If you haven’t yet, you will see the name Colin Kaepernick in the news again today. Within hours of releasing, his new icon shirt was completely sold out online and in most stores. This is one of the results of a wave making partnership Kaepernick made to become the new face of Nike, which thrust the professional athlete back into the spotlight. Also thrust back into national consciousness was the conversation around the peaceful protests started by Kaepernick, Kenny stills, Eric Reid (who was just recently signed by the Carolina Panthers) in the NFL as well as many other athletes in other sports.
These protests take place during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL football games beginning from the 2016 season and have continued during this current season. The method of protests received intense reactions of all kinds and continues to be a source of controversial discussion. While much of the attention of this discussion has been given to efforts of either sanctifying or vilifying Kaepernick and and his colleagues, what has often been lost in the fray is the driving motivation and purpose of these demonstrations to begin with. Here are some of the reasons in his own words:
“There are a lot things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now…I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand...There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
Regardless of your opinions of Kaepernick, the NFL, or the national anthem, at the very least, as the people of God seeing these demonstrations take place should thrust our imaginations back into Scripture, where we find similar demonstrations and stands of convictions.
If you grew up like I did, you may have heard lessons from the book of Daniel with epic stories of lions and other cool stuff. Taking a deeper look, the book of Daniel is a theological treatment of how we are to live as God’s people in a world full of man-made empires. Through the stories, speeches, and messages from God to his people living in the midst of nations waring for power by oppressing the vulnerable, Daniel is a prophetic challenge to the nation states of it’s time and ours included who are so intoxicated with power that they elevate themselves above humanity and claim divine status.
It is within this prophetic treatment of God’s opposition to empires where we find a story of anthem protest.
Nations, Anthems, Empires, Gods and Protest.
In ancient times, an empire, it’s emperor, it’s gods, and it’s leaders were all one. Politics and religion were the same. In many ways, these ancient peoples were just more honest about the connections between spirituality and politics than we are today. In those days, priests were also chief administrators and the emperor was also thought to be a god worthy of worship. This of course was different than the people of Israel who were in a covenant relationship with Yahweh, the creator God. For Israel governments and nations as well as those who lead them were always thought to be servants of Yahweh and never to be mistaken for God. Thus, the sentiment that unquestioned patriotism is equal to faithful devotion is more in line with the ways of Babylon, Egypt, Rome than it is the ways of the people of God.
This is why the story of three of Daniel’s friends, faithfully devoted Israelite young men who had been conquered and captured by the empire of Babylon find themselves being questioned about their patriotism and proper behavior when they choose to exemplify the reality that the empire they are in is actually unworthy of worship. Here’s how the story goes..
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon…Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold,11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”
13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:1-3, 8-18
The emperor of Babylon had come to believe that he himself was a god worthy of worship. Later in Daniel we find that he had come to believe that somehow his and his nation’s oppression of people, violence against humanity, and his accumulation of resources through greed and corruption was a validation of his divine status. He instituted a national anthem that would sing praises to him and the ways that the nation had come to believe they were above the rule and law of God. When the music played, the three Israelite boys did not launch a violent attack, instead, they took the opposite posture of the rest of the nation in peaceful protest. Calling attention to the fact that Yahweh alone was worthy of worship and that the corrupt power of Babylon, and the fire and fury of its leaders, were no match to the justice, righteousness and power of the one true God. They believed in this so much that they were willing to sacrifice everything— even their lives.
Their simple anthem protest stands as an example of the prophetic posture that we as the people of God are to take in the face of empires, corruption, injustice and idolatry.
This is one of the ways we remain faithful in exile, where we are strangers and sojourners in this world, yet called to work for the good of our cities, and our nations, that Jesus so deeply loves.
Living Faithfully in Exile
There are two aspects to living faithfully in exile. Theologians often call this the exilic ethic. We as christians are not exiles in the same way that Daniel and his friends were. Yet we are in exile in that we are a people “not of this world”, waiting for Jesus to bring about the new heavens and the new earth— Our true home. So how then shall we wait? Do we live without convictions and fall in line with the ways of our Babylon? Do we hold our breath and wait for our culture and society to destroy itself? Do we condemn our culture for its wickedness and never bless the image of god within those around us? The exilic ethic provides two main ways of living faithfully:
1. Seeking Peace and Prosperity
“ This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”Jeremiah 29: 4-7
The first can be found in the passage above where God instructs his people to seek the peace of their new found cities and to foster the flourishing of their new home even though it is a place that is functioning counter to the law of God. Regardless of the pagans around them, the discomfort in being the religious minority, and the potential backlash they might face simply for being who they are, God calls his people to pray for their nation, work towards it’s flourishing, and be people of peace even as exiles.
For us who follow Jesus and await his return when he will make all things new and right every wrong, we do not hold our breath and let the world around us burn away. We roll up our sleeves and hit our knees. We vote, we serve, we lead, we love our neighbors. we pray for our leaders, we listen and care for those around us. We grow our families here and teach them to love where they call home as well. We enjoy the culture of our nation. We champion the goodness of what it means to be an American, a Mexican, a Nigerian, etc. We celebrate the goodness of our countries as well as work towards the betterment of the places we call home.
This is a key practice in what it means to be the people of God living faithfully in exile. However this is only one side of it.
2. Prophetic Defiance
The second practice is prophetic defiance. Yes, we are to seek the peace and work for the flourishing of where we live, leading quiet lives of respect. But this alone would be to be complicit with the side of empires that leads to the corruption and idolatry the three Israelite boys protested as well as the oppression and injustice currently being brought to light by the NFL players. Practicing prophetic defiance means we are also to follow the examples of Daniel, Esther, Shadrach, Mischach, and Abednego and live faithfully in the face of opposition. We are never to be complicit to every and any cultural trend but are rather to examine our every dollar spent, every vote cast, every piece of media consumed and ask ourselves if we are living out of the conviction of these heroes of the faith. Through prophetic defiance we bear witness to the justice and goodness and power of God by honoring the image of God in every person. When empires, would try to claim divine status and encroach of the dignity of humanity for the sake of power and convenience, we as God’s people should always be taking the opposite posture.
Examining our posture
As the people of God living in exile, in the face of empires who pass themselves off as gods, we must consider our posture when the music plays. We must do the hard work of examining our convictions and ask ourselves if, when we face opposition, will we answer in the same way as Sadrach Mischach and Abednego. Even if we lose everything, will we refuse to be swept away by the conveniences that empire often uses to lull us into non-action. Will we live up to our calling as the people of God and be a prophetic presence that reminds the world of who really is in control.
INSTAGRAM & TWITTER: @JONATHONMURILLO
Jonathon grew up in six different states across the Western United States. He made his way to Southern California to attend Vanguard University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. As well as a Master's of Divinity degree from Azusa Pacific University. Jonathon is passionate about discipleship to Jesus and innovation, especially when those two spaces meet. He aspires to encourage people to live well-curated lives of purpose and passion. You can find Jonathon living in his beloved city of Costa Mesa, California with his amazing wife, Cyndi. Oh yeah, and he is a HUGE Raiders fan.