Today, the ethos of human abortion is rationalized for food (for the poor who cannot “afford” to have a child), peace (in the case of fractured sexual relations), future fertility (have a baby when “you’re ready”) educational goals (don’t sacrifice your “future” for a child) and material prosperity (have your act together in terms of job, house, savings and retirement before you have a child).
In Leviticus 20, child sacrifice merits the death penalty, and thus some pro-lifers today argue for the death penalty for those who perform or have abortions. Apart from the theocratic issue, is this what should be done? Abortion is the willful killing of a nascent human life. And various states did have death penalties in the 19th century, though no one was ever prosecuted to that point.
Abortion Business Owner Bill Baird
One of my radio debates with pro-abortion activist Bill Baird was on a Christian station in Boston, ca. 1989. The host of the show, Jeanine Graf, was on vacation for a week, and she invited a Jewish friend, an agnostic, to host her show in her absence. True hospitality, especially on a Christian radio station. So he invited Bill Baird and me to debate the abortion subject. At one point Bill was insistent on trying to have me call him a murderer (of the unborn), so he could rationalize an accusatory mode against me. But I would not. Finally I said to him, “Bill, are you familiar with Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that calling someone a fool is equivalent to murdering him?” He said yes. I continued, “Bill, I drive in Boston traffic, so I qualify.” That ended his attempt. I continued to state my motivation for being involved in pro-life – it was not to deny women freedom, or to accuse him and others of murder. Rather it was to serve the rescue of as many women and their unborn children as possible, to give witness to the Good New of Jesus Christ to people who are struggling with such brokennesses that lead to an abortion decision. Vengeance is God’s alone, and his desire is to shower mercy on people so they can avoid his judgment – but they must admit their sins first, and desire such mercy.
An interesting sidelight to the show was how the host joined with Bill Baird in arguing against me, thus violating his role. In the middle of it I thought how strange it was for a Christian radio station to have a decidedly non-Christian host side with another non-Christian against a Christian guest. When the show was over, I wondered what value it had. But then the station heard from many callers saying how they thought it was the best show they had heard. Why? Because they heard a Christian ganged up on, but who responded with graciousness, not anger or condemning attitudes (by God’s grace). It was at this point that I first began to envision the concept of the Mars Hill Forums.
Bill Baird was also pressing this issue of how abortion would be prosecuted if made illegal. Would I call for the death penalty? Randall Terry argues syllogistically in his book at various points. He says that if we see an abortion about to take place, the “logical response” is one of physical intervention. I am challenging that point here, biblically. Terry also uses the language of “murder” in reference to abortion, and many pro-lifers thus make the syllogism that premeditated murder deserves the death penalty, and thus abortionists and women who have abortions should be liable to the death penalty. Exactly what Baird was aiming at.
There should be no agenda to seek punitive measures against people, rather the agenda is to win equal protection under the law for the unborn. And that requires the empowerment of women in face of the male chauvinism reality. However, many pro-lifers have said to me that if I really believe the unborn are fully human, then I should also argue for the death penalty.
The Bible distinguishes between premeditated murder and manslaughter (ergo, an unintentional killing). Redemption is always possible, but for manslaughter, the death penalty is not prescribed, but a city of refuge (exile) is the penalty. For women who procure an abortion, the motivation is overwhelmingly related to male chauvinism, and/or an attempt to get out of a “bad situation.” To the extent that women are held accountable, their boyfriends (in 82 percent of abortions) and husbands (is most of the rest of abortions) should be held more responsible, and first so. Abortion decisions for a woman are not a premeditated reality so often, but a reaction to the male chauvinism that will not support her as a wife and mother. Then the real culprit in this matter is the abortionist himself (abortionists are overwhelmingly male). However the law is structured to protect the humanity of the unborn, these are the variable that have to be considered.
Jeremiah and His Prophecy in the Valley of Hell
When Judah, as the final remnant of the Jewish nation, was veering toward the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah prophesied against their practice of child sacrifice. In this text we have the most thorough profile of a prophet’s words with regard to this practice in the Bible.
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, “Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Ba’al to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Ba’al – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” ‘
“ ‘In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.’
“ ‘Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. This is what I will do to this place and to those who live here, declares the LORD. I will make this city like Topheth. The houses in Jerusalem and those of the kings of Judah will be defiled like this place, Topheth – all the houses where they burned incense on the roofs to all the starry hosts and poured out drink offerings to other gods.’
“Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the LORD’s temple and said to the people, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Listen! I am going to bring on this city and the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words’ ” (19:1-15).
If the strategy of blockade were applicable anywhere in the Bible, it would be here. More than a constitutional and democratic republic, this was theocratic Israel, where the laws were given directly by God, and the king was charged with enforcing them. The redress available to dissenting citizens was not to rewrite the laws within the nation if they did not like them, but it was the freedom to emigrate to another nation that more closely resembled their values. And many of the surrounding pagan nations endorsed the practice of child sacrifice. The Israelites had agreed with Joshua that Yahweh’s laws were good, and they had agreed with the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. Jeremiah was the final prophet to the city, reminding Judah of these stipulations.
Jeremiah had friends in high places in Jerusalem, friends at the palace court and within the priesthood (cf. 26:24; 38:7; 39:14). So though as a prophet he had the opposition of the king and the religious elitists, he was not alone. He would have had little problem rounding up a good remnant of faithful Jews, who if persuaded that blockade were called for by Yahweh, would have provided a blockade to the Valley of Ben Hinnom where the child sacrifices were occurring regularly and with increasing frequency. Moreover, unlike the status of the unborn still within their mother’s womb, Jeremiah would have had the physical ability to “snatch away” the little boys or girls from their parent’s arms en route to Ben Hinnom. He could have actually had a literal “Operation Rescue.” But he did not do. If blockade were truly applicable from his chosen language of natzal in Proverbs 24:11, then it should have been in evidence at this very moment. The reality of my critique is ratified by Jeremiah’s use of the exact same words to king Zedekiah:
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the place of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: “Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne – you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” ‘ “(22:1-3).
The use of “rescue” is again in the hiphil form – to “cause deliverance,” to “snatch away,” and the language of “shedding innocent blood” refers to the practice of child sacrifice consistently in the Hebrew Bible, as Terry also points out. Jeremiah refuses to become a vigilante, to take the law into his own hands, as he worked through civil government even when it was uncivil. He called the king to be faithful to the covenant, and to his role in civil government. Whereas Zedekiah was turning away from the enforcement of the Mosaic laws, Jeremiah knew that the restoration of civil order was not to be attained by a resort to civil disorder, by a condescension to the tactics of the ancient serpent. Civil order is restored by a successful appeal to a higher civil order. And if the people do not respond to such an appeal, then Yahweh will bring his judgment by his means. In the application of the ethics of choice at this juncture, this meant the destruction of the city, the siege, famine, cannibalism and other horrors Judah brought on itself.
In the waning days of the theocracy, the Jews had completely syncretized their religion, mixing devotion to Yahweh with devotion to a host of foreign gods. The height of their idolatry was child sacrifice to Molech and Ba’al. Outside the Potsherd Gate was the Valley of Ben Hinnom, where the city’s trash was dumped. The trash pile was continually burning, with the smoke always rising from its heaps. It was here that the child sacrifices took place, in specially constructed fireplaces known as “places of Topheth.” The gods of Ba’al and Molech are used in parallel terms in the Hebrew Scriptures, Molech as an Ammonite god, and Ba’al as a Canaanite god.
The Ammonites constructed their god Molech out of bronze and in the shape of a human with a bull’s head, with outstretched arms in a seated position. This bronze god was hollow, and from the rear was loaded with firewood, set ablaze, and it turned the idol red hot. The outstretched arms formed a saucer shape, upon which the living, usually male infant – six months to one-year old on average – was placed, screaming and kicking as the searing bronze cooked the child. During the ceremony, both among the Ammonites and in other child-sacrificing cultures, a religious fervor with demonic trances was induced, accompanied by heavy drumming that helped to drown out the screams of the infant as he was burned alive. The mothers of the sacrificed children were often coerced, and in some cultures they were not allowed to utter one word, or sob one tear, or they would also be killed. The parallels to human abortion are compelling at every ethical level, with the distinction that the screams of the unborn cannot be heard. Human abortion is evil, but a coercive response to a coercive evil only entrenches the evil more securely. Redemption reverses the reversal, it does not mimic the ethical stratagems of evil. Male chauvinism is not to be answered with a competing male chauvinism.
The Valley of Ben Hinnom was shortened in common parlance to the “Valley of Hinnom,” which in the Hebrew is ge’hinnom. In the New Testament, it is translated by the Greek geenna, or Gehenna in the English, and it is used as a word for “hell” by Jesus. Thus he describes the nature of hell as a place of burning that never ceases, a place of fire where people choose to come and worship a false god who demands human sacrifice. These are the ethics of the ancient serpent, his very abode. To speak of the hell of human sacrifice and human abortion is to be biblically literate. The Valley of Hell.
So in Jeremiah 19 we see the parallel to human abortion, yet we see no blockade, even though Jeremiah had the political power to pull it off (at least once), and the technical ability to actually snatch the child and run away with him. But to the end, Jeremiah lobbied for the king to stop the evil. Had Jeremiah tried to rescue the children himself, the culture at large would have undoubtedly ended their tolerance of him. He would likely have been stoned to death, and his prophetic ministry ended well before God’s appointed time. King Zedekiah stayed in power partly because he continually oscillated between the idolatrous will of the people and the word of Yahweh. He would not embrace the courage to lead the people and put his life on the line, trusting in Yahweh to protect him if he were to be faithful to the covenant. When an elitist regime introduces idolatries to the common people, as a means to maintain control over them, eventually a monster is created that demands the obeisance of the political elitists as well. It comes to the point where they are controlled by the idolatrous appetite of the people they have fed. Thus Jeremiah prophesied both to the people, their elders and priests, and to the king himself. As we thus see, the strategy of blockade is not employed in a theocracy as a means of rescue. Nor is it applied in a pagan nation. The United States has both a biblical heritage and the freedom for pagan religion to exist freely within it at the same time. There is no biblical precedent for the coercive practice of blockade as a means to rescue the unborn from the death of abortion.
In Terry’s book, he does not deal with the question of Jeremiah with regard to child sacrifice. Neither does he look at Daniel as I will shortly. In both cases, it was the king’s responsibility to lead the nation in the abolition of human sacrifice. King Josiah and other Jewish kings did so, because they were persuaded by God to do what was right, not because they were coerced by means of a vigilante “civil disobedience.”
Terry lists a number of incidents of civil disobedience in facile points of analogy to his strategy of blockade. It is good to review these texts, and to demonstrate the fact that vigilante action is never once undertaken by God’s people at God’s command or by his permission. Another way of putting it is that in all situations of civil disobedience, it was by God’s covenant people who were a) politically disenfranchised and who b) had no legal recourse to assert their rights of religious liberty. They were being coerced to be faithless to Yahweh (and later, Jesus) in word and/or deed. But they never once tried to change the unjust laws in places where the laws were pagan, and in the places where Hebrew law was not being honored on their behalf, they worked within the law.
The Courage of the Hebrew Midwives
The first place of civil disobedience is in Exodus 1:6-22:
“Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.
“Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave our country.’
“So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiprah and Puah, ‘When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?’
“The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.’
“So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
“The Pharaoh gave the order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’ ”
The beginning of Exodus starts with the theme of the preservation of the Messianic lineage. Following the commands to Adam and Noah to be fruitful and multiply, the Jews are doing exactly that. As Yahweh had promised that Abraham and his people would be a blessing to all nations, so Joseph has been a blessing to Egypt, rescuing them from the seven-year famine, and strengthening the hand of the Pharaoh in the process. Joseph had manifested the power to give, with no strings attached. Though he had been falsely imprisoned to begin with, he served Pharaoh wholeheartedly when God brought about his deliverance. Yet the ancient serpent, working in proxy, was warring against the faithful lineage. Instead of a historical record regarding Joseph and his family being maintained, a new king arises some years later, ignorant of the debt he and Egypt owed the Jews. Being a servant to the devil’s ethics of the power to take, he sees in the multiplying Israelites not a resource for blessings, but a threat that did not exist. This is how sin warps the view of reality – distrust instead of trust, even when trust has been powerfully earned. He did not consider that the Israelites might be his allies in time of war, or even cultivate the possibility, consistent with who they were as a people. Also, if the Egyptians were fearful they would leave Egypt, the Israelites, while still free, must also have been an economic asset to the nation in their intrinsic sabbatical ethic with its attendant productivity. A racial bigotry now came into place. So the king plots “shrewdly” to contain the perceived threat, but his shrewdness is folly, as the Israelites only increase that much more, and in the process, he embitters them against himself.
As his folly is evident, he seeks a program of infanticide against the Hebrew boys, supposedly to reduce their potential military might in the future. He tries to enlist the Hebrew midwives as his agents, and runs into firm resistance. He runs into faithful Israelite women, who in their position of political weakness, act shrewdly with a moral innocence that trumps his attempt at shrewdness with its moral wickedness. They were innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents in defeating the agenda of the ancient serpent.
Shiprah and Puah deflected the Pharaoh’s intent by stating a fact – the vigor of the Hebrew women in giving birth. They were more vigorous because of a) faith in Yahweh that produced strength in sexual fidelity, in contrast to the wasting realities of cultic sexual promiscuity ordained by the Egyptian goddess Isis; b) the sabbatical work and rest ethic; and c) because of the physical rigor developed in hard slave labor, in contrast to a softer existence, by comparison, for Egyptian women of all economic stations. But still, the midwives did not comply with the king’s edict. The text says that “they let the boys live.” To what exactly does this refer? Did they 1) supervise births where they let the boys live? Did they 2) supervise so as to shrewdly not be present at the moment of birth? Or did they 3) give word to the Hebrew women, or other midwives, not to notify them of the approach of the time of birth, but only afterward – to then serve the mother and child accordingly? For indeed, the Pharaoh could have responded: “Well, if they gave birth before you arrived, why did you not kill the boys when you did arrive?”
Pharaoh knew what he was up against, and he knew he was not going to prevail against a shrewdness that was designed to disobey him. I believe the midwives were embracing the power to live in the light, and were not lying, and that Pharaoh knew this too. I believe the third possibility above is what they actually did, according to their word to Pharaoh, and with shrewdness in their diplomatic language.
Accordingly, what we have with the civil disobedience of the midwives is a matter of faith in Yahweh, a holy fear of God. They were being commanded by Pharaoh to actively disobey God, to participate in an act of destruction. If as Christians we were ordered by the government to actively participate in an abortion, or even as a nurse ordered by a hospital to attend and/or assist an abortion, similar disobedience is called for. But in the United States, we have political and legal redress. In ancient Egypt, the midwives did not – they were slaves, they were politically disenfranchised. And yet in their disobedience, they disobeyed only in terms of beliefs or actions being forced on them that ran against their faith in God. They did not lift a vigilante finger to challenge the Pharaoh’s hold on political power and his arbitrary laws, as morally illegitimate as it was. No vigilante actions. Partly because of this ethically consistent witness, when the time for deliverance came through Moses, many Egyptian people sided with the Jews – knowing that their own sufferings were a direct result of Pharaoh’s actions against the Jews. And the Pharaoh had no cause to accuse the Israelites of having plotted politically or militarily against him. (Nor could they plot militarily, since the Egyptians denied them any arms,which, by the way, is why the United States has the Second Amendment – to preclude the possibility of a tyranny). The midwives were above reproach in all they did.
Preserving the Life of One Hebrew Infant
The second act of civil disobedience in the Bible immediately follows in Exodus 2:1-10:
“Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
“The Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’ she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?’ ”
“ ‘Yes, go,’ she answered. And the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.’ So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, ‘I drew him out of the water.’ ”
When the mother of Moses hides him from the edict to kill newborn Hebrew males, she acts both shrewdly and innocently. In his defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, Stephen states that the Pharaoh successfully forced his forefathers to throw the newborns out to die (v. 19), perhaps this having occurred after he failed in his plan with the midwives. And it must have had a measure of success, since Moses’s mother was concerned that a three-month old boy would be “discovered.” As well, Moses’s mother perhaps had an interior threat against her son to be concerned about – the complicity of fearful Israelites (but not the complicity of Moses’s father – cf. the reference below to Hebrews 11:23). Miriam (Moses’s older sister) was also there when the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the child, and Moses’s mother plays on the needfulness of nephesh as true strength, thus catalyzing mercifulness in the Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue him. Augmented by Yahweh’s divine intervention, Moses’s mother sees him adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter (who uses her royal position to serve such civil disobedience), and she herself is hired as his nurse. She gets paid to raise her son instead of seeing him killed, and paid by the family whose head, the Pharaoh, wanted her son killed. She raises him in his infancy and roots him in his Hebrew identity. The reversal of the reversal. Thus, Moses is raised in the power, education and wealth of the oppressive nation (cf. Acts 7:22), adopted as a grandson to the Pharaoh and thus in royal succession, and is positioned remarkably to be Israel’s deliverer.
The Pharaoh likely knew that his daughter had adopted a Hebrew boy, but was confident that by training him in the Egyptian culture, he would believe, live and act as a pagan Egyptian. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the faith his parents had in hiding Moses, seeing his special nature, “and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (11:23). So the variables are exactly the same as with the Hebrew midwives, applied to a specific and important case. We see civil disobedience based on keeping faith not to disobey Yahweh, by people who as slaves had no unalienable rights in the land in which they lived, but who also engaged in no vigilante action to change the unjust laws.
Moses the Vigilante: Hard Lesson to Learn
In his book, Randall Terry records these two instances above, arguing they are in service to his vigilante theology, but does not address the third case of civil disobedience, which immediately follows in Exodus 2:11-15a:
“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, ‘Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?’
“The man said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘What I did must have become known.’ When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian …”
Here was Moses, who had the political power to lobby the Pharaoh if he had chosen (cf. Acts 7:22, where Stephen speaks of Moses as being “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action”). But instead, he took the law into his own hands. Whether lobbying would have been successful is questionable, but in either event, Moses did not seek Yahweh’s counsel on how to seek justice for his fellow Hebrews. His motivation was right, his calling was of God, but his actions were not. In fact, we can notice him living in the darkness of the moment, as he tries to act secretly. The opposite of the power to live in the light. Moses then tried to arbitrate between two Hebrews, being concerned that they not be divided among themselves while being simultaneously oppressed by Egypt. He encountered cold reality, for the Hebrew man who was in the wrong blurted out that Moses had killed the Egyptian – it had become known in the grapevine.
Moses was dressed as Egyptian royalty, but probably recognized as a Hebrew. Likely his parents had let it be known how her son had been adopted into the Pharaoh’s line, but his affection for his own people may not have been understood, especially in such a setting. Someone or some people must have seen Moses furtively kill the Egyptian, but with no knowledge as to why. Thus he could have been regarded as a rogue vigilante, with neither rhyme nor reason apart from the arbitrary exercise of self-aggrandizing power. And certainly the Hebrew man in the wrong was not concerned for why Moses killed the Egyptian – he was just interested in not being held accountable for hitting the other Hebrew. He blurted out an effective counter thrust, and succeeded.
The fruit of Moses’s vigilante action was fear for his life, as Pharaoh sought to kill him, and forty years of exile in the Midianite wilderness. The fruit of Operation Rescue has been the nastiness of the opposition it has engendered, and the exile of the pro-life witness from many sections of the culture. Yahweh humbled Moses in the wilderness, and prepared in him a humility necessary for him to trust in Yahweh when he was sent as the deliverer, and not by human, military and coercive means. Yahweh was King, and would govern the demands given to Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go, and Yahweh did so consistent with the ethics and power of informed choice, a vision Moses did not have when he killed the Egyptian. It would be lovely to see the pro-life movement learn the same lesson in the wake of the error and failure of blockade.
The Courage of a Pagan Prostitute
The fourth instance of civil disobedience is with Rahab the prostitute, in hiding the Hebrew spies, and Terry also cites this case. Joshua 2:1-16 reads:
“Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. ‘Go, look over the land,’ he said, ‘especially Jericho.’ So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
“The king of Jericho was told, ‘Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.’ So the king of Jericho sent a message to Rahab: ‘Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.’
“But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, ‘Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.’ (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
“Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up to the roof and said to them, ‘I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God isGod in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and my mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.’
” ‘Our lives for your lives!’ the men assured her. ‘If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land.’ So she let them down by a rope through a window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. Now she had said to them,’Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.’ ”
The first element to note is that Jericho was dedicated to destruction by Yahweh, as one of the Canaanite cities whose wickedness had reached its full measure, as Abraham was told 400 years earlier. Their own triad of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice had reached its tolerable limits, and now Yahweh was using Israel as his agent of judgment against them.
Rahab was a prostitute and innkeeper, and earned a good living at it, perhaps as a Madame as well, having a privileged house in the city wall. Perhaps she was a prostitute out of survival instinct – the only way she knew to provide for her parents and siblings in a pagan city. She was familiar with the power and goodness of Yahweh to Israel, and like the rest of her nation, had heard reports of the exodus. But unlike the rest of her fellow Canaanites, she then deduced that Yahweh was the true Creator, and that her gods were false. As a prostitute and innkeeper, and as one to whom the king would send direct notice, she likely knew all the city’s intramural politics and power-play schemes. She would have known its gossip thoroughly, and perhaps in such a position, as she heard of the reputation of Yahweh, she saw his goodness compared to the pagan deities that enslaved her.
Thus, in her shrewd disobedience, she was now choosing to embrace the moral innocence of the Mosaic law as she hid the spies. She had political influence possibly, by means of intrigue, and knew enough secrets to barter for personal power (likely having many in political power as her patrons). But she had no unalienable rights, and was de facto in the position of the politically disenfranchised. Her life was in jeopardy when the king’s messengers came to her, chargeable with treason. She had no legal redress to help reform the city, for even though all her fellow Canaanites knew the power and reputation of Yahweh, they were still committed to their false gods. Thus, in their fear of the Israelites, they did not consider repentance as he did. Rahab was disobeying for the sake of belief, for choosing the Messianic lineage against the seed of the ancient serpent. And she was disobeying a city that was doomed to destruction. There is no point of comparison here for the United States today, where legal redress and reform are possible. The only modern comparison is Nazi Germany, which we will look at momentarily.
Rahab’s shrewdness, in pursuit of moral innocence, is interesting to consider – for she engages in her civil disobedience with no upbringing to be a truth-teller. I am not certain whether she lied to the king’s messengers, or whether she was utterly shrewd, choosing her words carefully so as not to be caught in a lie, either on the spot or later if confronted again. She had chosen her allegiance even before the king heard of the two spies, having hidden the Hebrew men in advance of the message from the king. So she says, “Yes,” the men have visited. True. When she said she did not know where they had come from, she could have been playing a double entendre, where the messengers would think she was saying that she did not know they were Israelites. But she really meant she did not know the exact location from which they came into the city, or that she did not know where they came from initially, before learning they were Hebrew spies. They could have left for the roof at dusk, when it was time for the city gate to close, thus leading the messengers to think they left the city. But in truth Rahab told the spies to go to the roof, and being perhaps more than one way to get up there (having her house inside the massive and interconnected city walls), she did not “know which way they went” technically.
Or this is a point of direct lying she could not get around, but was able to obfuscate it well enough for the moment. She then gives advice for them to pursue the men quickly, counting on her ruse to lead them out into the country in pursuit of phantoms. Rahab was shrewd, and she did not tell them the truth they were looking for. But she knew the city was under Yahweh’s judgment, and as a pagan seeking to evade paganism, she did what she could to choose life (not unlike Jacob struggling with God for the blessing). As a pagan she did her best from within her terror to choose the truth, to choose allegiance with Yahweh’s covenant people.
Also, since Jericho was in a state of war against the Israelites, and spies were involved, civil disobedience is a different matter than for citizens within the due process of laws of a nation. Rahab was a traitor to the city-state and its false gods, and was willing to risk death if caught. And the Hebrew spies ran the same risk.
There is no analogy here with reference to the United States today and its premise of unalienable rights. As Christians in a nation founded on biblical ethics, we are called in civil matters to be truth-tellers, and when civil disobedience is required to maintain the integrity of our confession of faith, we do not play games. We are held to higher standards as a covenant people, than was Rahab before she knew the covenant.
Courage in Nazi Germany
In Nazi Germany, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in the 1944 conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It failed, and Bonhoeffer was hung just before the Allies liberated Berlin in the spring of 1945. He resisted coming to this point for years, being instinctively committed to working through civil order. But he came to recognize that there was no civil order left to work through in a dictatorship that had a perverted populist support, at least until the war turned against Germany, and there was no ability for a redress of his grievances. Even Nero, as emperor in Rome, had more checks on him through the Roman Senate than did Hitler with the Reichstag. But since Hitler’s quasi-seizure of the Reichstag in 1933, he gradually built into the nation’s psyche an idolatry of himself, the Third Reich and the military machine he was building, to the point where he was an absolute despot. With his systematic murder of over twelve million people, including the holocaust of six million Jews, Bonhoeffer made the decision to choose political revolution. In so doing, he put aside all expectations of mercy or fair treatment under the Nazi regime, and embraced his death sentence courageously. He had forsaken his political allegiance with Hitler’s Germany completely. At this point of choosing allegiance, we see analogy with Rahab.
The American Revolution
There is a lively argument as to the appropriateness of the American Revolution. Could we have succeeded in the pursuit of civil liberties without revolt against England? When Paul and Peter call us to obey the governing authorities, where do we draw the line? (I will look at these passages shortly.) I am not certain how to answer this question, for I cannot compare the tyranny of King George III to that of Adolf Hitler, despite all the entreaties the king and his predecessors refused as the Colonists sought to have his promises kept.
The signers of the Declaration did appeal to an authority, in the Creator, that even King George III had to acknowledge, as they sought moral justification in the sight of God for what they were doing – quite unique in history. The fruit of the American Revolution thus led to a much greater grasp of biblical liberty written into a non-theocratic form of government than was the case in England in 1776, but still, a Christian people (at the time) revolting (with justification) against a “Christian” nation? A central reason why I am grateful for the American Revolution is that it was the fruit of the Reformation where the power of the church to control the state, and vice versa, was finally thrown off. When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D., and the Roman Empire stopped persecuting Christians, his successors later started persecuting pagans, and the century did not close before Emperor Theodosius enacted laws that later led Emporor Justinian to eventually force all people in the Roman Empire to convert to Christianity, under penalty of the sword if they did not comply. This was the moral death of the church’s witness, as extreme a violation of the power to give and the ethics and power of informed choice as possible. In a simplified diagnosis and in terms of political order, it took the Reformation to begin this reversal of this reversal, and the American Revolution to complete it in terms of a political covenant.
Regardless of unanswered questions in my own mind at this stage, it is clear to me that the only reason I would ever participate in any civil disobedience is if the Bill of Rights were abolished by a coercive and constitutionally illegitimate State power, and the moral grounds for political revolution were in place – where I was ready to forswear any claims to civil rights under the current political regime. It would have to be analogous to Rahab or Bonhoeffer. Yet I am persuaded there is a better way …
Current U.S. political order has yet to descend to the reality for the pretext of Operation Rescue and its strategy of blockade. Instead, OR was an acknowledgment, by those who articulated its vision, that the power of persuasion was something they did not possess in the process of a constitutional and democratic republic. Not only was eisegesis employed in the definition of “rescue,” but other weak analogies were in place. For example, it was said that in blocking the abortion centers, they were doing the same as disobeying a “No Trespassing” sign in order to save a child from a burning building. But there is a great difference. This society, in its current laws, is persuaded that the born child is a human being protected under the law, whereas they do not regard the unborn that way. It will allow for the breaking of a “No Trespassing” sign for the born, but not for the unborn. Regardless of how illegitimate the law allowing human abortion is, a rationale for civil disobedience cannot rest on such a false analogy.
In OR, when protesters were arrested, often they passively resisted by going limp. Yet this is no different than active resistance, as it violated the police officers who were thus forced to drag them away, and only increased the backlash, which some police departments engaged in. It is completely the opposite of how Jesus faced his arrest. When Judas came with the mob to seize him, Jesus was already prepared. Just before that moment, he awoke his disciples and said, “Look, the hour is near and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Matthew 26:45b-46). Jesus was in full self-control – a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:23). He was willing to embrace his arrest and death head on, because he knew he was doing the will of the Father. Jesus would not have engaged in any form of blockade or passive resistance.
The point here is that various members of OR consistently protested their treatment at the hands of the police (and there was some nasty treatment), and many of them protested the civil and criminal penalties the courts levied against them. Thus, they did not meet the criteria of a Rahab or Bonhoeffer who forsook their citizenships when they embraced political revolution. And until such a threshold is crossed, civil obedience is the godly means of serving justice. The ethos of blockade cannot have it both ways – civil disobedience and resistance to its consequences.
This is why I understand the basis for civil disobedience only being a) when a false confession or false action is required of me, in opposition to the Bill of Rights, and where no concomitant action is taken to force a change in such false laws; and/or b) possibly, if all redress of grievances were abolished and the political culture were as evil as a Nazi Germany, thus making war an actual good as it saves human lives and set people free from tyranny. In the meantime, persuasion by civil means is the right and effective way, and even persuasion in the face of tyranny. I cannot help but to think that God would have given the nation’s founders a shrewdness and moral innocence to have won independence from Great Britain without the recourse to war, had the moral groundwork been laid soon enough. As angels of God won victories for Israel without recourse to a war initiative on the nation’s part, why not now for any people who call on his name?
A Jewish Queen in a Pagan Land
Another place where some have argued for civil disobedience is found is in the book of Esther. When king Ahasuerus (Hebrew name; his Greek name Xerxes is more well known) ruled Persia and the upper Nile region (486-465 B.C.), God sovereignly brought a Jewess, Esther, to be his queen. A political sycophant named Haman arranged for the king to allow the destruction of the Jewish people living in exile there, but Haman did not know Esther was Jewish. Esther’s cousin Mordecai had been a father to her after her parent’s death, and had also been key in helping her become queen. Mordecai sent word to Esther to bring the situation to the king’s attention, to lobby for the protection of the Jews. Esther 4:9-17 reads:
“Hathach went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, ‘All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned by the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.’
“When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: ‘Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’
“Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: ‘Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’ So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.”
Though a queen, Esther was still politically disenfranchised, with no unalienable rights. The king had totalitarian authority for the most part. She knew the law, and its exception. Thus, in going “against the law,” Esther was still acting in civil obedience. She was willing to die if need be, but with her investment in the fast, she was preparing for success.
Esther is a unique book in the Bible in that the name of God is never mentioned, and this has led some skeptics to say it is unreligious in nature. But in truth, as part of the larger canon, it serves a powerful theological purpose of underscoring God’s sovereignty. The theme is the war between the seed of the ancient serpent and the seed of the woman, between the god of this world and the God of the universe. The devil is seeking through Haman to kill the Messianic lineage once again. The biblical order of creation has a positive view of verifiable history, and the book of Esther underscores this as it reports the times, locations and details of the great war between Christ and Satan that underwrites all the Bible. The book of Esther is so confident in the assumption and reality of Yahweh and the Jews as his chosen people that its simple historical sketch can be presented as it is, and such practices as fasting are understood for their appeal to God for deliverance. Also, it may have been simply edited from the pagan court records of Xerxes, taking its place in the Hebrew canon accordingly. As well, Mordecai reflected an understated assumption in Yahweh’s deliverance – that if Esther refuses, help will arise from elsewhere. And as well, Esther’s call for a fast necessarily involves prayer in such a Jewish context.
Esther goes before the king, the golden scepter is lifted and she gains audience. Clearly, the king held her in high esteem and recognized that she would not break the law without cause. Her reputation preceded her ability to succeed at this risk. As well, when she gained the king’s audience, she acts with extraordinary shrewdness and wisdom in having Haman’s plot exposed. Yahweh is also sovereign in drawing the king’s attention to the chronicles of his reign, where Mordecai’s faithful service to him was recorded where he exposed a plot to assassinate the king. Thus, as Haman’s plot against Mordecai and his people was exposed, Haman was hanged, and the Jews were allowed to defend themselves ahead of the enactment of Haman’s plot. This summarizes the whole book, and our biblical literacy is well served by reading it in detail. As we do, we can see how the art of persuasion, based on a reputation above reproach, served in the deliverance of the Jews from a holocaust. The tactics and rhetoric of blockade only serve the opposite, and have entrenched the resistance of those whose god desires the holocaust of the unborn. To grasp how to make it first the Gospel, then politics …, biblical literacy is essential. We need to know the whole canon, and see how the competition between earthly and heavenly citizenships plays out across all its pages.
Daniel and the Abolition of Child Sacrifice in a Pagan Empire
Civil disobedience is also a major theme in the book of Daniel, but once again based on a higher view of God’s sovereignty, and as well, in tandem with the power of civil obedience. The balance between the two teaches us much. Vigilante action is a repudiation of that sovereignty. Daniel 1:1-21 reads:
“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And 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 Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
“Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility – young 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. The king assigned to 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.
“Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego. But 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. Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel, but 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.’
“Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, ‘Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.’ So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
“At the end of the ten days they looked heathier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead. To 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.
“At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all of the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.”
Daniel and his three friends had been deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in 605 B.C., the first of two deportations that preceded the final destruction of the city and final exile of 586 B.C. These four young men, members of the Judahite royalty and likely in their teens, were selected to be trained as servants to the king’s palace, with their God-given nature of physical and intellectual prowess being easily noted. They were already well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they refused to defile themselves with Babylonian food that does not meet kosher standards as outlined in Leviticus. Daniel took the lead in acting on this conviction, and his three friends followed suit. In other words, though slaves in a pagan land, they chose to keep not only their moral separation from pagan religion, but their cultural separation as well. The Jewish cultural law existed to protect the eternal moral law within it for the sake of the Messianic lineage. They were free to be in the pagan world, but not of it. They were free to take on Babylonian names as necessary, but maintained their Jewish names and identities as well.
Thus, when presented with a required diet that would have defiled them, Daniel showed shrewdness and tact. His character had already won him favor in the sight of the chief official, Ashpenaz, who was responsible for his training, who was thus willing to go along with Daniel’s proposal to eat only vegetables and drink only water. This was not a vegetarian statement or a statement against meat and wine, for the kosher diet celebrates meat and wine. Rather it was a statement, that given the nature of unclean food and drink as also dedicated to pagan gods, Daniel was trusting in God to give him the physical strength on a vegetarian diet, one that would meet the chief official’s requirements to meet the king’s standards. And it did. And he would have done so as long as he did not have access to kosher meat and wine, a prerogative he likely had the power to accomplish later on when he rises in political position.
Daniel’s shrewdness is evident as he asks the guard to test him and the other three on the proposed vegetarian diet. If they pass the test, then the chief official’s fears will be alleviated, and he will not have anything to fear from the king. And if not, Daniel implicitly lets the official know that he will not resist the diet again. Daniel could propose such an “if” clause because he knew Yahweh would honor his own Name, and honor him so that he would not have to compromise with a diet dedicated to pagan deities. Daniel’s name means “God is (my) Judge,” and he acted accordingly.
The fruit of this “civil obedience” and diplomatic skill was such that Daniel and his three friends surpassed all the other young men training with them, even to their reputation for being ten times wiser than all the court magicians – of men many years older. How often are Christians viewed similarly by the pagans and secularists of our age? Daniel’s wisdom is then tested in the text that immediately follows:
“In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, he said to them, ‘I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.’ Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, ‘O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.’
“The king replied to the astrologers, ‘This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what the dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.’ “Once more they replied, ‘Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.’
“Then the king answered, ‘I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me the dream, there is just one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.’
“The astrologers answered the king, ‘There is not a man on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.’
“This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends and to put them to death.
“When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. He asked the king’s officer, ‘Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?’ Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.
“Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said:
“ ‘Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in the darkness, and light dwells with him. I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers: You have given me wisdom and power, you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king.’
“Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him. Arioch took Daniel to the king at once and said, ‘I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can tell the king what his dream means.’
“The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), ‘Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?’
“Daniel replied, ‘No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these:
” ‘As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.’
“ ‘You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue – an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.’
” ‘This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.’
“ ‘After you, another kingdom will rise, inferior to yours. Next a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron – for iron breaks and smashes everything – and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more that iron mixes with clay.’
“ ‘In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands – a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.’
“ ‘The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.’
“Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, ‘Surely your God is the God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.’
“Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at theroyal court” (2:1-49).
This chapter continues the theme of the difference between the true God and false gods, as four of Yahweh’s faithful remnant live in a foreign land. The Jewish nation is exiled in 586 B.C. because they were told this would happen if they persisted in serving false gods, and Yahweh also told them that a pagan nation would rule over them. But in time a remnant would return to Jerusalem – having learned that Yahweh is sovereign the whole time, whether over a rebellious theocracy or a pagan nation.
In chapter 1, we see the ethical and intellectual power of the faithful Hebrew men, in contrast with their pagan peers, and with the nation’s leading wise men. In chapter 2, the same contrast intensifies as Nebuchadnezzar is not willing to suffer fools and sycophants. He requires of the astrologers and other “wise men” to prove their spiritual authority, and reveal to him what his dream actually was. They protest that no “wise man” can know such things, only the “gods” can, and the gods do not “live among men.”
It is a similar contrast as between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel – the true God answered with fire (1 Kings 18). It is an ethical as well as a supernatural issue. Ethics refers to relationships, and Yahweh has a living relationship with his servants. The false gods who are no gods, but are demons in masquerade, give no real power to the astrologers. The astrologers know that their gods do not live with them, and do not respond favorably to requests presented to them. These gods must be manipulated through religious ritual and sacrifices (to demons). In contrast to the living God whom Daniel knows. The astrologers engage largely in a game of tricks in their soothsaying, and Nebuchadnezzar knows it. So the decree is issued for their execution, and Daniel and his three friends fall under its swath. Daniel acts wisely and with tact, employing the power of a question. By posing Arioch the question, he elicits from him a desire to answer, which he does. This provides a conversational basis to deflect Arioch’s commission to kill him, and allows Daniel the time to go see the king and redeem the situation. A simple conversational question to which Arioch knew the answer – the wisdom and tact which is a cognate of the power to love hard questions. Thus, Daniel calls upon God and is answered.
It is interesting to note that in Daniel’s language, he speaks of God only as Elohim, and not as Yahweh. He is wise in the metaethics of language in a pagan land that cannot comprehend Yahweh’s covenant name, and thus he calls attention to the generic name of the Creator which they can understand better. Likely too, all the records that Daniel made of these matters were part of the court documents of the Babylonians (and preserved by the exilic community), so he made sure the language was appropriate (in fact, chapters 2-7 in Daniel are in Aramaic, a common language the court astrologers, from many nations, could understand). His exercise of the power to give with no strings attached is then evidenced as he directly saves the lives of the pagan “wise men,” and is then appointed over them by Nebuchadnezzar – an authority he employs not in the pagan sense of “over,” but in the biblical sense of the power to give. His actions are the opposite of the vigilante, the opposite spirit to those who attack the persons of abortionists instead of embracing the power to love enemies.
The Babylonian sorcerers (from many nations with many different gods – but they were all ultimately syncretists) know that it was Daniel’s God who had saved them, not their gods. The dynamics must have been interesting from that point forward – some “wise men,” in their stubbornness like the unrepentant citizens of Jericho, would have been intensely jealous, and others, more in the spirit of a Rahab, might have been genuinely grateful. Daniel was salting the leading pagan nation of the time with the Good News of God’s nature, instead of becoming a pagan due to the influence of having been taught Babylonian astrology. A reversal of the reversal mission.
Thus Daniel testifies to Nebuchadnezzar that it is not his wisdom but God’s revelation that gives him and his friends the answer – ethics, not magic or worldly shrewdness. As Daniel describes the four kingdoms, history demonstrates that it refers to 1) the Neo-Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar (605 B.C.ff), the Medo-Persian empire of Cyrus (539 B.C.ff), the Greek empire of Alexander the Great (330 B.C.ff), and finally the Roman empire (27 B.C.ff), until it finally crumbled (in the West) by 476 A.D. The metaphor of the gold, silver, bronze and iron (with clay) is so accurate, that academic skeptics have long maintained that the book of Daniel had to be written much later that the fifth century B.C. – because they do not believe there is a living God who reveals the future. But no matter how late they try to push it back (against the exegetical evidence), they still cannot place it after the rise of Alexander the Great, so they still fall short in their attempt to disprove prophecy as a gift of the true God. The fifth kingdom, the “rock,” is that of the church of Jesus Christ. It is the prophetic essence of the kingdom of God that will come when Jesus returns. But it is unlike the prior four pagan kingdoms. The church espouses a heavenly citizenship that seeks no temporal political power, but only seeks to salt the temporal political orders with a taste of the age to come.
Because of Daniel’s character and wisdom, he wins the king of the world’s most powerful nation to give praise to the true God. He is given unprecedented authority as a believer in a pagan land. A reversal of the reversal as he is set in charge of the cadre of false “wise men.” Daniel reflects the power to give with no strings attached, willing like Joseph to serve a pagan nation for its internal blessings – the seed of Abraham’s blessing to all nations. The blessings came to Babylon under Daniel, even though Nebuchadnezzar was still imprisoned in his pagan beliefs. On the one hand, when the power of God was evident, and Daniel as the servant of God was seen publicly as above reproach, Nebuchadnezzar would give honor to God. But then, he would turn back to his pagan deities in a flash, and this is what happens in the next chapter, and where the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego comes to the fore. Nebuchadnezzar only knew of God’s power through Daniel thus far.
Daniel 3:1-30 reads:
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.
“Then the herald loudly proclaimed, ‘This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.’
“Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
“At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! You have issued a decree, O king, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, and that whoever does not fall down andworship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. But there are some Jewswhom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – who pay no attention to you, Oking. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.’
“Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’
“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we were thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’
“Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
“Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’
“They replied, ‘Certainly, O king.’ He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening to the blazing furnace and shouted, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’
“So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
“Then Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.’ “Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.”
In this well known story, we have ample opportunity again to witness the power contest between the ancient serpent and the Messianic line, and how it is that biblically faithful people live within pagan tyranny. We see also how it is that the Jews were hated by pagan elitists consistently – for their faith in Yahweh presented the only alternative to the many shades of polytheisms in the cultures across the world. This was a threat to those who clung to power by ulterior and occultic means.
Nebuchadnezzar decided to set up an image representing the god Nabu, after whom Nebuchadnezzar himself was named. The text indicates that not only were the royal officials required to attend the dedication ceremony to his idol, but all the people as well. Babylon was the greatest empire of that time in the near east, and Nebuchadnezzar had an inflated view of himself as world ruler. And in commanding “all the peoples, nations and men of every language” to worship the image, he was using the idol worship to reinforce his personal political claims to power. Ultimately, this is the driving motivation and historical reality behind pagan idolatries and their concomitant sexual promiscuities – to justify the lust for self-aggrandizing power. Many religious and political leaders enter into such idolatries with this in view, little realizing the demonic host they are inviting into their lives, and so they become slaves to their own lusts in the end. This is in contrast to Yahweh as the true King, where the worship of him opposes self-aggrandizing power and sinful gratifications. In the book of Daniel, the grand theme of the war between the seed of the ancient serpent and the Messianic seed of the woman is once again in profile. Even in exile, after Judah has been punished for its sins against the covenant, Yahweh had his remnant, and their power is understated in how it advertises itself – but overwhelming when the devil tries to oppose it.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego aroused the jealousy of the other royal officials because of their natural refusal to worship the idol. The officials report this to Nebuchadnezzar and frame it as a direct affront against the king himself, arousing his fury. The way Nebuchadnezzar then addresses them reflects an initial disbelief on his part, and a respect he holds for them and for Daniel. “Is it true?” he muses, and then gives them a reprieve from the original order, a special second chance. When his “attitude” toward them changes after their subsequent refusal, we glean how he originally regarded them with respect. He expected them to cede to his wishes because they were not vigilantes. This attitude change may as well reflect a demonic insurgence within him, revealing its presence, along with the easily irritated temper of a despot who expects unflinching obedience.
For some reason, Daniel is not mentioned in this story. It takes place in “the province of Babylon,” that is, the Babylonian portion, as a local district of the larger empire, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego served as administrators, so it was naturally their venue. Daniel served at the palace court itself, and if he were in the province at the time, I am sure his refusal would not go unnoticed. Perhaps he was traveling outside of Babylon at the time on official business. When the three answer that they do not need to defend themselves in this matter, their understated confidence is evident. Nebuchadnezzar, despite Daniel’s earlier witness to him, is still polytheistic in his thinking, and cannot imagine why the Jews would not worship Nabu as well as Yahweh. Of course it was such syncretism that led to God’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. As well, he viewed the gods as things to be manipulated for the sake of his own political power, yet to fully grasp the reality of the living God, even despite the events in Daniel 2.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego know that the king knew their character, and thus they should not have to explain their faith to him. As well, this language likely reflects the fact that they knew they were in excellent stead with the king for the quality of their service as administrators over the province of Babylon, and that they knew that he knew they were not seeking to affront him at all. But he was trapped by his own idolatry, and it manifested itself when his demonic fury erupted in the face of their understated confidence. They were prepared for true civil disobedience, but not with any spirit of defiance against the king. They were men above reproach first, and this moral authority is what energizes true civil disobedience when it is required, and God’s deliverance comes in response. In Nebuchadnezzar’s response after they were delivered by God, he readily recognizes his error and the integrity of the three Jewish men.
Their answer also reflects to me the essence of trusting Yahweh’s sovereignty, and the purpose and nature of the miraculous. The “signs and wonders” which Jesus ordained to follow the preaching of his Gospel (Mark 16:20; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:12), as signs and wonders also followed the ministry of Moses when he confronted Pharaoh, are tastes of the power of the age to come. They are not to be worshiped in themselves, as the Israelites did when they worshiped the bronze snake (cf. Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 18:4). And the idolatry of the miraculous is always with us, as people follow after “signs,” and do not first follow after God. It is a reversal. The three Hebrew men stated that God would deliver, and rhetorically they then made an ethical point that is deeper and prior to their faith in his deliverance: they would just as soon die than to worship an idol. They expected deliverance, but they were simultaneously humble and free to say that if it turns out not to be so, they were equally free to die, rather than to deny the true God.
These were a radical people, and it is such a radical remnant people that are needed today to be salt and light in American politics and culture. When death holds no tyranny over our decision to follow Jesus, then the sycophants to the ancient serpent, in their various elitist positions, are powerless to mute the Gospel.
The event in the blazing furnace has a delightful play on words. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were “firmly tied” when thrown into the furnace, but they were “unbound” when they were walking about in the flames. An angel of God comes to be with them, and Nebuchadnezzar is amazed and praises the Most High God (Elohim) of the Hebrew men – as he learns momentarily what true freedom versus slavery is all about. So the three come out, and the petty and jealous royal officials crowd around them to see the reality – no smell or effects of the fire upon them. It must have been quite a sight as they peered over each other’s shoulders, and jostled for the best view – the evidence that there is one true God, and he is not the one they had bowed down to on the plain of Dura. A power contest has been decided, and Nebuchadnezzar cannot but praise God and give promotion to the three men because of their integrity in the face of death, and their vindication by the true God – against whom “no other god” can compete.
In this power contest, there is no flavor of human egos clashing against human egos. The three Hebrew men were politically powerless against the king’s edict, with no legal redress. They did not act to oppose the setting up of the idol, whether as vigilantes or by means of appealing to the king through some formal process (if they even had time or opportunity – probably not). Nor did they take administrative or vigilante action against the child sacrifice that took place across the Babylonian empire, especially among Canaanite tribes and in Greece and northern Africa, at that time, and possibly in the very province which they governed. They knew the ethics and power of informed choice, and what it was to bear witness in a pagan nation. It was the power to give with no strings attached, and as the story line of the book of Daniel progresses, we see how a stubborn king is repeatedly humbled until he finally gets it – that there is only one true God, and that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the servants of that God. As well, we will also note the likely abolition of child sacrifice as a result of this witness. This remarkable conclusion to Daniel and the witness of his three friends would not have been possible apart from their first being above reproach in all matters. Their power of civil obedience, established at the outset of the book, empowers their successful civil disobedience when it is required of them. Operation Rescue reflects an opposite ethical understanding, where it proposes to coerce a pagan spirit into submission (a theological oxymoron).
In chapter 4, King Nebuchadnezzar has another dream for which he seeks Daniel’s interpretation. The dream that Daniel interpreted in chapter 2 forecast the eventual destruction of Babylon. In this second dream, it forecast specific judgment upon Nebuchadnezzar himself. The entire chapter simply records a letter from Nebuchadnezzar, published for his whole kingdom to receive:
“To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world: May you prosper greatly!
“It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.
“I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in my bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
“I said, ‘Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. These are the visions I saw while lying in my bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
“ ‘In the visions I saw while lying in my bed, I looked, and there before me was a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. He called out in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass for him.’
“ ‘The decision is announced by the messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.’
“ ‘This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.’ ”
“Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, ‘Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.’ Belteshazzar answered, ‘My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air – you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
“ ‘You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, “Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live like the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.” ‘
“ ‘This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.’
“All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
“The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.
“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
“His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does what he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
“At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (4:1-37).
When we consider first the Gospel, then politics…, and the contest between a heavenly citizenship and an earthly one, Daniel 4 is central. The Jews have lost Jerusalem and Judah because of their apostasy, and the great pagan kingdom of Babylon was Yahweh’s chosen means of judgment upon them. Yet in this Jewish brokenness, Yahweh raises up his remnant within the chambers of the devil’s greatest political power. The reversal of the reversal is the theme between expulsion from the Garden, and the destruction of Babylon the Great and the ancient serpent in Revelation 18 and 20. Daniel serves this reversal of the reversal, where his definition of power is the opposite of Nebuchadnezzar’s. When the Gospel is lived truly, and given compelling witness, even the pagans will glorify God – and publicly.
Daniel’s freedom is a joy to watch. Like his three friends, he is given a Babylonian name when brought into the palace service. His Jewish name, Daniel, means “God is my judge,” and his three friends had their Jewish names as well. Hananiah means “Yahweh shows grace”; Mishael means “Who is like God?” or “Who is what God is?”; and Azariah means “Yahweh helps.” Daniel is given the Babylonian name of Belteshazzar (“Bel, protect his life,” where Bel is the name for the Babylonian god Marduk, and possibly parallel to the Canaanite god Ba’al); Hananiah is given the name of Shadrach (“Command of Aku,” where Aku is the Sumerian moon-good); Mishael is given the name of Meshach (“Who is like Aku?” or “Who is what Aku is”?); and Azariah is given the name of Abednego (“Servant of Nego,” where Nego is the same as Nebo or Nabu, the god after whom Nebuchadnezzar is named).
In John 17, Jesus prays that as believers, we will not be of the world, but at the same time we are to live in the pagan world and bear witness to the truth. Daniel and his three friends accomplish this. They drew the line on maintaining fidelity to a Jewish diet, thus keeping covenant. But they were at the same time free to be called by names dedicated to pagan gods. They knew these gods were nothings, masquerades for demons who have no power against the true God, and they knew that the assigned names did not change their true names and identities as Jewish believers. Thus their confidence in Yahweh’s power to give superseded the demonic power to take, as they lived in pagan Babylon with Jewish integrity. The linguistic irony is that the Babylonian names given are superseded by their true Jewish identities. Daniel’s Babylonian name is a dedication for Marduk to protect his life, yet it is Yahweh who protects his life from the servant of Marduk, and Nebuchadnezzar realizes that no other god can do what Yahweh can do. Mishael’s Babylonian name is a declaration that there is no god as powerful as Aku, and yet Yahweh is shown to be the only God who is truly powerful. Daniel and his friends were so confident in Yahweh’s power and authority, that the assignment of Babylonian names was no threat to them. They lived with these names in their duties as servants to the Babylonian government, and their true Jewish identities came through. God is Daniel’s judge, and Daniel is vindicated at every turn.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s letter, he praises the Most High God (Elohim), for the “miraculous signs and wonders” he performed for him. In the book of Daniel, Elohim is the name used for God except in chapter 9, where Daniel’s prayer is recorded, and where Yahweh is named specifically. This reflects the genius and purpose of only Genesis 1-2. Elohim is used in Genesis 1 as the God of creation. Daniel could use this language with Nebuchadnezzar, for despite the king’s polytheism, he knew there was one God over all the gods, even from within his own false religion. Daniel did not use the covenant name of Yahweh in Nebuchadnezzar’s presence, because the Babylonians did not understand the covenant, had not been revealed it, and thus they viewed Yahweh as a tribal god on the level of a dualistic tension and equality with Marduk. Thus Daniel only uses the name Yahweh when the context was dealing with his direct relationship with God in chapter 9. The rest of the book was a witness to the Babylonian empire that Elohim was sovereign over their pagan gods, over the political power of Babylon, and that Babylon was going to be judged for their sins against the Jews.
Accordingly, Daniel was free in his power of understatement not to violate the metaethics of language. He was more concerned with what the pagans understood by his words, than he was in his freedom to speak religious language they did not understand. He appealed to an undisputed truth between himself and the king – there is one God over the universe. In order for the Babylonians to understand that this God is indeed Yahweh, they first had to experience Elohim delivering Daniel and his three friends from their false gods. This paves the way for Jesus, who calls himself Yahweh, to be preached to the pagans beginning with Peter’s witness to Cornelius and Paul’s proclamation at Mars Hill to the Greek philosophers. Paul appealed first to the God of creation, using Greek polytheistic texts as his touch point, then he proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah who now provides the way of salvation.
This is the genius of the Declaration of Independence, rooted in only Genesis and the God of creation. As the ancient pagans, in their spiritual blindness, did not comprehend Yahweh as anything more than a tribal god, so too many biblically illiterate Americans today have a twisted view of Jesus. The use of Jesus’s name in defining political concerns can scare many people due to past abuses of the church toward unbelievers. Thus, if we properly inherit the wisdom of Daniel as applicable to our democratic and constitutional republic, we will appeal to the God of creation in all we do, and export the gift of religious liberty as the foundation for unalienable rights. Then we have basis to give testimony to Jesus as the Messiah, in whom alone salvation is provided.
With this theological foundation in place in Daniel’s witness, it was he who was sought out by Nebuchadnezzar for the interpretation of the dream. The Babylonian sorcerers were known to be impotent sycophants in comparison. How often today are theologically competent and morally upright servants of Jesus Christ sought out for their wisdom by government officials explicitly because of a reputation for biblical wisdom? How often are such servants of the Gospel seen as wise, especially in contrast to sycophantic political counselors who have no higher agenda but to have their egos stroked? Who in our midst are theologically competent, morally upright and able to bring the Good News in language that the political world cannot dismiss?
In a pagan nation, Elohim used his servant Daniel to proclaim the signs and wonders needed to humble the proudest of pagan kings. Do we expect God to pour out miraculous signs and wonders in our day in the political arena? Do we expect to embrace the faith of Moses in the face of Pharaoh, Daniel in the face of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, or Paul in the face of Elymas and Nero? These three men are the most powerful of prophets in the Bible because a) they knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out, b) they knew pagan religion and politics inside out, and c) they knew the power of the Holy Spirit to confirm their words with signs and wonders. They loved Yahweh their God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and forsook all idols and worldly identities. Unless we expect God to bear witness to unrighteous rulers in our age with signs and wonders, do we really believe in the God of the Bible?
The way Daniel treated Nebuchadnezzar is instructive for the balance between civil obedience and civil disobedience. Daniel and his three friends never engaged in vigilante action to oppose pagan Babylonian worship, and the pagan zenith of child sacrifice it permitted. They conducted no blockades, eschewing any coercive tactics whatsoever. They knew the ethics and power of informed choice well, and trusted in the sovereignty of God completely. They were at rest in their spirits, as their character gave a profound witness to their faith in Yahweh. To take the law into our own hands is the surest sign of stating that we believe God is not sovereign.
When Daniel was given the interpretation to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he showed honor to Nebuchadnezzar’s position, even though it was pagan and tyrannical by definition. In so doing he placed confidence in the broken remains of the image of God within him, knowing that the mere criticism of sin was not the way to salt or reform the nation. The only means to turn away the tide of sin is by appealing to the image of God first, to touch the POSH Ls honestly and provide the motivating power for repentance. We must first ask God to pour out a spirit of grace and supplication upon those to whom we witness, before we can expect any change. To merely criticize sin is to harden the hearts of sinners further. Daniel wished that the dream applied not to the king, but to his adversaries. This does not reflect on Daniel’s part a hatred toward the adversaries of Nebuchadnezzar, but rather it reflects an acknowledgment that God has judgment to pour out on sinners, specifically upon those who destroyed Jerusalem. It reflects Daniel’s witness for the salvation of Nebuchadnezzar’s soul. He wishes for Nebuchadnezzar not to be the one who is so judged, that it would be someone else who had to receive such judgment. Daniel of course knew that it was the king of Babylon who had so earned God’s wrath. He delivers the word of Yahweh as Jonah did to Ninevah, and with hope that Nebuchadnezzar’s judgment could still be averted. So, after Daniel interprets the dream, in diplomatic understatement he calls Nebuchadnezzar to renounce his sins and wickedness by doing what is right and by being kind to the oppressed.
This is the same witness Jeremiah gave to King Zedekiah, in the specific context of opposing child sacrifice in the waning days of Jerusalem before 586 B.C. (cf. Jeremiah 19; 22:1-5, as he called for the king to rescue the oppressed and the one who has been robbed, to protect the alien, fatherless and widows from violence, and not to shed innocent blood, i.e. not to engage in child sacrifice). When Daniel refers to “doing what is right” and “being kind to the oppressed,” it included those poor people who were led to believe that the way out of oppression was by means of child sacrifice to a Molech or a Ba’al. Thus, Daniel’s witness against child sacrifice percolates to the surface at this point as part of an all-inclusive calling of the king to righteousness.
When Nebuchadnezzar regains his sanity and returns from his exile as an animal, he receives greater prosperity yet, and he praises the King of heaven who had humbled and taught him who really rules. The ethical outworking of this can only mean that Nebuchadnezzar renounced his sins and started showing kindness to the oppressed as Daniel had called him to do. And though there are no biblical or extra-biblical records of what Nebuchadnezzar did at this point, how could his praise of Elohim but lead to the abolition of child sacrifice along with all other forms of social evil, for the rest of Nebuchadnezzar’s years? As well – who ruled in his stead during those seven years? Daniel, still an exile in his high positions of political authority, was among “the lowliest of men,” and was likely in charge, since Nebuchadnezzar had earlier put him in charge of both the province of Babylon and over the Babylonian wise men. He was de facto prime minister to begin with, with access to the royal seal by which to conduct business in the name of the king. This would equal a certain abolition of child sacrifice to the extent it was practiced anywhere in the empire, and Nebuchadnezzar would then continue the abolition as his position is restored. It is possible that the Babylonian nation did not know of Nebuchadnezzar’s exile (with rumors perhaps). He was a dictator, with no need to make himself publicly accountable. Probably his exile was inside the huge walled royal gardens (including a literal forest), and Daniel, along with the nobles under his charge, were able to rule in Nebuchadnezzar’s name without the kingdom knowing it. The likely abolition of child sacrifice was thus not through vigilante action, but through the power of civil obedience coupled with the power of true spiritual authority. Why not ditto with human abortion today?
In chapter 5, the book of Daniel jumps to 539 B.C., 23 years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar. King Belshazzar is now on the throne. He had forgotten the lesson God had taught Nebuchadnezzar, and compounded it even worse by profaning the gold goblets taken from the temple in Jerusalem, and using them for his own pagan banquet where he “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (v. 4). In the face of such a dualistic and syncretistic paganism where the articles dedicated to the true God were used in praise of false gods, God pronounced judgment against him in the sign of the handwriting on the wall. Belshazzar dies that night and Darius the Mede becomes king, as the Medes now conquered the Babylonians. Then chapter 6 reads:
“It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.
“Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.’ So the administrators and the satraps went as a group to the king and said: ‘O King Darius, live forever! The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. Now, O king, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered – in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.’ So King Darius put the decree in writing.
“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. These men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: ‘Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or man except to you, O king, would be thrown into the lions’ den?’
“The king answered, ‘The decree stands – in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.’ Then they said to the king, ‘Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.’ When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.
“Then the men went as a group to the king and said to him, ‘Remember, O king, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.’ So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”
“A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.
“At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?’
“Daniel answered, ‘O king, live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.’
“The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.
“Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land:
“May you prosper greatly! I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is a living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.
“So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”
When Daniel was taken as an exile to Babylon in 605 B.C. as a “young man,” he was probably 15-20 years old. The events of chapter 6 take place in 539 B.C. or shortly thereafter, which means Daniel was as old as 85 at the time. His wisdom and reputation were remarkable, and he had survived the reigns of several kings. Thus, when Darius the Mede took control of Babylon, Daniel was a fixture, and his qualities were so evident to Darius, that Darius planned to set the whole Babylonian kingdom under his charge.
What would have happened had the ethos of vigilante action been in place in the lives of Daniel and his three friends? They would have long since been put to death. But because they knew Yahweh’s sovereign power to give and the derivative power of informed choice, they truly salted a pagan nation, and accomplished a prophetic reversal of the reversal. Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and he praised the King of heaven, and in all likelihood, child sacrifice was stopped. This same witness is magnified with Darius.
Here too we see the reality of self-aggrandizing elitist power. The other administrators and the satraps were jealous of Daniel because of his incorruptibility, and because he was a Jew who did not buy into their polytheistic justifications for self-serving power. They were sycophants, wanting to be the king’s trusted advisors. But when the chips were down, Nebuchadnezzar called on the unassuming Daniel. Darius also saw this quality of character in Daniel. Most of the administrators and satraps were also likely much younger than Daniel, and frustrated by the knowledge of his long years of incorruptibility. Because of his ethical nature, they were unable to overthrow his true political power by human machinations. Daniel’s honest character required of them that the true reality of the contest become unmasked – they had to challenge the “law of his God” openly. Daniel could not be dismissed, so the contest was one of spiritual power.
The two administrators and the 120 satraps manipulated Darius, first by lying to him in saying that “(t)he royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed …” Daniel had not been consulted, and of course would not have agreed. Second, they knew that Darius, in issuing such a decree, would be bound by the legal system of the Medes and Persians and unable to rescind it. Darius was a slave to a legal system that had no room at this place to correct errors, no room for forgiveness, no power to forgive and be forgiven. The elitists knew this and played it exactly. And third, the elitists played to Darius’s vanity in proposing an edict where he would be worshiped as a god, with no competing worship allowed for the thirty days. Flattery par excellence.
Daniel’s response, in civil disobedience for proper cause, was to define the power contest on his own terms – he prayed to God, with thanksgiving, openly and publicly, as he had always done before. No political machinations, or even an appeal to Darius. As he was thankful to God in the face of this trial, it was the basis for him to seek and receive God’s help. How does vigilante action accomplish such a trust in God’s sovereignty? When Darius realized he had been deceived, and was nonetheless a slave to a decision he was tricked into, he tried in futility to rescue Daniel. Even he did not have benefit of unalienable rights to redress an evil plot among his subordinates. His only option was then to trust in a God he did not know. And the reason Darius was willing to do this was because of Daniel’s integrity, which thus catalyzed his own integrity.
Does our public conduct encourage the skeptics to dismiss the Gospel, or does it leave them no excuse, thus allowing the possibility for even God’s enemies to repent? What is the nature of our faith? Do we place our trust completely in God, or do we hedge our bets by depending on cultural, financial or political props from time to time? Daniel walked with God as closely as did any Hebrew prophet, and he did not hesitate as he was thrown into the lions’s den.
What do we suppose Daniel did when he landed on the floor of the den, confronted by a number of hungry lions? We know that God sent an angel to shut their mouths, but how did Daniel conduct himself?
I can readily see Daniel picking himself up off the ground, looking at the lions face to face and saying, “Shalom,” which is the Hebrew word for “peace” (rooted in a sense of “wholeness” and “integrity”). I can see him, at age 85 with decades of having experienced Yahweh’s signs and wonders on his behalf, being at complete peace with God and himself. He knows the spiritual authority he has been given to bear witness to Yahweh’s sovereignty in a foreign land. I can see him standing in the face of the lions, over whom he has authority. As he reverses the reversal by regaining some of Adam’s original authority over the animal kingdom, deeper than dread – I can see him saying, “Peace to you, O lions, in the name of Yahweh Elohim your Creator. He shall provide you your meal, but I am not that meal. Be at peace, rest well with me this night, and tomorrow you shall be fed.” In this piece of historical fiction, I do not see Daniel necessarily anticipating that the delegation from the administrators and satraps will be that meal per se, though he could have; only that Daniel knows he will be rescued, and that the lions will be otherwise fed. Thus, I can also see Daniel sleeping the night, perhaps with a warm furry mane as a pillow, and with the angels of God ministering peace to the lions as well.
When Darius arises at the crack of dawn, unable to sleep all night, he is delighted to learn of Daniel’s rescue. Then the lions are fed as the coterie of elitists who came to the king, along with their wives and children are thrown into the den (the wives and children of those who were enemies of the Gospel reaped their husband’s or parent’s sins, as in the ancient near east the family was viewed as a moral unit; cf. too Deuteronomy 5:9). Darius then publishes a letter to the whole kingdom, as did Nebuchadnezzar, and the God of Daniel is again exalted by a pagan king. This also led to an abolition of any child sacrifice that may have come back into the kingdom, especially under Belshazzar. For Daniel was now back in charge, as originally intended by Darius, who now trusts him all the more.
Thus, in Daniel’s witness, along with his three friends, we see the exact balance between civil disobedience and civil obedience. They had a reputation for civil obedience to true law that was above reproach, and they only disobeyed when called to deny faith in Yahweh – but their disobedience never took the form of vigilante action. Rather, because of their service to the image of God as a restraining means of wickedness, they were exalted into places of leadership where they accomplished far more than many of us dare to believe is possible today. Child sacrifice is the closest Old Testament parallel to human abortion, and Daniel likely saw its abolition in a pagan nation. Surely we can learn from him.
Miscellany: The “Civil Disobedience” of Ehud, Gideon, and Uriah
Three other people in the Old Testament are worth noting via-à-vis civil disobedience. First is Ehud (Judges 3:12-30), who assassinates a pagan king when pretending to bring him tribute. But this is not within a civil government, but in a war between nations – as other examples indicate, and as our understanding of Jewish holy war as ordained by Yahweh, as examined in Volume 1, should help us to understand.
Second is Gideon (Judges 6), where he disobeys the local government as he destroys the altar to Ba’al and the Asherah pole. This can be read as an act of political revolution, because of the social (not to mention religious) reform it was aimed at. However, Gideon is raised up by Yahweh as a judge (leader) in a Jewish theocracy (a community of choice to follow Yahweh’s laws). He was called to restore true law within that setting, to enforce the covenant stipulations the nation had agreed to under Moses and Joshua, and thus this incident is inapplicable to the question of civil disobedience in a pagan or pluralistic culture. We are not a theocracy.
And third, in 2 Samuel 11, a text we have already looked at in part, Uriah presents a remarkable example of a man who “disobeyed” his king, David, when David was trying to cover his own sin of adultery with Bathsheba. Uriah, unaware of the king’s ploy, instinctively acted out of a deeper faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, out of concern for the well-being of the ark. He refused to mix civilian and military matters (cf. 2 Timothy 2:3-4). He refused the king directly, and yet he was the righteous one, putting David to shame morally. He did so on the basis of the criteria for civil disobedience – he would not submit to a directive where he had to compromise his faith in Yahweh. He did not engage in any vigilante action to oppose David’s will. As well, David did not command him, using kingly authority, to act a certain way – for this was a personal matter outside the king’s prerogative. Thus David was suggesting a course of action that Uriah knew was not a legal command, but actually a “benefit” being given to him. A different context than questions of civil disobedience.
Miscellany: The Civil Obedience of David, Obadiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Jeremiah
Apart from the acts of civil obedience and disobedience we have examined in the Old Testament, six other brief examples can be mentioned.
First is 1 Samuel 16 through 2 Samuel 1, where we can trace much detail concerning David’s rise to become king of Israel. He is anointed after Saul has proved unfaithful, and yet David radically obeys Saul and honors his kingship. Even as Saul repeatedly tries to kill David, he still honors him. When David finally has to flee for his life (proper civil disobedience), he refuses to seek Saul’s life (civil obedience), sparing him on two occasions when he could have done otherwise, and he refuses to take any vigilante action to overthrow his government. Indeed, he later executes the opportunistic Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul. David trusts in Yahweh’s sovereignty and timing.
Second, in 1 Kings 18:1-15, we see Obadiah, who obeys his wicked master Ahab, in the fulfillment of his official duties; while at the same time hiding 100 prophets of Yahweh from Jezebel’s murderous intents. Because of his position in the civil order, he is able to aid the prophet Elijah. In both these cases, civil disobedience is embraced to protect the faith; but no vigilante action is undertaken to overthrow wicked political authority. The sovereignty of Yahweh is assumed and honored.
Third, in Ezra 4-6, we see diplomatic wisdom and tact when dealing with the pagan nations who sought to conspire against the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Ezra and those with him did not take the law into their own hands, as political exiles in their occupied homeland. The enemies of the Jews wrote king Artaxerxes to have the Jews compelled to stop their rebuilding, and this ploy succeeded until Darius came to power. Ezra and those with him did not rebel. Darius then countered Artaxerxes’s order (and as we know, he was well influenced by Daniel), the rebuilding began again, and was completed.
Fourth, in the book of Nehemiah, as the appointed governor, Nehemiah also works through civil authority under Artaxerxes to gain the original permission to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple – the permission that was later rescinded when the enemies of the Jews complained. Fifth, in Esther 2:19-23, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and father-figure, living under Xerxes, saves the king’s life by uncovering and reporting an assassination plot against the king. It is this act of civil obedience that the Lord later uses to assist in Esther’s plea against Haman’s plot.
And sixth, in Jeremiah 38:24-28, Jeremiah obeys the oscillating and fearful King Zedekiah in the final hours before the destruction of Jerusalem. Zedekiah thus saves Jeremiah from other court officials who want to kill the prophet. Zedekiah has Jeremiah use a partial truth (cf. 37:15,20), but not to give the whole truth to the officials (cf. 38:14-23). Jeremiah obeys the king, in a balance of the innocence of a dove, and shrewdness of a serpent (cf. Matthew 10:16), in a spirit similar to that of the midwives in Egypt.
Theologically speaking, all acts of civil obedience we have seen, and will yet see, ultimately root themselves in the confidence of knowing how to invest trust in the nephesh of the untrustworthy, to know how to respect the POSH Ls of the broken remains of God’s image within them, so as to win genuine favor.
One final observation can be made in the Old Testament vis-à-vis civil obedience and disobedience. During the seasons of Israel and Judah’s obedience and disobedience to the Law of Moses, the “consent of the governed” tacitly operated. Namely, kings often acted in concert with the people’s sins because they did not have the courage to risk their lives in enforcing the covenant stipulations. And when kings did act faithfully, such as with a Hezekiah or Josiah, the people readily consented, consistent with the courage of their king’s convictions and actions. The power of true leadership. Thus, deeper than law and its enforcement is the matter of the human will, and whether or not the people wanted truth. When they reaped the fruit of their moth tamuth and cried out to Yahweh for deliverance, he sent them a righteous judge or king. Reform of evil politics comes not with vigilante action, but with righteous prayers and righteous action based thereupon.
The Courage of the Magi
In the New Testament, there are several places where the issue of civil disobedience comes into play. In Matthew 2:1-23, we read:After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King
“Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’
“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’
“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
” “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’
“After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’
“So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’ ”
The argument raised here is that the Magi disobeyed Herod in a fashion that can be analogous to blockading an abortion center. Several factors.
First is the continuing theme of the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the ancient serpent. Through Herod, the devil is seeking once again to kill the Messianic lineage, finally at this point with the infant Messiah himself. Second, the disobedience has nothing to do with recognized civil authorities. The Magi (possibly tracing back to Daniel’s witness) were from the region of ancient Babylonia, modern (Kurdistan) and were not under the political jurisdiction of Herod. They were deceived by Herod into thinking Herod wanted to know where the infant Messiah was so that he could worship him, when indeed his agenda was to kill him. Herod the Great saw the Jewish king, the “anointed one,” as a political rival in the temporal arena, with the devil pulling the strings from behind the scenes in view of the larger picture. Thus the Magi were warned in a dream to return home by another route.
Third, the analogy of blockade to protect the unborn is made by some who also make the analogy of Jesus’s vulnerability as a boy under the age of two. But note how God handled the situation. He told Joseph to escape to Egypt until the danger was over, and upon Joseph’s return, he settled in a region where Herod’s son, Archelaus, had no authority, and therefore no ability to carry out his father’s designs. God was free to have Joseph use human energy to avoid evil, in obedience to his instructions, but this is the very opposite of vigilante action. Just as vigilante action would have led to Moses, Jeremiah and Daniel being put to death – thus cutting off their superior witness, so too it would have led to the death of Joseph and Jesus, as it were. Joseph and Mary acted to protect their son, and were not involved in coercing others to get them to change their minds. A successful “rescue” of the unborn is when the mother is persuaded to honor the life of her child.
With the Magi and with Joseph, they were politically disenfranchised, had no legal means of redress, and acted only to protect their faith in the Messiah. They employed no means to change the laws of the land by vigilante action.
The Courage of the Apostles in Face of the Sanhedrin
In Acts 5:12-42, we have another instance where the issue of civil disobedience comes into play, including the text Randall Terry quotes most frequently in defense of his tactics.
“The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly respected by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.
“Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealously. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. ‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people the full message of this new life.’
“At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin – the full assembly of the elders of Israel – and sent to the jailfor the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ “On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this.
“Then someone came and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’ At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
“Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’
Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’
“When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’
“His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts, and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
The context of this passage begins just after the matter of God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira for conspiring to lie to the Holy Spirit. The apostles, in their ministry, continued to perform signs and wonders, as well as to preach and teach the word with authority. They met publicly in Solomon’s Colonnade, a covered area just inside the walls to the outer court, where all the passersby, Jewish and otherwise, could observe them (literally, the power to live in the light). And in response to their unjust jailing, the Lord answered with a miraculous deliverance. In the ministry of Moses and Daniel, we see the confirmation of their witness to the Lord with signs and wonders. It was such supernatural power that finally caused Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and it was such supernatural power that both Nebuchadnezzar and Darius credited as they ended up giving praise to the true God, and it was such supernatural power that confirmed God’s judgment on the idolatry of Belshazzar.
In looking at issues of church and state, and at discernments concerning the line necessary to be crossed before civil disobedience is even theoretically possible, too often we neglect this supernatural dimension. I believe that those who are serving God in this arena need the same power of the Holy Spirit if we are to succeed. And I believe that such power is released not only according to our faith in God, but as such faith is necessarily ethical to begin with. Moses had a forty year exile in order to learn that lesson after he took the law into his own hands, and Daniel knew it from the outset of his exile in Babylon. Paul’s whole life was a lesson in suffering (cf. Acts 9:15-16) so that his character could be forged. Peter learned the lesson in his denial of Jesus, and in his restoration after his repentance, he was willing to rejoice in his sufferings for the Name (a usage that links the Name of Yahweh for the biblical Jews, and the Name of Jesus for Messianic Jews and Christians), and thus his character was forged.
This passage in Acts 5 follows Acts 4, where the apostles were likewise hauled before the Sanhedrin. They were being persecuted for healing the crippled beggar, and in so doing they laid the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus at the feet of the religious elitists, which the Sanhedrin again reacted to in chapter 5. The apostles were commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
“But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot but help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20).
The Sanhedrin threatened them but could not punish as severely as they wished because of the power of the miracle, and how it had won the allegiance of the people. The apostles were thus released, and thereafter in prayer they cited Psalm 2:1-2 with its Messianic implications, as they responded to such persecution. Then in vv. 29-31 we read:
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
Here too we see the element of signs and wonders, and the visitation of the Holy Spirit. Peter says he will obey God and not the Sanhedrin, but in Acts 5:29, he says it again in such a forcefully simple way that this is the verse which was so often quoted by Randall Terry and others who supported the tactic of blockade: “We must obey God rather than men!” Amen – but does the context justify an interpretation allowing for vigilante action?
The simple truth is that this passage has nothing to do with disobeying political authorities, or with vigilante action. The Sanhedrin was a religious body, restricted by the occupying Roman authorities to legislating only in religious matters, which by definition cannot affect the social and political order (but able, in concert with and subjugation to the Roman authorities, to jail people on “religious” matters if interpreted to be a civil threat to Rome’s authority). Thus, the apostles’s disobedience has no analogy to disobeying a political authority, whether or not they were politically enfranchised. And if the Sanhedrin had political authority, the apostles would have had the right to disobey, because they were being commanded not to preach the Gospel. But in so doing, the apostles still had no truck with any vigilante attempt to overturn the Sanhedrin’s authority or Roman political authority, to force them to change law. It was again a matter consistent with the Hebrew midwives and Daniel, where they would not be forced into renouncing belief in the true God, nor into disbelieving actions. Because their character, actions and words were above reproach, they had moral authority to disobey in the proper context, and they gained supernatural deliverance in accord with God’s larger purposes. Vigilantes lack such moral authority and spiritual power, as Moses learned when he killed the Egyptian soldier – he had no supernatural deliverance, but instead had to flee for his life into the desert. (However, as the midwives were honored even if perchance they spun the truth, and as Rahab is honored in her shrewdness, and as Jacob is honored in seeking the truth even in spite of his deceptive means at the outset, the Lord honors godly intent even when our understanding of the true means is faulty, and as we are open to being corrected. Moral authority and spiritual power may be partially grasped, but not fully until the ethics are fully biblical.)
The witness of the apostles also won the tempered response of the respected Gamaliel, who is the most well-known Jewish teacher of his era, under whom Saul (Paul) was educated. It is my passionate conviction that when our character and witness are fully biblical, we will unite the believing church, win the respect of friends and enemies alike, convert many of the fence-sitters, and even convert some of the enemies. But the tactic of blockade has sharply divided the church, and only given pretext for the abortion-rights establishment to slander the pro-life movement at large. A true witness in this context, in front of the abortion centers, will produce the self-silencing of opponents. It will increase the fruit of winning over abortion-minded women, and enlist the support of the believing church in winning over the society at large.
Summary: Biblical Criteria for Civil Disobedience
Thus, the only basis for civil disobedience in the Bible is:
- When we are being forced to deny the Lord by word or deed;
- When we are politically disenfranchised; and
- Only insofar as necessary to keep our integrity, never by means of vigilante action to change evil laws.
All three criteria must be met. The way to change evil laws is not by matching the civil disorder of immoral laws with the civil disorder of challenging such evil. No tit for tat of civil disorder versus civil disorder. For then, as we condescend to the devil’s own terms, the debate is forfeit. Rather we answer with a superior appeal to God’s civil order, of his laws which transcend political contest. And we are all called to do so as a praying people, seeking when necessary to be imbued with signs and wonders according to the biblical pattern.
Moses changed the situation of the Jews being tyrannized by Egyptian law not by taking vigilante action against it, but through the civil order of approaching and providing Pharaoh a way out.
Esther risked her life by going through civil order, and thus thwarted an evil law.
Jeremiah worked through civil order, and even though it was not heeded, he refused to fall into the idolatry of taking the law into his own hands. His witness was crucial for the exiles in Babylon, and the preparation for the Messiah.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all did the same, and evil laws were removed, and good laws made in their place.
Civil obedience is more radical than civil disobedience when seeking to transform culture. Civil obedience per biblical ethics is courageous, whereas civil disobedience per vigilante action is by definition cowardly, even in spite of the best motivations. Such civil obedience is effective, whereas vigilante action is not. Thus, we have basis to understand why civil obedience is prescribed for Jews and Christians in the Bible. True civil disobedience, in its limited arenas of permissibility, it not a prescribed teaching. It is a necessary reaction, but only insofar as rooted in a prior redemptive proactivity. Reactively, we disobey when called to deny Christ, but we do not initiate such conflict, and we engage in no vigilante action. We initiate in accordance with an appeal to the power of the POSH Ls of the image of God according to only Genesis; we initiate a radical ethos of civil obedience.
Simply put: civil obedience is prescribed for the church as a proactive ethic in culture; civil disobedience is only permitted in circumscribed capacities in reaction to evil laws or authorities which seek to force us to disobey God in word or deed.
Prescribed Civil Obedience
So far, we have examined civil obedience in the context of proper civil disobedience, where it was a necessary reaction to evil. In separate context, we can now look in the New Testament, where we have three sections which clearly prescribe civil obedience – passages that Randall Terry did not address in his construction of the blockade rationale.
The first passage is in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul says:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no governing authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who so do will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror to those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
We have already laid the groundwork for the ethics of mutual submission in the covenant of marriage – a covenant between equals who both acknowledge the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah. Here in Romans 13:1, Paul defines a different covenant of submission to civil order, one to which Christians unilaterally assign themselves in response to faith in God. The same Greek term is in place as in Ephesians 5:21, hupotasso, as we looked at earlier, which means to be “placed under” or to “stand under,” predicated on trustworthy relationships. It is rooted in the power to give, which is the superior power by which to contest the devil’s power to take and destroy, and it is rooted in the assumption of touching the POSH Ls of the image of God, in serving the reversal of the reversal. The question is not how evil a government might be, but rather it is a question of how we can answer and overcome that evil on God’s terms. In fact, when Paul called for submission to the governing authorities, he was referring to the Roman Empire then headed by Nero (who ruled from 54-68 A.D.). Not only was Nero an aggressive persecutor of Jews and Christians, but among many horrors he committed, he also raped his niece, she became pregnant, and then he forced her through an abortion that killed her. Paul is radical in applying the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. This means countering taking with giving, cursing with blessing, hate with love, and potential domination with submission, as the best means to neutralize the dominating powers. This is exactly what Esther and Daniel accomplished.
In Romans 12, Paul calls the believers to a radical nonconformity, and in so doing, he sets the stage for chapter 13.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will …
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:1-2; 9-21).”
This section in Romans 12 is one of the few places in the Bible where moral precepts are simply listed. They have power because of the foundation Paul has already established in Romans 1 where he appeals to the order of creation at the outset. When we grasp the ethics of only Genesis, and the history of how covenantal law is in service to the reversal of the reversal, then every word Paul uses here should be as natural for us to anticipate as is the act of breathing. It ratifies the nephesh of the image of God. As he then addresses the question of civil obedience as a manifestation of the Good News, we can expect no other instructions but those which are consistent with the power to love enemies.
In Romans 12:2, the J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament puts it in a marvelous way:
“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within …”
This is the goal of this trilogy – the renewal of our minds to learn how to think and therefore act Christianly, that we may confidently resist being squeezed into the world’s molds. How can the vigilante action and violating realities of blockade, and shouting at women, be remotely related to Paul’s words in Romans 12? Patient in affliction, blessing those who persecute us, not being proud, repaying no one evil for evil, being careful do what is right in the sight of all, taking no revenge, and loving our enemies?
When Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 about feeding our enemies, the passage speaks about how this will “heap burning coals on his head.” This phrase is not the easiest to understand. On the one hand it may refer to God’s prerogative for wrath, as Romans 1 sets out so clearly, where the burning coals equal the fire of judgment, similar to the language in Psalm 140:10. On the other hand, it may refer to the fire of the Holy Spirit convincing a wicked person of his sin. In the same chapter of Proverbs, we read these words: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (v. 15).
In other words, by showing kindness to a wicked ruler, persuasion can triumph, where a gentle tongue has more power to break resistance of the will (“bone”), than do swords or chariots. And is that not the goal – to win righteousness, to win over a Nebuchadnezzar? Or as Elisha won over the raiding Arameans when he fed them (2 Kings 6:8-23)? I believe that both interpretations above have validity, the former for the unrepentant, and the latter for the repentant. But since wrath and vengeance is God’s sovereign prerogative, we are always to hope for the best, and love our enemies as God in Christ loved us when we were still his enemies in our unbelief. This is clearly Paul’s perspective as he concludes the chapter. His words sum up my interpretive perspective on the whole subject of discerning the balance between civil obedience and civil disobedience: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Thus, when we arrive in chapter 13, the readers in Rome, where Nero ruled, knew the radical nonconformity to which they were being called. The Roman Christians, many of whom were soon to face martyrdom under Nero, were called to obey a higher law of civil order than Nero knew. Thus the Gospel flourished even more. During the several centuries of on and off-again persecution of the Christians by the Roman government, eventually the Christian fearlessness of death brought the tyrannical government to its knees – and with no vigilante action. The Christians lobbied for an end to abortion within the sphere of civil obedience to Roman laws. However, in rescuing exposed infants (most of whom were girls), they did go against local customs allowing exposure, facing a gray area as did abolitionists in the ante-bellum United States. Regardless of our success in persuading rulers of righteousness – Jeremiah did not succeed with Zedekiah, whereas Daniel succeeded with Nebuchadnezzar (aided by signs and wonders) – our citizenship is ultimately not of this world. So we succeed when we persuade wicked rulers to turn to God, and we also succeed when they do not repent, but instead put us to death.
If we grasp Yahweh’s power to give and the power of informed choice, and we grasp how it is that evil is a parasite of the good, and the devil is a servant of God regardless of his rebellion, then we see how Nero, as the devil’s servant, is nonetheless a servant of God. Neither the devil nor Nero can thwart God’s sovereign purposes, and Paul understands this. His call for civil obedience in Romans 13 is a call to overcome evil with good, just as Daniel’s civil obedience and civil disobedience was a call to overcome evil with good.
It is my experience that dishonest people are very insecure and fearful, and when love is shown to them, they either become self-censored in the presence of the Gospel, or they begin to turn toward faith. At the end of Romans 13, Paul extends the context to not only honoring governing authorities and paying taxes, but also showing honor and respect to whom it is due. When I first conceived of the Mars Hill Forum series, and planned to pay the market honoraria to my invited guests, I was met by some Christians with incredulity. “You mean you would pay that person thousands of dollars to give you unrehearsed questions on that college campus where you will be outnumbered so heavily by those students and faculty?” Yes – honoring the image of God in broken people is what the Good News of Jesus Christ is all about. The results have been delightful, and my conviction is that if we Christians were to define our political participation by the same ethics, we can win the legal protection of the unborn.
Paul also lived out his ethics of civil obedience, and as a result, spread the Gospel powerfully. When he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 21ff), and was illegally arrested, Paul did not suffer a loss of patience and joy in his spirit. When he and Silas were in prison earlier, their praises set them free from their chains, and it led the jailer to Christ (Acts 16:16ff). When Peter was imprisoned earlier, the angel of the Lord led him out of jail (Acts 5:17ff). Signs and wonders when needed, and a willingness to die for the sake of the Gospel, when ordained by God.
In Jerusalem, Paul used his citizenship rights to appeal to Caesar. Before that, when he reacted to the ill-treatment of the high priest Ananias, Paul then humbled himself when he was told that he was insulting God’s high priest. He had not known who it was when Ananias had struck him (cf. discussion of “turning the other cheek” in Chapter Eleven), and when informed, he submitted to the authority of the office even though its occupant was a mockery to it (23:1-11). Then Paul, from a position of submission, wisely discerned the competing presences of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and thus stated how he was on trial before them due to his “hope in the resurrection of the dead.” This exposed the house divided of the Sanhedrin, and in the ensuing squabble between the Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul was rescued by the Roman soldiers.
From that point, Paul is delivered by God from an assassination plot by the religious elitists (23:12-22), he bears witness to the Gospel before the Roman governor Felix, his successor Festus, then King Agrippa (25:1-26:32), then to the Romans on the ship that was taking him to Rome as a prisoner (27:1-44), to the people on Malta where he was shipwrecked, with signs and wonders continuing to follow his ministry (28:1-10), and then to Claudius Caesar’s very household (28:11ff; Claudius’s rule preceded that of Nero’s, from 41-54 A.D.). Because of Paul’s ethics of civil obedience, he was rescued from the Jewish religious elitists who tried kill him. He did not give pretext for the Roman authorities to put him to death for a civil rebellion, when illegally arrested and denied his rights as a Roman citizen. He wound up in the middle of the capital city of the Roman Empire, and salted the whole empire with the Good News as a result of the concentric influences that went out from there. When it came time for his martyrdom at the hands of the Romans (ca. 67 A.D. under Nero’s reign), he had completed his course and was ready. His trust in God’s sovereignty was the key to it all. It was God’s sovereignty over pagan nations which gave him the freedom for the radical nonconformity of a unilateral civil obedience from the position of a persecuted man. The reversal of the reversal. And as we shall examine in Chapter Sixteen, Paul very shrewdly deals with a matter of civil obedience while rescuing a runaway slave from Roman “justice.”
The second passage which defines civil obedience is 1 Timothy 2:1-3, which we have already looked at in detail in Volume 1. It demonstrates how it is a civil obedience, rooted in intercessory prayer, which paves the way for the successful preaching the Gospel.
The Case of Philemon
Paul’s diplomatic skill within the rule of law is seen in his letter to Philemon. Onesimus is a runaway slave, and seeks Paul’s help. But since he left without his master Philemon’s permission, he risks, if caught, the death penalty under Roman law. At level deeper than human law, Paul appeals to a profound citizenship in the kingdom of God shared by he, Philemon and Onesimus. This is far greater than what is possible between Roman citizens (for those who had citizenship). Paul thus appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, and not a slave in need of punishment. Accordingly, the eternal citizenship ultimately wins out over human tyranny, as we see in abolitionist movements, and which is fulfilled in the Second Coming. There is no hint of vigilante action on Paul’s part — his instincts for wisdom, and his kingdom of God agenda, are far too well honed for that.
The third section on civil obedience equals much of 1 Peter, with specific focus on 2:9-17; 3:8-22 and 4:12-19, which we touched on in Volume 1.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king …
“Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For,
“ ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him …
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
“And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
In 2:9-17, Peter sums up ideas that undergird my passion for first the Gospel, then politics…, as he sets in priority the question of identity. He is writing to Christians undergoing persecution, to Christians who have no unalienable rights being honored in the political order in which they were living. They are ultimately aliens in this world, as they aim for their eternal citizenship. And unless the same is true for us as Christians who do have our civil liberties honored, then we will have fallen prey to idolatry. As aliens in this sinful world, we are called to be a holy nation, a chosen people set apart from its ways while living within its system as a witness to the blessings of citizenship in the kingdom of God. Our true nationhood is without territory and is defined by the integrity of character which is rooted in the power of only Genesis. We are to live such good lives among the pagans that they cannot accuse us of wrongdoing, and thus they will glorify God in the final analysis, whether through conversion or in the silencing of their rebellion.
Peter then introduces the same ethic of submission (hupotasso) with respect to political authority, again as with Paul, with a view to the reigning Caesar of that time – Nero. He speaks of our freedom that cannot be taken away by political despots – freedom to do good and not as a pretense for evil. I argue that the blockade of abortion centers is an evil act, and as done in the name of the good, it only pollutes the reputation of the Gospel, and further entrenches the abortion ethos in the nation. As the devil masquerades as an angel of light so as to deceive, he will work with the egos and sins of the saints to lead them into unbiblical tactics. His most subtle and effective means is to get us to think we are doing what is right, when in fact we end up serving the opposite. And such deception can only happen in proportion to our biblical illiteracy and the level of our failures to live according to the biblical ethics of only Genesis.
In 3:1-7, Peter follows a section where he had addressed the ethics of submission in terms of the institution of slavery (see Chapter Sixteen), and the ethics of mutual submission in covenantal marriage. As he enters vv. 8-22, his language is similar to Paul’s language at the end of Romans 12. His whole purpose is to undergird the Christian character necessary to give a good witness to the Good News in a pagan world. The ethics of civil obedience are the same as knowing how to give a good answer for the hope that is in us, and to do so with gentleness and respect. And these ethics are founded in the conviction that God will be attentive to our prayers. Vigilante action encourages the slander of the Gospel, whereas the good behavior of which Peter speaks, silences the slander.
This brings to the fore the question of suffering, and Peter begins his address of the subject by rooting us in Jesus’s atoning death, which empowers us to have joy in the face of righteous suffering. And he concludes the section with a declaration of Jesus’s authority at the right hand of Sovereign power, under whom all other authorities and powers are subject. In 4:12-19, he develops this theme with specific focus. How can those who participate in the vigilante action of blocking an abortion center complain of their sufferings when their actions are designed to break the laws, where they are guilty in a court of law of criminal trespass, criminal resistance to arrest, and meddling in matters of law by unlawful means? (The Greek term for “meddle” is allotrioepiskopos in 1 Peter 4:15, in the sense of a busybody who pries into other people’s business, and in the political context of the first century, this referred to Christians seeking to take the law into their own hands in any capacity – literally, “to oversee that which belongs to others.”) Where in the Bible is any person ever commended for breaking such laws? Peter distinguishes between suffering for what is wrong, in which case we have no reason for complaint; and suffering for what is right, in which case we have the power of the Spirit to rejoice.
Peter says in this context that judgment begins with the family, or household, of God. If we cannot withstand that judgment, what will happen to the unbelievers? In other words, our calling is to give a witness to the beauty of the Gospel in a broken world, but if we mar its beauty by sinful misrepresentation, then we have failed in the primary task which precedes and defines political concerns, and the pagans are left in their self-justifying sins. We are then held accountable for our failure to represent God faithfully, just as Yahweh says to Ezekiel in the metaphor of the watchman (chapter 33). It must be first the Gospel, then politics…
Thus, for me the biblical material is clear in defining the balance between civil disobedience and civil obedience. “No” to vigilante action in any form, and “yes” to ministering to the broken remains of God’s image among sinful governing authorities with attitudes and actions that are above reproach.
Much of the argument for the civil disobedience of blockade, and as advanced by various Christians, has been based on analogies of other examples of civil disobedience such as the Underground Railroad, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The problem here is that analogy is always a secondary or tertiary form of argument, and only has validity if it has prior biblical warrant. Thus, to make use of such analogies can place politics ahead of the Gospel. Thoreau was a transcendentalist who specifically rejected biblical authority, and Gandhi was a Hindu who specifically rejected biblical authority although he syncretized certain elements of the Sermon on the Mount into his worldview.
But when it comes to the question of the Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King, Jr., we have biblical concerns at the forefront. One of my relatives is the Rev. John T. Rankin, a Presbyterian minister who was known as the “manager” of the Underground Railroad. From his church on the Ohio River (in Ripley, Ohio, then later in Ironton, Ohio), he was a key link for runaway slaves to Canada from the South, and served in this capacity for 44 years in the nineteenth century, and where he and his seven sons personally escorted some 2,000 runaway slaves to liberty (I am a direct descendant of his grandfather, Adam Rankin.) A book has just been published where John Rankin is the central figure: Beyond the River, The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, by Ann Hagedorn.
The Rankin lineage from Scotland was deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, and Rev. Andrew Rankin was the founder of the nation’s first black college, following the Civil War, Howard University in Washington, D.C., and after whom their Rankin Chapel is named. The linkage of concern for blacks who were denied their humanity and civil rights in the 1857 Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision, and for the unborn who have been denied the same in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, is as compelling as it can be.
In Chapter Sixteen I will look at these questions as I address the issue of racism, and how best to discern a redemptive plan to overcome the still ugly fruit of black enslavement. Here let me make a simple observation: The laws challenged by the Underground Railroad had to do with competing state laws, not with a federal law. Some states allowed slavery, other did not. Thus, especially after the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the workers in the Underground Railroad faced a more complex question of interpreting what civil obedience and civil disobedience actually were. And many did not care to discern the difference as I do presently, given their theological and political understandings of the time. My sympathies are wholly with the goal of the Underground Railroad to liberate black people, just as it is with the goal, but not the means, of Operation Rescue to liberate the unborn. The Underground Railroad was consistent with the words in Deuteronomy 23:15-16, where foreign slaves seeking refuge in Israel were granted it:
“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.”
The question is how best to redress the evil of slavery, and in a non-theocratic state. In Chapter Sixteen I will look at the context of this passage, and will note the fruit of William Wilberforce and his colleagues in winning the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, in the British Empire, and without a drop of blood. It was based on a conscious biblical ethic of civil obedience. But in contrast, the American abolitionist movement descended into civil disobedience, which cost a Civil War and over 600,000 deaths.
As well, we can ask the question: What would have happened in the ante-bellum South if a person with Moses’s spiritual authority simply said, “Let my people go”? Had there been a biblical faith sufficient enough to trust in God’s supernatural deliverance as he did for the Jews from Egypt, I believe God would have responded accordingly.
In the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the publicity surrounding Rosa Parks’s refusal to yield a seat in the bus, we have similar issues at play, where she was not disobeying federal law, but was acting in accordance with it against local bigotries. And Martin Luther King, Jr. worked within the framework of civil obedience in all he did.
Abortion, Blockade and Gunfire
In April, 1995, I hosted Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) in a Mars Hill Forum at Georgetown University. It was entitled: Abortion, Blockade and Gunfire: Who Are The Peacemakers?
I had met Kate several years earlier in a chance encounter, and invited her to address such a forum. She rarely embraces public debate, but she was intrigued by the integrity of the forum as I proposed it, and thus accepted.
However, with just five minutes before the start of the forum, which was being broadcast live on C-Span, one of Kate’s assistants tried to change the agreed to ground rules, so as to cut out the one-on-one interchange between Kate and myself. But I said no – the personal interaction is central for the purposes of honest communication.
Kate testified that evening, as she does so often in public, of the trials and humiliation she suffered when her ex-husband left her in 1970 with three young daughters, and pregnant. She secured an abortion “for survival,” and has defended that prerogative ever since – being in the estimation of many, the most effective single-issue lobbyist on Capitol Hill since 1983 (she plans to retire in 2004). She did her best to minimize the one-on-one interaction time between us that evening by cutting into it with her lengthened opening statement.
But some good interaction did occur. At one point in the Q & A period, Kate was beginning to lambast “anti-choice” fanatics. Then she looked at me, sitting at the table next to her, reached out and touched me on the shoulder and said, “But not you, John.” Her whole countenance then changed. By profiling the true ethics and power of informed choice, the biblical witness can minister to the hearts and minds of those who have been violated by the male chauvinisms of the abortion ethos.
At the end of the evening there were still many people in the audience waiting in line to ask questions. Under the constraints of the time limit, the moderator made a passing comment that Kate and I would have future opportunity to continue the dialogue. Kate interjected with a passionate, “No!” She was not free to embrace a genuine love of hard questions in that context anymore, though in a live interview on CBN News right afterward, she was most gracious.
In my opening statement that evening, I made an argument that she never challenged, and the above vignettes help us understand why. I argued that there are five levels of violence surrounding the abortion debate, and I listed them in reverse order:
5. The violence of return gunfire (where a few abortion-rights supporters have fired guns, but to no one’s injury to date).
4. The violence of gunfire (e.g., John Salvi and Paul Hill killing abortionists or employees of abortion centers; plus implicitly the violence of bombings [even though many bombings have proven to be inside jobs of the abortion centers looking for insurance money]).
3. The violence of blockade (the violating of time and space, and its implicit paving of the way for an escalation to more severe forms of violence).
2. The violence of human abortion (its deliberate destruction of human life).
1. The violence of male chauvinism (its sexual idolatry which then coerces most abortion decisions into being).
The reality of the violence of male chauvinism, as the catalyst to a host of subsequent evils, is uncontested. Thus Kate could not counter it. Her testimony about having been abandoned by her ex-husband has always been effective as winning sympathy for her plight. And I honor that testimony from the outset. The answer however, is not to pass that violence on to the unborn.
When I originally hosted Patricia Ireland of NOW at Smith College, she too could not find any basis to criticize the ethics of a biblical pro-life conduct. She bristled against Operation Rescue, and I demonstrated my biblically principled opposition to its tactics. Thus, the basis was in place for a persuasive argument for the equal integrity of women and their unborn in the presence of a feminist audience. Consistent with the apostle Peter’s argument for being above reproach in a pagan culture, and consistent with the ethics of Esther and Daniel in the face of evil laws, I have sought to define and implement a strategy that thus succeeds.