Do you ever find that your involvement in public life and media means that you end up having to compromise?" My interviewer's question was straight to the point. The problem was that I couldn't give him the firm and reassuring" of course not" answer that I knew he, and so many in my audience, were hoping for.
My whole life is a constant succession of compromises. I'm caught in an endless tension. I find myself torn between what I would like to do, say, see happen, and commit to, and at the same time having to work within the restriction of budgets (and in some cases the law); keep prior commitments; meet existing responsibilities; deal with conflicting priorities; and slowly learn that the best way to win ground is to choose my battles with care. For me, the reality of compromise is a part of daily life.
When I was taught the story of Daniel as a child, a story summed up by the episode that takes place in the lions' den, the point, as far as my teachers were concerned, could not have been clearer. A long way from home, an exile in a strange land, Daniel found himself forbidden, by royal decree, from praying to or worshipping God. To do so was not only illegal, it was punishable by death. But Daniel, undeterred, not only chose to pray, but to do so publicly, as was his regular habit, in defiance of the new law. As a consequence, the king, Darius, ordered that he be thrown into a cave with some hungry lions for the night - and yet in the morning Daniel emerged, vindicated, triumphant and completely unharmed. The lesson was plain: here was one of God's heroes who, however intense the pressure, would not even contemplate compromise. Daniel was obviously made of the same stuff as Martin Luther, a bold Christian leader from another generation, who in the face of enormous pressure to conform famously uttered, "Here I stand, I can do none other".
However, over the years since, I've slowly learned that the real story of Daniel is far more complex and nuanced than its, all too often, simplistic presentation. Compromise, it turns out, was the very air that Daniel had to breathe each day. Rather than a man who knew 'no compromise', as we shall discover, he was one who had slowly learned when to compromise and when it was essential to stand his ground.
Daniel was a Jew who wanted to live in Jerusalem but had to get used to the reality of being a captive in Babylon. He dreamt of being in the service of the royal house of David not those of successive pagan rulers. He longed to be part of a society governed by the law of God, but instead had to learn how to operate within a pagan culture based on a value system far different from his own. In short, he was required to live, work and serve within a strange environment which impinged on his freedom, lifestyle and choices at all levels. And yet, despite these challenges, he not only managed to survive but to thrive - rising to be the most influential and long serving civil servant in the land. In fact, Daniel learned to do the very thing that his contemporaries, the authors of Psalm 137, thought impossible when they wrote: 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?'
Not only did Daniel sing the Lord's song in a strange land, he sang it loud, long and lucidly. Those who complained that it couldn't be done soon found themselves deafened by the sound of Daniel and his friends - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - raising the roof and drawing a crowd. While brittle-faithed musicians hung up their harps, retreated into despairing huddles and refused to make melody, Daniel flourished - a spiritual Pavarotti serenading the kings and people of a land that only knew the dreary dirge of oppression.
But here is the deepest irony. Had Daniel stayed in Jerusalem, the place in which he longed to live, he would have remained unknown - vanishing into history unnoticed. 'Smooth seas' in the words of the African proverb, 'do not make skilled sailors.' In truth, it is only because Daniel lived in exile, working in the face of opposition and hostility, wrestling with the pressures of when and how to stand his ground in the court of a pagan king, that, over 2,600 years after his death, he remains one of the Bible's best known characters and his story continues to provide such inspiration. The very pressure of life in Babylon spurred Daniel to develop the intimacy with God and the involvement in his society which led him to the kind of impact and influence we all seek. Looking back from the other side of his experience in the lion's den, could it be that one of Daniel's reflections would have been 'What doesn't kill you, strengthens you.'
Though the book of Daniel tells us about where Daniel chose to draw the line, there are other issues it does not even begin to address. It does not inform us of the endless discussions and debates Daniel and his friends must have had over the many points of tension between their worldview and Babylon's dominant culture. It does not unpack their decision making process. It does not explain why, for instance, they accepted pagan, occultic names on arrival in Babylon but refused the royal diet (see Daniel 1:6-21). It does not explain how they choose which battles to fight and which to ignore.
And that's just the point, the book of Daniel isn't a 'quick reference guide' spelling out the exact what and when of where to draw the line for its readers. Its purpose is very different. First, its message is that all those who wish to live their lives God's way, within any alien culture, be it 6th century Babylon or 21st century Europe will inevitably find themselves in conflict with it at various points. Secondly, it calls all God's people to do the hard work of wrestling with what it means to live out authentic biblical faith in their culture and context, making intelligent decisions about when to compromise and when to stand their ground no matter what the cost. For us, Daniel therefore poses the vital question of what following Jesus and being distinctively Christian looks like in our strange post-modern, post-Christian world; and then leaves us the challenge of rising to the moment.
It is this task to which we, as exiles, are called. Perhaps we would find resistance to our culture easier if our temptations were as stark as Daniel's. Perhaps being barred from public worship and threatened with torture and death would focus us. However, the greatest threat within our society is not persecution but assimilation, not discrimination but seduction. This means that ours is the task of discerning the points at which our culture has become idolatrous, selling itself to the 'I want it all - I want it now' foreign gods of consumerism, greed, spirituality as escape, autonomy, leisure, survival of the fittest, wealthiest and brightest etc.
George Bernard Shaw famously commented 'God created man in his image - unfortunately man has returned the favour.' His comment echoed the work of his contemporary Emile Durkheim, the Frenchman often credited with being the founding father of sociology, who suggested that we worship the gods that we create. We invent a god who reflects our values, standards, aspirations, hopes, ambitions and attitudes and then worship it - thus legitimising and endorsing our own behaviour. Or, in the words of The Eagles song 'The Last Resort': 'We satisfy our endless need and justify our bloody deeds, in the name of destiny and in the name of God.' For example, some of Israel's surrounding nations worshiped pagan fertility gods; gods who demanded that the people had sex with prostitutes in a temple - conveniently, of course, that is exactly what the people wanted to do in the first place. Durkheim's work is a powerful argument and an important warning to us all. The trappings of our 21st century pagan culture too easily entice us - and when they do inevitably our image of God becomes distorted. But worse, as Archbishop William Temple pointed out, 'The more distorted a man's idea of God and the more passionately he is committed to it, the more damage he will do.'
Daniel learnt to sing the Lord's song in a strange and alien culture. Rather than hanging up his harp, he played so boldly and with such flair that his music continues to echo down through the centuries stirring each new generation to sing the Lord's song with passion in the 'new' and unknown worlds they inhabit. Our task is to exhibit the determination of Daniel as we grapple with the ongoing issues of when and where to compromise and when and where to make a stand, individually and corporately, whatever it costs us. Or, put differently, our task is to rise to the challenge of being spiritual Pavarottis and choir leaders amongst a people who, having forgotten the life-enhancing melody of Christ, can only muster songs of lament.