27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
It is rare to hear a story of such instantly successful civil disobedience. Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego refuse to participate in religious devotion that they find blasphemous, they are sentenced to death, God intervenes saving their lives, and King Nebuchadnezzar declares that anyone who blasphemes against the God of Israel will be “torn limb from limb and their house laid in ruins.” This is a sweeping and clear victory.
Only, Nebuchadnezzar’s decree does not seem to indicate that he has really been changed by God’s miraculous intervention. Instead, the king resets the stage for the same story to play out with another marginalized group. He has rearranged who has power but the bigotry remains intrenched. Violent death is still the price for blaspheming against the state’s new chosen God. It is easy to cheer at this story if you identify with the protagonists and their God, but it is actually quite chilling how quickly the victims become a part of the system that sought to kill them once it orients its violence toward a new group. Politically the outcome is less than promising, it does not indicate that God’s presence has engendered any profound rupture in the course of human affairs. Instead, familiar power dynamics are rearranged with a few new participants.
This is a familiar dynamic in our own political landscape. Moments and movements that seem to usher a sea change that feels like a victory instead are incorporated into broken systems that remain unchanged by the minor disruption. President Obama was elected largely as a popular response against the torture and widespread espionage of the Bush administration, yet most of those practices have only grown under Obama’s leadership: new identities, new personalities, but largely the same sort of policy. The Occupy Movement elevated the reality of economic inequality into public discourse in a new way, but the truly radical message of the movement, that genuine democracy requires a major reformation of our process of decision making seems to have been lost from sight. God’s message was lost when Nebuchadnezzar “promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedego.” The king was not really relinquishing any of his own power nor dismantling the political system that nearly led to their deaths.
This is where the story hits Advent. Advent is a story of a political rupture, one that was never integrated into power structures but lived perpetually on the margins of them. Advent is about God coming to live in the world and showing up in a marginalized and impoverished body in a backwater town. Advent is about the birth of a king who would never wield political influence but whose legacy ushered in a new way of living with the potential to profoundly disrupt the normal rhythms of business. Advent is not about elevating different people to power, but learning to seek power at a different elevation. Emmanuel, God with us, comes not as a new leader to be fitted into our normal way of living, but as an interruption to our customs.
Jesus’ followers this Advent are waiting for something new, expecting and hoping for the birth of a new king, a prince of peace. Our politics needs a new way: Advent is an invitation to seek that newness in unexpected places.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]