It is a great honor to be here. I am thankful for this topic and challenged by it as well. I think it is an act of folly to ask someone who is a member and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA), to talk on nonconformity. I would not say that this has been my legacy or my background, neither in California nor in the PCUSA, since both places are places of intense conformity. The nature of what in many ways defines Californian life, West Coast life, and, even the PCUSA, has been the tendency to conformity, not to nonconformity. Having said that, some of the people who have influenced me most have been the people in the nonconformity tradition, and that has always been a very important part of my story and an important part of why, for example, ministry in a place like Berkeley, California for the better part of 30 years has been a very natural thing. It has felt like a setting that makes nonconformity essential to the task of being a disciple. So I am thankful for the chance to think with you a little bit about this theme tonight.
To set the stage, I want to share a bit about my own background because it informs how I read the Bible. I was raised in a home where my Dad was a scientist and an inventor, and he had one great fear in the world—that his sons would become religiously interested or involved or even devoted. His primary concern was a belief that religious people take great things and make them small. They take something like the mystery of the universe and billions upon billions of galaxies and all of the magnificence and wonder of dark matter and everything else, and they look at it under a certain lens and it all becomes a debate over a certain formula of origins. Or they take the mystery of what it means to be a human being—a person of extraordinary mystery and complexity and subtlety—and under a certain kind of lens, all of human experience is really nothing more than whether a person is doing right or wrong.
The case can easily be made—historically, politically, culturally, and socially—that Christian people have often taken great things and made them very small. We have become obsessed about the smallest thing, rather than concentrating on being people who, for example, gain and keep and practice a vision of God as the one who made heaven and earth, the God who holds all mysteries and wonders. Instead, our response to this God is something we call a worship service, which is the pinnacle of taking a great thing and making it small when in reality our acts of worship ought to focus on the whole created order. Worship gets reduced to this small little thing called the worship service, focused on certain finicky things like having the right lighting, the right instrumentation, the right fog machine (depending on your ecclesial tradition), and on it may go, as an expression of getting that small thing just right. The assumption is that if you get all of those small things right then that is all that you need to do. But the work of worship is actually the thing meant to cause us the greatest transformation and ultimately the greatest nonconformity.
All of this is to say that it was not a comfort to my dad when I started reading the Bible and when I actually became quite interested in it. And as I began to read the Gospels, I was struck by the fact that my dad and Jesus had so much in common. Jesus says a lot about the danger of religion and how religious people can become religiously obsessed and take great things and make them very small. I discovered that Jesus’ antidote to this was not avoiding religion. It was avoiding a certain kind of religious practice, and the invitation—the antidote—to all of this was the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the thing that is meant to enlarge our mind, to enlarge our heart and our soul and our strength. We are called into this unfolding reality of God’s reclaiming and remaking the whole created order and invited to become active living participants. So the way to escape smallness, in the language of the New Testament, is to give up “the small little dungeon of your own ego,” in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge. We escape smallness by giving up our own native instincts as sinful human beings and taking up the larger reality of the kingdom of God which extends and deepens and transforms us and, ultimately, the people around us.
So I became a Christian. I didn’t know Christian people. I didn’t hang out with Christian friends. I had no one to whom I could talk about this. I told my mother what was happening. I told my dad, and he was in despair. My mother’s latent faith was quietly awakened. She started going to a church. About a year later she told the pastor that her son had some sort of religious experience. That led him to say that he would like to call on me. On an otherwise perfectly wonderful spring day, I had the first moment of my first pastoral experience, the first official religious person I had ever talked to. He came in and we had a few moments of awkward conversation. He said he came for three reasons: “First, your mother has told me that you have had a religious experience. Second, that might mean that you are going to become a pastor.” This was truly beyond thinkable for me at that moment. “And the third is, if you do become a pastor, I want to be sure that you know which denomination has the best pension plan.”
That night at dinner I told my dad about the visit with this pastor. My dad, who was a very kind man, saved certain neck veins for the discussion of religion. He let this sink in for a few minutes and said, “You see, this is where this is headed. You do get that this is where you are going? You think that what is happening is that you are getting to know the God of the universe. I know that you earnestly think that is what is true. But the trajectory of this will be a pension plan.”
Now, if any single moment defined my life, it was the response of the pastor and then the dinner conversation with my dad. I felt a deep burning conviction that the kingdom of God was what I was seeking—the kingdom of God which was a soul, mind, heart, love, and justice- enlarging reality. It was the opposite of what would lead to the pension plan. The inclination, in entropic terms, would be the pension plan. But in kingdom terms it would be nonconformity. So the trajectory I began that day explains what I have done and what I believe, and guides the brief reflections I want to share.
I want to go to a very familiar text that I think is helpful for a nonconformist community to consider. It is from a book of the Old Testament that was written specifically about nonconformity, at a time in Israel’s life when the great danger was whether or not Israel would conform. I’m talking about the book of Daniel. Daniel was written at a time when the people of God were in exile, a crisis moment when they had been stripped of every evidence of their exceptionalism. Their temple had been decimated and their national life rent asunder. Daniel and his friends were among the cohort taken out of Israel as the best and the brightest to be instruments of conformity in Israel’s life. I will reflect briefly on the first three chapters and then make some general comments.
I think that the main issues in the book of Daniel don’t have to do with lion’s den or the fire. Those stories are part of the Sunday school reductionism of the book of Daniel to a kind of two-dimensional biblical caricature—a cartoon—of what is an incredibly subtle and vigorous book about the way the relationship between faith and culture plays itself out, especially under the heavy and oppressive hand of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity. Let me just walk us through some of these early chapters.
“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” This is a remarkably understated one-sentence distillation of what was a heinous, violent, horrific, plundering of Israel’s life. “The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.” All this, again, is shorthand for the deepest and most profound spiritual violations that had been perpetuated against Israel. The text says that God disciplined Israel for not conforming to his commands in the context of the nation, the life, the routine of the law, and the worshipping rhythms of Israel’s life. He as much as said, “If you are not going to produce lives that look like mine and instead you are going to be conformed to the lives and people around you, then let’s see what happens when I strip all those things away and place you, as a spiritual discipline, in exile. Now who do you really worship, who are you, who will you be, how will you live, how will you serve?”
“Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.”
Now this setup is a classic assimilationist, conformist scenario. A besieging leader decimates a nation, takes the plunder, takes the best and the brightest, seeks to conform them to the new standards, gives them new names, new literature, a new diet, a new literary imaginative outline, puts them back in after three years of training into new roles as assimilationist leaders. That is a classic pro forma vision for how you subdue a people. That is what is happening in this early chapter:
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.’ Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: ‘Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.’ So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days they were found to be even better than a comparable group.”
What’s so fascinating about this is that Daniel and his friends decided early on that they needed to distinguish themselves as nonconformists, even as they were Babylonian captives who had the pleasure of being in Nebuchadnezzar’s house and eating his food. They chose to observe Jewish dietary laws as a way of remembering who they were. So every time they sat down at Nebuchadnezzar’s table and ate their own distinctive food, they were saying to themselves and to each other, “Though we live in Nebuchadnezzar’s house, we belong to Yahweh.” In other words, they decided from the very beginning to remember, to practice, to rehearse endlessly their identity.
I want to argue that this is the link to the rest of what happens in the early chapters of Daniel where the capacity to remember one’s identity, and to practice it as a physical, social, public reality, is a profound expression of how to practice a kind of nonconformity that does not threaten the lives of others. Daniel and his friends agree to a test for 10 days to see if they can maintain their fitness while eating their own food. They pass the test. They are not really seeking the decimation of Nebuchadnezzar, they’re not trying to be subversive, and there is nothing to suggest that this is the pathway to changing Babylon into Israel. This is not an evangelistic strategy; this is not about influencing people. No, this is just about retaining, remembering, and rehearsing their identity as distinctive people. Though they live in Nebuchadnezzar’s house, they belong to Yahweh.
The test goes well and they are given greater and greater responsibility. The diet issue is not the determinative thing with regards to their social impact, but it is the thing that decides whether their impact will be distinctive and set them apart. There is no moralizing language to suggest that Babylon is eating bad (unrighteous) food and the Jews are eating good (righteous) food. Rather, they were eating faithfully, in light of an identity that had been given to them and as a way of remembering that they belonged to Yahweh. And as people who belonged to Yahweh, they were not about to let themselves think for a moment that they belonged to anyone else, and certainly not Nebuchadnezzar. This is an interesting way of thinking about what it takes to practice our identity.
Every expression of Christian community over the centuries has found ways to attempt to do this. Certainly in your tradition, through a set of practices that developed and changed over time, there was a willingness to genuinely practice nonconformity, to determine the social practices, the dress, the social cues to help you remember that you are people who belong to God and Jesus Christ and not to earthly rulers like Nebuchadnezzar. However, it’s important to note that most studies about the church in America suggest that it looks very much like the culture in general. There is very little that fundamentally distinguishes our identity, our social practices, our values, our use of money, our habits, the things we do with our time or our finances from the rest of our culture. The way we live is in large part mirrored in the culture and the culture is mirrored in the church. And when sociologists have done larger studies of American Christianity in its many forms, certain subcultural groups are not found to be all that distinctive. They are just mirroring a different part of American culture rather than anything that would be intrinsically identified as something Christian.
Of course, I can imagine that this may be far less true of you than it is of many of the people with whom I have associated in my denomination and in other contexts. I acknowledge the richness of the tradition of nonconformity that many of you inhabit; however, in the larger American church scene there is far more conformity, far more assimilation than distinction. And when there is distinction, it is often in a very moralizing way, which ends up making the people around you not aware that you are seeking to be like the character of God, but simply that you are a finicky, fussy, small-making Christian like my father was naming. Being preoccupied with whatever our way of holding on to our pension plan might be is not a way that mirrors the truth and character of God.
The most dramatic example of nonconformity in the church in recent years was the willingness of the Amish community in Lancaster County to forgive the man who killed all those young children. The culture could not figure out what to do with it. A horrible thing had happened, and everyone expected outrage, anger, cries for justice, etc. But then suddenly they said, “No, we are responding in a different way. It is wrong. It is unjust. It was a terrible and tragic evil, and we can be practitioners of genuine forgiveness in a counter-cultural, disorienting way.”
There were shockwaves in the larger culture, with questions like: Who are these people? Where did they come from? They must be psychologically unstable. The only way they can forgive is if they have some sort of hidden pathology. If reporters just stick with the story, they’ll discover the pathology and find it to be as rotten as everything else. But the more they stuck with the story, the more impressive it was. That Amish community had the capacity to remember and practice its identity.
Chapter one of the book of Daniel addresses the reality that nonconformity begins with a nonconforming identity. Do we understand that our identity is something God gives us, and we are supposed to rehearse and remember that identity? How do we remember in a community together that we belong to God and Jesus Christ as our first identity? Not our family of origin, our nation, our gender, our personality, our education, our money, our land, or our voting record. Our identity is about our identification with Jesus Christ. While our identity with Jesus is clearly not a theme in the book of Daniel, it is foreshadowed.
We have to ask ourselves what it means to practice and rehearse our identity, when it is more likely that we will assimilate or conform. Interestingly, Daniel doesn’t suggest that they should be nonconformists in every dimension of life. Actually, there is a lot of conformity: they do their jobs, they participate and seek the welfare in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, they serve, they do not want to put other people’s lives at risks, they are not trying do this as means of waging silent, private war. No. Their behavior is an act of recollection, identification, groundedness, and clarity.
The second chapter of Daniel moves in a slightly different direction, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s terrifying dream. His dream is so distressing that he sets up a new test because he does not want the usual religious pablum to be offered up for his satisfaction. He wants a real, authentic, spiritual word. So he asks for someone who will tell him the dream and the interpretation of the dream. The soothsayers and the enchanters say, “No, Nebuchadnezzar, that is not the way this works. First you tell us the dream and then we will tell you the interpretation.” He says twice, “No, I understand that you are trying to buy time, and bring out the same old song and dance that you have always brought out. I am not interested in that. This time I actually want an authentic spiritual word. And the only way that I will know it is authentic is if I set a test that is so difficult that it will require something that is clearly beyond you. That is why you have to tell me both the dream and the interpretation. If you do not, then off with your head.”
In a very classic Nebuchadnezzar rage-a-holism, he sets this test, and what unfolds is that Daniel steps into the fray. He does not hide, even though he is not necessarily included. Daniel promises Nebuchadnezzar that he will, by God’s grace, come back with some response. He goes back to his friends and they pray for something they can’t imagine.
Then we read: “Daniel said, ‘blessed be the name of God from age to age for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him. To you, O God of my ancestors, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and power, and have now revealed to me what we asked of you, for you have revealed to us what the king ordered.’”
This prayer is Daniel’s theology of nonconformity. It is Daniel’s way of saying, “Okay, let us remember first things.” It turns out that Nebuchadnezzar is not a first thing. He is not even a second thing. He is just a thing in a hierarchy of power and influence in the world. The primary reality is the truth and character of the God who raises up and deposes kings. Everything is held by the one who is the lord of all. And here is Nebuchadnezzar who is under the reign of God, but his desperation, panic, and rage demands an answer.
One of the things that is so interesting about this chapter is that Daniel hears and understands the depths of Nebuchadnezzar’s pathos; the most powerful person in the world is terrified. Power does not protect you from fear. It often leads you into greater fear, especially when the stakes are as high as Nebuchadnezzar fears they might be based on his nightmare. He wants a power that is greater than his to help him understand the terror of the night so he can figure out how he is going to live. This is why Daniel, in his prayer, reframes reality by saying, “Okay, these are the first order things. These are what are primary. This is what is secondary. This is how we are to understand the world.” He remembers God as the source of revelation. The story shows that the purpose of our nonconformity is to be able to be more attuned to God, who God is, and what he has to offer to the world he loves and to people who are in distress, like Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar his dream and essentially says, “It really is as bad as you thought it was going to be. You were right to be terrified because it is ultimately about the decimation of your kingdom.” Nebuchadnezzar receives this as good news, profusely thanking Daniel for telling the truth, and then elevates his status in the kingdom. This is such a fascinating insight into the way that nonconformity plays out. Daniel says, “I’m going to be absolutely clear about this. The answer to your dream does not come from me.” Why does he remember that? Because every time he sits down to a meal, he is reinforcing that he belongs to Yahweh and not to Nebuchadnezzar. In this political moment of opportunity, he is not going to pull a sleight of hand; he is going to give it straight to Nebuchadnezzar: “This does not come from me. It does not even come from you. It comes from somebody who is so much greater than you that, in fact, that God is the one who has revealed this to me, and that is why I now deliver this to you with authority. Your kingdom is coming down.” And Nebuchadnezzar says, “Thank you.”
This is rich material! He says “thank you” not because he fails to understand the terror. Nebuchadnezzar identifies with someone who is bearing authentic witness to a greater power than his, which, as we will see in chapter three, is threatening to Nebuchadnezzar. But at the moment he is able to receive it as terrifyingly good news because it is actually grounding his life in reality. As people of nonconformity, our call is to be responsive to, dependent on, and aware of a God who is infinitely beyond our own capacity, and to bring all that into our own lives as aliens and strangers in the world. We bring something Nebuchadnezzar and the soothsayers and chanters simply do not have, which is part of the gift of our nonconformity. We do not have it if we forget our identity, and we do not have it if we do not trust God to demonstrate a reality that is greater than ourselves. We are not the answer, even when we are intensely practicing our nonconformity. No, the God we worship holds the answer and our nonconformity must be constantly oriented toward that God. This becomes exceptionally clear in the Gospels in how Jesus calls us to become kingdom people.
The third chapter of Daniel tells how Nebuchadnezzar builds on the nightmare of chapter two. He says, “When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And if you do not worship the sound of the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, then I will throw you into a fire.” He repeats it four or five times, and then, “Hearing the sound of the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, they worshipped the golden statue.” However, there were certain Chaldeans who ratted out certain Jews—namely Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel, whose lives were saved in chapter two, who were promoted over the soothsayers—for not worshipping the golden statue. Nebuchadnezzar, in his characteristic rage, comes to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and screams at them for not bowing down and worshipping the golden statue. He says, “Now, knowing that I am going to throw you into a fire that is seven times hotter than any fire that has ever been, when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you shall worship the golden statute that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”
That moment is extraordinary, and it is built on the assumption of the power of mesmerizing rhythms. This is always what assimilation or conformity does: certain mesmerizing rhythms set in motion cues that tell us exactly what to do. On many college campuses, when you hear a fight song you know exactly what you are supposed to do. At many public events in the United States, when you hear the national anthem you know what you’re supposed to do. This was something Hitler knew and understood and used to demand certain results.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego hear the music but they don’t take the cue. The high point is not when they are saved from the fire, but rather when Nebuchadnezzar claims that he owns them (“Who is the God who will deliver you from my hands?”) and they respond: “Oh Nebuchadnezzar, you silly little man.” Or, in the actual words of the text, “Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to give you a defense in this matter.” They are entirely unhooked from the rage, the control, the power, the fear, the dominance, and the threat of Nebuchadnezzar’s fury and the fire, and they just live in freedom in his presence: Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to give you a defense in this matter. Our Lord may deliver us from the fire, or he may not deliver us from the fire, but either way we are not going to bow down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” In other words, they live an unhooked life. How can they do that?
My argument is that they do this because they remember who they are. They have practiced with clarity, asking themselves such questions as who are we, what is primary, what is not, who do we worship and who do we not worship? Nebuchadnezzar believes the primary danger is the fire. But to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the greater danger is idolatry and the thought that they would bow the knee to anyone other than God. Consequently, the fire is just a fire, death is merely death. The greater danger is that we become idolaters, not that we might lose our lives. God may save us or God may not save us, but we are going to live an unhooked life.
I believe that the first three chapters of Daniel present a picture of practicing an identity with relentless persistence. We do not bring to life in exile merely our own competency, our own abilities, our own personalities, and our own gifts. We trust in a God who is more important than any reality that may present itself. We are like Daniel and his three friends, who had the capacity to rehearse, practice, and live unhooked lives free from coercion by the assimilationist forces and powers that, in Nebuchadnezzar’s case, absolutely controlled their destiny and life.
This is an image of nonconformity that I would argue continues into the New Testament in the life and ministry of Jesus, who demonstrated a capacity to live a life unhooked from the language, expectations, conformity, and assimilation of both the religious and non-religious people of the time. Jesus presents an image of nonconformity that is vibrant, servant-oriented, humble, and risk-taking. I believe it is grounded in these three chapters of Daniel in a very provocative way.
What will we choose, individually and corporately, as common practices to help us remember our identity? Are we called, either in this moment or in any other moment, to step towards the risks? How do we remember to live in this unhooked way so that we are free to be the agents of God’s grace, truth, mercy, and justice in a way that is not controlled by the social circumstances? The great tyranny of the relationship between church and society has always fundamentally been an assimilationist tyranny. The polarization between the Anabaptist and the Reformed tradition has sometimes been around themes of how you handle conformity and how you handle distinction. Those are long and complicated historic debates, and I would say that there are strengths on both the Anabaptist and Reformed sides, so I am not really making an Anabaptist or Reformed argument. I am acknowledging that all of us are prey to many of the same dangers, and we need to find a way to understand and practice our peculiar identity in the peculiar time and place in which we live. The call to live as faithful exiles is at the very center of our call and our vocation.
Author: Mark Labberton
Mark Labberton is president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Prior to joining the seminary faculty in 2009, Labberton served for over 30 years in pastoral ministry, 16 of those years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (InterVarsity Press, 2014), and other books.