Daniel, Suffering and Religious Freedom
I saw an interesting movie recently, Hacksaw Ridge, the latest film from Mel Gibson. Similar to The Passion of the Christ, Gibson loves to depict gruesome violence, probably because he thinks there’s something redemptive to bodily suffering, especially when it’s on behalf of others. Yet most of the reviews of the film missed the point I think Gibson was trying to make. It seems to me Gibson was trying to generate a discussion about religious freedom.
I say this because Gibson tells the story of Hacksaw Ridge, one of the bloodiest battles in the fight for Okinawa during WWII, through the lens of Desmond Doss, a simple man from Virginia who was a conscientious objector. Like many of his generation, Doss felt the need to do something in response to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the teachings of his Seventh Day Adventist Faith prevented him from killing.
Who are Seventh Day Adventists? They got their start in the 19th century in the aftermath of the Millerite movement. William Miller, taking Daniel 8.14-16 literally, calculated that Jesus was going to return on October 22, 1844. When this failed to take place, the Millerite movement collapsed. Out of its ashes came the Seventh Day Adventists, known especially for their Sabbatarian views and their literalist reading of the Bible.
One of the outgrowths of their literalism was the insistence that if Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” and the Ten Commandments said, “Thou shalt not kill,” this probably meant that we shouldn’t kill each other. Thus, Doss was willing to join the war effort, but was not willing to carry a gun.
The Army didn’t like this much and tried everything possible to get him to quit. Everyone assumed that Doss lacked the courage to fight and would thus be a terrible drag on company morale. They insulted him, beat him up, and eventually locked him up. Yet some higher-ups intervened and decided that Doss could serve in a non-combat role by being a medic.
Doss then surprised everyone when he stayed behind at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge after his company retreated to treat the wounds of allied troops who had been injured. Although he had little cover and no way to protect himself, Doss kept dragging wounded soldiers to safety, all the while praying to God that he would let him “save just one more.” Doss was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his remarkable bravery, the first conscientious objector ever so recognized.
What’s Gibson’s point? To the uninitiated, religious views can look very strange and anti-social, even worthy of condemnation. Yet Gibson is saying they ought to be respected because great good can come to the society as a result. Gibson, himself a conservative Catholic, is likely concerned about the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric against Christian beliefs in the public square.
I certainly agree that we should exercise vigilance in defending religious freedom because I think the church is, on balance, good for the society. Yet it seems to me that the church’s typical knee-jerk reaction is to employ the courts and reflexively draw on “rights” to defend itself. While, in principle, I am not opposed to this, this seems like the strategy of a church that is used to being powerful and respected. In an increasingly secularizing society, this might not be an effective strategy in the future. Thus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den might present an alternative model for how to act when pressure comes on our religious convictions.
There is little doubt that Daniel was persecuted for his religious beliefs. He refused to stop praying despite an interdict from the government that prohibited him from doing so. Importantly, Daniel wasn’t trying to pick a fight or trying to be insulting to anyone. He was quietly going about what he had always done, putting God above all else, and was willing to accept the consequences if anyone had a problem with that. In the end, Daniel’s opponents tried to have him killed by throwing him into the Lion’s Den, but God miraculously delivered him, causing the king to recognize Daniel’s God as “the living God” who endures forever (Dan 6.25).
For many, Daniel is the quintessential Sunday school story. We have good and bad characters, abundant tension, great faith and a miraculous conclusion. God comes through in a remarkable way for Daniel. Thus the easy conclusion is that God will come through for us as well.
Yet the history of the martyrs of the church reminds us that happy endings are all too rare when oppression and persecution come. For every Daniel, there are thousands who were not so delivered. Their examples are sober reminders of the need for deep-rooted conviction in the Christian life. Daniel shows us that the witness of one willing to suffer injustice is more powerful than those who would use trickery and power to promote their programs and plans.
While Daniel reminds us of the need for faithfulness in season and out of season, this story’s ultimate import comes from its remarkable connection to Jesus’ passion narratives. Consider these parallels:
- Both Daniel and Jesus were the victims of unjust conspiracies;
- Both had prayer as a central aspect of the setup of theirstories (Jesus in Gethsemane and Daniel before his window);
- Both were tried before political leaders (Pilate and Darius) who were ultimately powerless to stop the injustice;
- Both were put into tombs under the expectation that they would never been seen again;
- Both were raised up out of the pit, thus demonstrating the power and mercy of God.
When read in light of Christ, Daniel’s story becomes more than just a nice Sunday school lesson that we tell children. It becomes a witness to the very power of God to sustain life. Daniel’s willingness to accept unjust suffering points forward to Christ who was unjustly crucified that we might live.
As a church in America, we have remarkable advantages. In general, we live in freedom and prosperity and benefit from constitutional safeguards that protect “the free exercise” of religion.
What Daniel reminds us is that it’s ultimately not constitutional protections, the courts, money, or power that keeps us safe. What gives peace in the mist of storms is not the conviction that everything will just work out. It decidedly might not in this age. What gives us confidence is the character of God who can redeem injustice and suffering and work it for good.
Indeed we need not fear. If the Father really raised his Son from the dead, the Psalmist is right when he said, “In God I trust without fear, what can flesh do to me” (Ps 56.4)? When we’re willing to accept unjust suffering on behalf of others, this is perhaps the most tangible way that we can imitate Christ. In so doing, we might just bring a little light into a world better known for its hatred, conflict, and cynicism.
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.