A religious people are overwhelmed by a culture deeply antithetical to their beliefs, under attack by elitist members of the dominant society, enemies who would prefer that their parochial way of life be delegitimized, and, if possible, eradicated. Members of that religious minority seek, often covertly and out of fear, to maintain their convictions while continuing to live and work in the public square. Yet the moral quandaries they face become increasingly difficult to overcome. Many wonder whether they can truly retain their devotion to their God.
Some would say this very scenario is playing out across the United States, with religious conservatives, particularly those in fields such as medicine, encountering ethical dilemmas that pit secular laws against their deepest convictions. Yet I am speaking of Jews living in the sixth century BC, and one Jew in particular: the prophet Daniel. His eponymously titled book in the Old Testament provides a surprising template for religious conservatives to emulate in the post-Christian West, a tried and true method for living the Benedict Option while remaining firmly in the public square.
The Book of Daniel tells of the story of the Jewish people during their exile in what now modern-day Iraq. Forced from their native home in Judea by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, Daniel is one of a small cadre of elite Jews brought into the royal court. We are told that Daniel and his companions were “youths without blemish, handsome and skilful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to serve in the king’s palace.” Yet trouble quickly finds Daniel and his friends, particularly as it relates to their religious beliefs. How Daniel saves his skin is saliently pedagogical for those in a post-Christian society.
The Jewish courtiers refused to eat the defiled food of the Babylonians, which presumably was either not kosher or had been consecrated to pagan deities. Daniel’s remedy for this problem, which very well could have resulted in his death, wasn’t to aggressively pick a fight regarding his inalienable right to worship as he pleases—he was shrewdly aware of the limits foisted upon him. Rather, the text tells us, Daniel gained “favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs” of Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Daniel then used this good will to offer this senior official a proposition behind closed doors: test him and his buddies with just vegetables and water, and see how they fare. The deal was struck, and after 10 days, the Jews were “better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s rich food.”
What is first instructive is how Daniel’s moral stature appealed even to a pagan. Something about him was attractive enough to gain others’ favors. Moreover, Daniel and his friends had wisdom and understanding “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters” in the Babylonian kingdom. Later Daniel interpreted a dream for the king and in the process explicitly declared that his wisdom is not his own but granted from above. His interpretation resulted in Nebuchadnezzar praising the God of the Jews, granting Daniel “high honors and many gifts,” and bestowing upon him “rule over the whole province of Babylon, and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” For conscientiously religious persons to continue to survive in post-Christian America, they must be innocent as a dove and shrewd as a serpent. They must be impeccably virtuous and display intellectual talents beyond their contemporaries. Thankfully, if our tradition really is the fountain of all truth, this remains attainable.
Nebuchadnezzar’s reward to Daniel for his accurate interpretation of the dream came with a commensurate intention to execute all the Babylonian wise men whose augury skills proved impotent. Daniel’s response to this executive order demonstrates another attribute required for religious conservatives to navigate the complex waters of post-Christian America: grace towards one’s enemies. Prior to winning the king’s favor, Daniel went to the royal executioner and urges him: “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon.” Though these men likely viewed the Jews as enemies, Daniel bore no ill will towards them. Rather, he demonstrated compassion, refusing to capitalize on a moment of weakness to destroy them. This course of action was both virtuous and clever: by refusing to “kick ‘em when he’s down,” Daniel’s mercy secured their future favor.
Nebuchadnezzar faltered in his respect for the Jews and must be reminded of God’s special provision over them—evidenced in his throwing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace that they miraculously survive. He ends his days in awe of the God of the Jews, “praising and extolling and honoring the King of heaven.” Yet his successor Belshazzar had a short memory, and, during a riotous and debauched feast, dared to drink out of the vessels taken from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and used them to toast his pagan gods. A hand then appeared and wrote on the wall, again interpreted by Daniel. It declared Belshazzar’s fate sealed, and that very night Persian troops attacked the Babylonians and slew the king.
Again, Daniel gained the esteem of his irreligious superiors, the Persian king Darius, who determined to make him prime minister of the realm. Members of the Persian royal court were jealous of Daniel, and sought some justification to attack his character—yet none could be found “because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him.” Since there was no impugning Daniel’s character, it was again the Jewish religion that became the focal point of the problem. Daniel refused to stop giving thanks to God despite a royal decree that the Persian king must be worshipped. He practiced his religion quietly in the upper chamber of his house to avoid conflict. Still, his detractors discovered him and used his piety as a pretext for destroying him. Despite Darius’s best efforts to reverse his royal edict, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den. We all know how that turns out.
Amazingly, during the whole ordeal, Daniel remained a humble servant of the king in the manner of St. Thomas More, responding to Darius with the honorific “O king, live forever” from the bottom of the den. Just as before, Daniel’s virtue, piety, and filial devotion to the king resulted in a conversion experience for the pagan ruler. Darius wrote to subjects across his land, decreeing that all men must “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever, his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end.”
What is also useful in these stories is the nature of the moral dilemmas Daniel and his Jewish compatriots faced. Like many of our own ethical quandaries, they often seemed curious and unnecessarily stubborn to outsiders. They refused to eat Babylonian food, bow to an idol, and stop worshipping their God even for a 30-day period. These strict, uncompromising beliefs make little sense in a world that is increasingly Gnostic in its understanding of body and soul. The recent popular movie Silence, adapted from Shusako Endo’s book of the same name, suggests that one may still remain faithful to God in one’s heart even if all external indications evince apostasy. What we do with our bodies—whether in reference to food, worship, or sex—has no bearing on our souls. The same opinion has been manifested in a different manner in such episodes as the Obama administration’s aggressive demand that all employers provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives, personal religious beliefs be damned.
Religious conservatives in America are increasingly viewed with an elitist ridicule and patronizing condescension that perceives our beliefs and practices as passé, if not an affront to social progress. Daniel shows us that a steadfast, humble adherence to our beliefs will in time prove us right. Religious conservatives increasingly fear professional pressures that threaten to violate our consciences. Daniel teaches us that we should seek to be the very best at what we do, while exhibiting a quiet cleverness that both avoids unnecessarily antagonization and categorically refuses to capitulate to immorality. Finally, religious conservatives are wincing at targeted attacks (e.g. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Brett Kavanaugh) that seek to destroy our careers, families, and ways of life. Daniel teaches us to resist these efforts with virtue and charity, and in those rare times we succeed, refrain from gloating or punishing our opponents.
In the case of the Jews, these behaviors set the stage for Israel’s return from exile, with their temple commissioned to be rebuilt by the very pagan empire that had once been the primary threat to their survival. We should follow Daniel’s prophetic example. If we do, we may find that, like him, our irreproachable behavior and conscientious piety not only preserve us in the lion’s dens, but even convert a few people in the process.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.