Take Me to Church 7/28/19: Particularity in the Lions’ Den

Photo by Francesco De Tommaso on Unsplash

The king caved in, and ordered Daniel brought and thrown into the lions’ den.  But he said to Daniel, “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this.”
Daniel 6:16


Daniel’s true crime might be described as what Community Minister André Daughtry described in his sermon today as “particularity.”  Daniel worships the God of Israel, quietly but openly flouting a decree that Darius be worshipped as a God (a decree that Daniel’s enemies connive Darius into signing).  Darius is reluctant to sentence Daniel to the lions’ den, urging Daniel to call on his God to save him.

The artistlike the exile, like the spiritual leaderis someone who answers the call to particularity.  André shared his photographs of Rev. Jeff Mansfield, a former community minister at Judson, which included an action shot of Jeff leading a Moral Mondays protest in Albany.  (“Leading,” it should be noted, is not the word Jeff himself would use.  Reflecting on the picture, Jeff instead described a sense of feeling steered by the protesters, of being in front “not because [he] knew the way, but because [he] knew they needed to get there.”)  Protesting systemic racism and poverty is, in these darkening days, still particular.

There are, André offered, dueling visions of the American soul from the earliest days of the idea of the American nation: John Winthrop’s notion of the “city on a hill” and Roger Williams’s insistence that true Christianity requires religious freedom.  Only one of these visions is compatible with the particularity of the artist and the spiritual leaderat least if the particular one hopes to avoid the lions’ den.

There is the nominal safety of the artist in the United States in 2019the First Amendment, the (mostly) free and open Internet, the existence of places like Judson that stand not only against censorship but for the centrality of storytelling.  Still, it’s hard not to feel like the terms of any argument worth making keep changing: not whether or not it’s acceptable to imprison innocent people, including children, seeking asylum in our country, but what conditions under which it might be acceptable to imprison them.  Particularity brightens as the landscape darkens.

The power of the artist and the spiritual leader—and they can be the same person—lies in their ability to affirm, to tell a story.  André differentiated storytelling from accounting: to give an account is to be accountable, and not in a way that arises from consent and mutuality.  It is to constantly have to explain and justify.  To tell a story on one’s own terms is to stop playing defense.  Perhaps this is the source of Daniel’s power.  Daniel doesn’t offer an accounting of his beliefs: he lets his actions tell a story, and lives into the trust that God will save him.

There is a lack of the first person in this reflection and, I think, a lack of closure.  I hesitate to stand in my own story the way Daniel stood in his.  I hesitate to even claim the mantle of artist; I hesitate to admit to my own particularity, to let down my own defenses.  I admire the people who can.  I sat down with the Daniel story again this evening and wondered what he thought, when he faced Jerusalem and prayed.

True, the Book of Daniel may be an artifact of the Hellenistic Age, meant to inspire the Jewish diaspora with a tale of an earlier exile who remained steadfast.  But, as André pointed out, myths arise from events one way or the other, whether they retell real events or rise from the ashes of them.  This is the work of the artist and the spiritual leader, the reclaiming of narrative—the power to be particular even in the lions’ den.

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