Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Me

Image source.
Let me tell you about the time I stood up for what was right, even though nobody else would.

I was in middle school, and the rule was that we weren't allowed to switch tables in the cafeteria. Each table had 8 seats, and during the first week of the school year, you could make your choice about which table you'd sit at, and then you had to stick with it forever after.

Somehow, halfway through the school year, a few girls decided they were my friends, and they wanted me to come sit at their table. I legitimately have no idea how this happened- at that age, I pretty much knew nothing about how having friends was supposed to work. (I would like to take this opportunity to mention Asperger's- yeah, that'll help a lot of things in this story make more sense.) I guess I was really lucky that they pursued me. I wanted to have friends, but I didn't realize that meant I would have to, you know, make an effort to talk to the other students.

Anyway the point is, they wanted me to switch to their lunch table. And yeah, it made sense- I fit in better with them than with the girls at the table where I had been sitting. (I guess at this age, girls weren't willing to sit together with boys? All the students at the tables in question were girls.)

But. I told them no. The rule says we can't move from one table to another.

So things escalated. My new friends kept trying to persuade me to move. How long did this go on- days, weeks? I don't know.

Still, I wouldn't do it. We're not allowed to switch tables.

Then the girls at my original lunch table got in on it too. They said, yes, I should totally switch to the new lunch table. And yes, I was totally oblivious to whatever kind of social dynamics were going on. They said I should move- now as I write this, I'm wondering what sort of tone they had when saying this. Were they rejecting me? Were they trying to help me find the table where I would be happiest? Meanwhile the girls at the new table were offering friendship and acceptance, and I was oblivious to that too.

All I saw was temptation coming from both sides. Pressure to violate the law. I was the only one who stood for what was right. Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Then the adult lunch monitors got in on it too. "Perfect Number, it's okay. You can move to the other table."

Nope. I refused. Even if an angel from heaven preaches to you a different gospel than the one I gave you, let him be cursed, am I right? Gotta stand up for what's right, even if the entire world is going against you.

We're not allowed to switch tables. End of story.

"Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone." No no no this is awful advice for people with Asperger's. Image source.

Eventually, I did switch, you guys.

*GASP!* How? Why? What happened?

I realized that the rule "you can't switch to a different lunch table" was not a perfect rule, carved in stone by the hand of God. It was created by a person. Because people are not perfect, the rule is not perfect, and in some extreme cases, it may be okay to violate it.

I hadn't been standing up for the truth. I was standing up for an imperfect guideline, a tool intended to help the school keep order in the cafeteria. (To this day, I wonder what the purpose of that rule was. I guess so kids wouldn't be fighting over who sits where, or awkwardly left without a seat. I also wonder if it even was a rule in the first place- maybe it was just something a teacher mentioned offhand one day, and I took it as gospel. Why would you even need a rule like that? It's normal for people to just go sit in the exact same place every day- you don't need to tell them to.)

Rules handed down by God, which you are 100% certain about? Yes, worth defending, perhaps even to the point of death.

Something that your middle school lunch monitor said 4 months ago, unaware of your specific situation? Yeah, not so much.

All right, I could end the story there, and we could all have a laugh at how Little Perfect Number took everything literally and somehow ended up in the middle of this huge disagreement, even though she was pretty much the shyest student ever. But nope, we're not gonna do that. We're gonna talk about the bible now.

With regards to my lunch-table situation, many people would probably bring up the idea of "the letter of the law" vs "the spirit of the law." This means that we should not necessarily obey rules literally, but we should understand the purpose behind them, and strive to uphold that purpose- "the spirit of the law"- rather than seeing the literal wording of the command as an end unto itself.

But that's not how my brain works. Particularly when I was a child, my brain understood all rules as handed down by God, worthy of complete trust simply because they were rules. Wait, that's not exactly true- there were rules coming from different sources- parents, teachers, my own deeply held ideas about which compulsive behaviors were right- and sometimes those rules came into conflict with each other. Sometimes it would be obvious (umm, to me at least- other people thought I was being unreasonable) which rules superseded which, but sometimes it wasn't. So sometimes I had grand moral dilemmas.

Like when I read the story of John the Baptist being beheaded. Well, we all know the rule: when you make a promise, you have to keep your promise. I didn't see John's murder as a violation of any rule- you know, when you make a promise, no matter what the content of the promise is, the correct moral thing is to keep your promise. Of course John's death is a horrible sad thing which we really really really want to avoid, but I really didn't see any alternatives for Herod in that story.

(I'd be interested to hear what other people thought upon first reading the story of John the Baptist being beheaded. What should Herod have done?)

To function in the real world, we need to understand all rules as having this caveat: "unless this causes some kind of unreasonable situation" or "so-and-so, a wise but fallible human being, believes we should..." Letter of the law vs spirit of the law.

But. The bible.

All this "don't follow it literally- understand the reason behind the rules" stuff disappears when evangelical Christians talk about the bible. Apparently, there is no difference between "the letter of the law" and "the spirit of the law" when we're considering the bible. It was written by God, right? God makes no mistakes. When God says something, you do it. There is no need to consider the reasoning behind God's rules, because they are perfect. God did all the thinking for you.

This is what evangelicals teach, but in reality, it's bizarre which biblical rules they hold to literally and which they ignore. The bible says it's wrong to have two shirts while some people have none, but I don't see any churches trying to uphold this command. (And oh goodness, if you actually did try to obey that literally... wow. The guilt over not being able to save the world single-handedly, and then your friends and family would worry about you and try to intervene and convince you of the need to provide for yourself and your own needs, which would only add to the guilt, oh geez that's no way to live.)

Image source.

I realized that the rule "you can't change to a different table" was written by a person, and was therefore imperfect and not worth the sacrifices I made to uphold it. And recently, I've come to see the bible in a similar way. Yeah of course the bible is much more important, much more serious, much more valuable, much more sacred, but still, it was written by people. It came from somewhere. At some point in the past, writers made choices about what to write, and those writings later became the bible.

The bible's not perfect.

You have to use your brain to decide which rules would apply in which situations, and how important they are.

In normal life, we do this all the time. We follow the rules, but if some kind of unusual situation arises, we weigh the needs of the situation against the benefits the rule was intended to bring, and make a decision.

Not so for the bible (according to evangelicals). Apparently the bible contains clear rules that apply to all people for all time. Apparently God gave them to us, and apparently God knew all the "unusual situations" that could ever occur, and still chose to give us this rule. Therefore no "unusual situation" can ever be a valid exception to the rule. God knows what God's doing, right?

Actually, this line of reasoning is almost exclusively applied to the "biblical commands" about sex. For example, God said (uh we can debate if God actually said) that people should not have sex if they're not married. And according to purity culture Christians, what this means is: No one should have sex if they're not married. Ever. It is always bad, in every circumstance, 100% of the time, it is always a horrible sin. Because God said, and don't you think God knows what's best for you.

Of course people come up with all kind of reasons why it's better for us to not have sex, and yeah, there's truth to that. But they're not really "reasons"- the only reason you need (apparently) is God (apparently) said it (apparently). Purity culture isn't really teaching the reasons that we should follow this rule; instead, it's telling us the benefits of following it.

How do I know this? Because even if you can prove that every single one of the "reasons" does not apply to your situation, it's still not okay to break the rule. Even if the rule is causing more harm than good in your life, it's still not okay to break it. This rule was given by God, and we must follow it all the time, to the letter- the letter of the law. As for the spirit of the law, well we can only speculate about God's reasons, but it doesn't matter- because this law fell from the lips of God, following the letter of the law is identical to following the spirit of the law.

We know it is right to follow God's law. We don't know the reasons why. We stand strong against all opposition, against logic, against mounting evidence that this law is harmful to people, we will wait however long it takes, until someday it is revealed that we were right all along, and we receive our reward.

That's what faith is, right? Holding on so strongly to an unreasonable command, until God shows up and announces "hey everyone, she was right and all of you were wrong."

Christian culture places so much importance on "obeying God, even if it doesn't make sense" and this is a huge problem. If we're not supposed to use our brains to decide which parts of the bible give relevant commands for our lives, we're no different from Little Perfect Number refusing to change tables.

Image source.

One more thing: Let's come back to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I gotta tell you, I don't think they did the right thing.

Why didn't they just fake it? Why didn't they bow down, and the king would be satisfied- he probably wouldn't even notice, really. Why is it that Christians believe it's SO OBVIOUS that the RIGHT thing to do was remain standing?

There are a ton of issues you have to consider here. God gave them the rules about not bowing down to or worshiping other gods- why? Was it the specific action of bowing that was the problem? Doesn't God just look at the heart? What about how other people would have viewed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's actions- does that matter? What is the meaning and significance of outward expressions of religious devotion- especially in the context of living as minorities in exile? Doesn't everyone know that if you threaten people with death for not bowing, the bowing is just an empty gesture they perform for the sake of their own survival? Was this a case where the king's power to force people into a certain religion needed to be challenged? (And all of these questions need to be answered within the context of that ancient Middle-Eastern culture. In 21st-century America, the answers would be different.)

God saved them, but I don't see this as evidence that God agreed they made the right decision.

Earlier in this post, I said, "Rules handed down by God, which you are 100% certain about? Yes, worth defending, perhaps even to the point of death." But I'm having a hard time imagining a situation where you could have that much certainty. Even if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were certain they weren't allowed to worship other gods, you can debate what counts as "worship."

The only situation I can imagine where you should "stand up for what's right, no matter the cost" is if someone is asking you to hurt innocent people. (Ironically, we've circled back around to Herod and John the Baptist.) In other words, the only rule I currently consider to be absolute is the rule to love people. What "love" looks like in each particular situation is totally up for discussion (though sometimes it will be very obvious which actions are loving and which are horrible), and the way we prioritize people (because it's impossible to help everyone) is also up for discussion.

Absolute trust in a rule simply because it is a rule is a huge problem. Even if that rule is from God.


  1. This was totally me too: being overly literal about rules, especially all the legalistic evangelical stuff. It's why I'm still way behind on popular music (nobody ever said it was *forbidden*, but all the comments I heard about it were warnings or criticisms).

    The thing about what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego should have done reminded me of something I read on a slacktivist comment about a novel by Shusaku Endo. I can't find the comment, but Wikipedia has the right bit of the plot summary:

    "Security officials force suspected Christians to trample on a fumie, a crudely carved image of Christ. Those who refuse are imprisoned and killed. [...] As Rodrigues looks upon a fumie, Christ breaks his silence:

    “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.
    Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this
    world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

  2. Oh, I used to be super obsessive-compulsive about rules (and when I say that, I mean, I actually was obsessive-compulsive, not just uncomfortable when I didn't obey rules).
    But in regards to the Shadrach-Meshach-Abed-Nego story, one thing I find interesting is that, in 2 Kings, when Elisha heals a general (Naaman) of leprosy, Naaman vows to serve God. However, he also requests that God not hold it against him if he bows before a false idol in the presence of his king. And Elisha says okay. So I wonder if the right/wrong question depends entirely on the situation and the people involved. (

  3. Wow, that is REALLY cool. You might even say God cares more about protecting God's children than about outward religious gestures and symbols. :)

    I remember something similar when I read "The Crucible" in high school. It's about the salem witch trials, and at one point, John Proctor, who was accused of witchcraft, is given an opportunity to sign a confession (even though he's innocent), otherwise he will be hanged. I thought it was so weird how all the other characters were trying to convince him to sign it- just to save his own life, even though they all knew it was a lie- and they kept talking about how he was throwing away his life for the sake of pride/protecting his name. This was so bizarre to me- from my point of view, he was CLEARLY standing up for the truth, which is CLEARLY the right thing to do. The idea of weighing your choices (is it worth it to lie in order to save your life? let's think about the cost/consequences) was totally foreign to me.

  4. Wow that's really interesting- I remember that passage but I never connected it to the story of Shadrach/Meshach/Abednego- and I don't think I've ever heard it commented on in church.

    I just now read it again, and to be honest, my first thought was "well we won't overwhelm the new Christians by telling them ALL the rules right away- his heart's in the right place, and eventually God will convict him about this, no need for me to make a big deal about it now." Which, I have no idea if that's what Elisha meant or not, but that's pretty much why I don't read the bible anymore, because I can't get out of this "Real True Christian" style of interpretation. Ai ya. :(

  5. Yeah, I've never heard it commented on i church, either. And it seems like such an interesting passage - like see, God can make allowances for people...
    And yeah, I feel you on not being able to read the Bible. I still have panic attacks because I remember the compulsion to make sure I'm reading it *exactly right* and what if the literal/"true Christian" way is the right way after I can't yet read it again. :(
    I'd love to someday, however.

  6. God loves you regardless of whether or not you read the bible. :) Hope someday you'll be able to enjoy it again.

  7. I think part of the difference is that Naaman was not part of the Jewish covenant with God, which the Jewish people increasingly understood as meaning they were to resist idol-worship even to the death. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not just refusing to bow to a statue; they were declaring the Jews' right to maintain their identity as a people. The stakes were higher, and thus the cost was greater.

  8. I'm not reading it much right now either. Instead I'm reading books about the Bible, mostly from progressive evangelicals like Kenton Sparks. We can't stop reading it in that old "real/true Christian (TM)" way if we have no strategies to replace that way of reading with something else. Kenton Sparks is giving me a lot of help in that regard. Also Peter Enns.

  9. A lot of this is familiar to me as a baby Aspie, although when I was a child I often ignored rules because I have a physical disability (now slight, but it was a lot more striking then). Physical things (sports, p.e., the playground) were things I sidled out of by being on the outskirts or hiding in the library, because they were so absolutely not my thing.

    I had rules about things that were 'not my thing': physical anything, and maths/science (I assumed because nobody else in my family could manage maths/science, nor could I, also I had a persistent off-by-one error that meant I could not be sure of even simple sums for years: "Nine minus six is three...or four. One or the other."). Those things I sidled out of by not being there as much as possible, or reading story books in maths/science classes.

    Anything I didn't have a 'rule' about it not being my thing I followed in about as black-and-white a way as this describes, although I never took to religion. I don't have a 'god module' in my brain as most/many people have, so I assumed that if it was true and god reached out to me I'd sort it out then. A god who randomly scatters Christians, Muslims, Jews,Sikhs, Hindus, atheists et al throughout the world and then decides to punish them for a religious choice they never consciously made, or which was usually made for them, sounds downright evil, especially if this god is so obsessed with worship or what you call him/her/it. The idea of worship has always been particularly alien to me: if there was a god, wouldn't he want to look outside himself at creation/angels/humans/the world/the universe rather than have an infinite inward vision of people bowing down? The more worthy of respect a god was, the less I thought he'd be concerned with making people worship him and booby-trapping the world so that people would go to hell apart from a few sufficiently terrified.

    This is what resonates with me about your religious story here: a god prepared to have people killed and damned for a very human desire for self-preservation doesn't sound as good as a god who knows what is in people's hearts and their actions and doesn't punish them for wanting to escape scary things under duress.

  10. "a god prepared to have people killed and damned for a very human desire for self-preservation doesn't sound as good as a god who knows what is in people's hearts and their actions and doesn't punish them for wanting to escape scary things under duress."

    I like this part. :) I was taught that God would save people who risked their lives for God like this- well, sometimes God would save them, sometimes not. Even in the story of Shadrach/Meshach/Abednego, they tell the king "we believe our God can save us from the furnace. But even if he doesn't, we still will not bow down to your statue." In sermons this is always pointed out- God can TOTALLY save, but even if God doesn't, you should still "stand up for what's right."

    I don't believe that anymore...