9As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. 10A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Timmy was a nine year old boy; I met him when an ambulance brought him to my Emergency Room. In a letter given to Timmy’s mother, the school’s principal stated that Timmy had said “alarming things” that suggested that the boy wanted to kill himself and his teacher.
As I interviewed Timmy’s mother, I learned that his parents had separated and his father had moved away and remarried. The other people in his household were all adults … two brothers in their twenties, his mom and her boyfriend. His mother said she couldn’t understand why Timmy possibly could be feeling sad or suicidal or homicidal. “He has everything he needs,” she said. When I spoke with Timmy, the picture looked a bit different. At home and sometimes at school, too, he felt left out and helpless. “I tell my mom something, and I can say it 50,000 times and she won’t get it,” he said, “but when I tell grandma, she’ll get it the first time.”
Timmy felt as though nobody listened to him. But was he suicidal? Or homicidal? I asked him whether he really had wanted to be dead. He said, with a little smirk, “No, I wanted to jump off of the roof and fly.” I said, “How about your teacher, did you want to kill her?” “Of course,” he said, “she made me mad, so I was going to grab her with one hand and throw her out of the window”. As he made a dramatic PLOP sound, I looked at him and said, “Timmy, you are not THAT strong, are you?” His smirk turned into a radiant smile and he said, “Yes, I am that strong, because I have super powers.” At that point I knew that I didn’t have to worry about Timmy killing himself or anyone else.
A day after I met Timmy in the ER, I saw a little girl out in the street screaming at her mother; she stomped her foot and said, “Why can’t we do things my way? Can’t you just listen to me for a change?” Later that same day I was on the bus. A little boy glared at the bus driver who had to wait for the light to turn, and said to him, “Mr. Bus Driver, I am tired of waiting; I want that bus to move, now, do you hear me?” The driver laughed and said, “That’s not how the world works, young man. Sometimes you’ve got to wait.”
Each of these three children had experiences with feeling defeated. You could say (as the bus driver did) that children need to learn the way of the world, and that’s just how it is, but we adults are liars if we say that we don’t know feelings of defeat. The world in which we live day-in and day-out is filled with moments when we feel powerless one way or another.
As I began writing this essay, this nation was reeling with feelings of defeat after the October 27 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed, and seven were injured. The sole suspect, Robert Gregory Bowers, was arrested and charged. The shooting was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. The event was one of three far-right public attacks that took place in the United States that same week, along with the a series of mail bombing attempts and the Jeffersontown Kroger shooting. Even though over 70,000 people signed an open letter stating that President Trump was not welcome until he “fully denounces white nationalism,” he insisted on visiting the synagogue and some of the wounded victims.
How can we feel strong in the midst of defeat? How can we defy defeat? I believe our text from Daniel 7 has some answers for us.
The book of Daniel is one of a large number of Jewish apocalypses and is dated to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BCE). During this period of Israelite history, the Jewish community suffered persecution and martyrdom at the hands of a Hellenistic despot. Daniel has a dream consisting of a series of nocturnal visions; he sees a great sea being driven and tossed by the four winds of heaven. As he looks, four great beasts come up out of the sea, resembling a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and a ten-horned and iron-toothed monster. Among the horns of the fourth beast another little horn arises, breaking off three of the existing horns. This little horn has eyes and a mouth like a man and speaks great boastful words.
The vision in chapter 7 is the first of a series of “apocalyptic” visions in the book. Apocalyptic literature tends to include visions mediated by a divine figure, the belief that historical conflicts are the result of greater cosmic battles, a dualistic worldview, the prominence of symbolic images, and the use of a fictive first-person narrator. The word “apocalyptic” is derived from the Greek word meaning “revelation;” such literature “reveals” truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms, and is intended to provide hope and encouragement for people who are marginalized and oppressed. Apocalyptic texts reveal the world the way it really is; they can be used to scratch off the pretense and deception of the powers that be, so they are unmasked as the monsters that they are.
The enslavement of the people of Israel in Egypt is the archetype of oppression. According to the vision set out in the Bible, the totalitarian exercise of power always leads to social injustice. Much of the Old (compiled during the Babylonian captivity, akin to a mass deportation) and the New Testament (written under Roman occupation) can be thought to have been written by the anawim, the class of poor and oppressed people who “depend on the Lord for deliverance.”
Daniel A. Morris, Lecturer in the Religion Department at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, suggests that President Trump profits from his alignment with evangelical fundamentalists by especially using “their exclusive and intolerant impulses.”[i] Intolerance and xenophobia reign in our president’s rhetoric, and those attitudes are fueled by fear of “the other”: Jews, Muslims, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ people and all immigrants face intense persecution.
When we scratch off the pretense and deception of our current administration, the main monster revealed underneath the “new normal” is racism (aka Trump’s “nationalism”): “Whiteness, White supremacy, and White privilege are three interlocking forces that disguise racism so it may allow White people to oppress and harm persons of color while maintaining their individual and collective advantage and innocence.”[ii] People privileged by white supremacy culture begin to think of it as “normal;” once they have identified with what is, they become blind to the monster and its monstrous doings, such as creating a climate that fosters a mass shooting at a synagogue, cages for immigrant children and police shootings of Black and Brown people.
Daniel 7 doesn’t just help us identify the hidden monsters; it also reveals that they won’t last: As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. … I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. … I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7: 9, 11, 13, 14).
The one who saw the four beasts sees two more images: one like the storm god Baal (the Ancient One) and one like a human being (the everlasting king). The two interrelated images assert that God is present in the chaos of this world: moving, acting, and intervening in the real life struggles of the believers who are yearning for a Liberator God.
On this Feast of Christ the King, let’s resolve to defy defeat and get involved in the liberation of our marginalized and oppressed sisters and brothers. In a patriarchal society that favors whiteness, viewing oppression through the lens of intersectionality helps us to see how social, economic, and other categories overlap and intersect in a greater framework of oppression. No matter what the current empire tells you, we are all one, and indivisible.
The current power arrangements are on their way out. “Goodness is stronger than evil, Love is stronger than hate,” wrote Desmond Tutu. “Light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death,” and he goes on, “Victory is ours, victory is ours, through God who loves us. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through God who loves us.”
Let us pray. Look
with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with
injustice, terror, disease, deportation, family separation and death as their
constant companions. Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart, and especially the hearts of those who rule this land,
that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds
cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i]Morris, Daniel A. (2017) “Religion in the Age of Trump,”Intersections: Vol. 2017 : No. 45 , Article 7.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.augustana.edu/intersections/vol2017/iss45/7
[ii] Sue, D. W. (2006). The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Whiteness, White Supremacy, White Privilege, and Racism. In M. G. Constantine & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings (pp. 15-30). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.