Daniel and the Lions: Plots, Populist Politics and Promoting Peace

IMG_0191What is the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den really about (Daniel 6)? The book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, is a book in two halves. The first six chapters give a series of stories about a Jewish captive called Daniel. The second half gives a series of visions. While it is set around 6th century BC under the Persian empire, it was probably written much later, around 164 BC. Our first reading came from the first part – stories about Daniel. It’s central theme is about the providence of God, how God’s purposes hold through all the ups and downs of events, and it is a book that aims to encourage faith and trust in God.

Daniel has been able to interpret the king’s dreams and because of this he gets promoted, attaining high office with positions of great influence. His wisdom, which he attributes to God, shines through. This brings out jealousy in others, those who don’t measure up, and they plot against him. They want his power and position. So they plot, and manipulate a king who doesn’t stand up to them for whatever reason, and Daniel is seemingly condemned to an unpleasant death as dinner for some hungry lions.

The pretext for their plot is Daniel’s worship of God. He refused to worship in secret, to keep it private and internal. This is because the aim of worship is to glorify God; it is not just something to be done in private, so Daniel does not regard it as a mere private matter. For the book of Daniel, God is God of all and not just a private lifestyle choice. The edict of Darius, the King of the Medes and Persians, is therefore foolish in the extreme; to claim, to demand, that he is to be worshipped and anyone who worships anyone else is to be put to death. The conspirators have tempted Darius with hubris and self-aggrandisement. It’s the antithesis of what worship is supposed to be. It also misses the point of Daniel, that his wisdom comes from being open to God, not from himself. When we gather to pray, to preach, to sing, to read, the focus is not on us but always on God and should open hearts and minds to God. Anything else is egotistical and bogus. Daniel survives in God’s providence and there is a quick about face by Darius, who seems to turn from persecutor to champion of Daniel’s faith. Maybe, maybe not. Does he really get it – that Daniel points to God, and that God is not something to be harnessed or possessed, rather worshipped, listened to and followed. There is a fundamental shift, difference, of understanding here.

Some of what happens in the story of the lions is very familiar. Exactly what led to the king listening to the conspirators is not clear. He seems to be fearful that his power will be diminished if he doesn’t concede to their demands and falls for the flattery of self-worship and adulation. He falls for all the allures of populist politics, which we have seen far too much of in the USA and also in Britain. Those with power can often feel that their grip on power is loose and fragile. It can lead to persecution of minorities, to demonising of those who are different, to abuse in order to protect power, or a shallow grip on it, to divert through division and scapegoating.

The outcome of this story is that those who conspire and set Daniel up, fall into their own trap. Daniel is saved. Those who plot overplay their hand as they so often do, and they are brought crashing down. They end up on the menu for the lions’ dinner. Those who seek to be populist can find themselves being eaten by their own scheming and deceptions.

The second reading brought us the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). It is familiar. It talks of different soil conditions from the deeply hostile hardened, rocky soil where nothing grows, to fertile soil where the crop will settle and grow in abundance. If we try to link this to the first reading, the faith of Daniel will bring out different responses depending on how those who view it are themselves prepared – what kind of soil they are. Are they hard-hearted, concerned for their own position over all else, or ones seeking to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God? And this works for politics, for church and community life. It comes down to the ego and how it will drive fruitful mission and how it will work against it because the heart is actually focussed somewhere else.

Remembrance Sunday is a day to be alert not just to the cost of war in lives lost and harmed, but the hardnesses of the heart that make war more likely or the heart more receptive to it. If anyone is seen as being dispensable for some personal gain, even protection of fragile and a weak grip on power, where power is for its own sake rather than the higher good of all, then throwing Daniels to the lions becomes easier to imagine and even execute.

And remember the words of King Darius just before he passes sentence on Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’ (Daniel 6:19). It’s the statement of a weak king who recognises the evil he is about to do but feels powerless to prevent it because the tide is against Daniel and it is more expedient for him to be sacrificed than to risk the throne. 

We could draw parallels of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the demonising of groups now to build up political power – all the ways we see populist politics creating a toxic climate. We can scale this down to those moments when conspirators will turn on someone because, if they can stir up trouble, their own power base will be advanced, or maybe even protected in clubs, workplaces, even churches – they are not immune.

The warnings of Daniel and the soil condition survey in the gospel reading take us to the heart of our own hearts. Do we seek God’s kingdom above all else, even our own advancement? And will we refuse to make someone else expendable in the pursuit of our goals? If the answer to these is no, then on Remembrance Sunday we have the conditions ripe for conflict, for destruction and the evils of warfare – beit between nations or withn them, even within the smallest groups. Remembrance Sunday calls us to promote and live in peace with justice and, as these readings remind us, that starts in the heart.

Sermon for Evensong, Remembrance Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th November 2022

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About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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