By Nichola Torbett, a sermon re-posted from her blog The Longing is the Compass
I am grateful to Marvin K. White and the members of Glide Memorial Church for inviting me to bring this word on Sunday, July 25, 2021. The focus scripture is Daniel 3. If you prefer, you can watch the video here, following a short introduction from Marvin.
There is a part of you that can never be taken from you, cannot be sullied, cannot be co-opted, cannot be killed. This part of you is something I will call your integrity. It is made up of who you are created to be, the people you come from, the web of life that has sustained you all these years. Your integrity is your umbilical cord connecting you to the source of all the love in the universe. And that connection can never ever be severed. It CAN be ignored. It can be buried. You can try to walk away from it, but it will never actually leave you. Your integrity is not flammable.
Let me tell you a story.
Once, not so very long ago, there were three young people. History has assigned them he/him pronouns, but I don’t think history ever asked them about that, so we will call them by their names. Except that their real names have been lost. You see, these youngsters…their people had been overrun by a mighty and land-hungry empire, and the most promising young people, including our subjects here, were taken away as prisoners of war, seized from their families and communities and brought to the emperor’s court, where they were “educated,” “civilized” if you will. As part of this process, these young people were given new names, names from the imperial language, names that maybe were easier for their captors to pronounce, names that made more sense to the good citizens of the empire. How many know that naming is power? Our friends’ new names were Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego.
And they were smart and talented kids, so the functionaries of the land groomed them for leadership—within the very empire that had ripped their lives apart. This is what empires do—they offer us secure roles n exchange for our loyalty to the regime.
Anyway, around this time, the emperor fashioned for himself a god, a golden statue just outside the courtly walls. I don’t know the name of this god, but it might have been named The Economy, or Profit Margin, or Respectability,, or Social Status, or Whiteness, or Buy Now Before This Deal Gets Away—something like that. And then the emperor issued a decree to all those who kept the empire running—the judges and lawyers, the doctors and nurses, the teachers and nonprofit directors, the pastors and the Amazon warehouse workers. “Henceforth,” he said, because he liked to use fancy words like that, “whenever you hear the sound of the advertising jingle, the cash register, the Venmo app, the police siren, the national anthem, the text notification, or the ice cream truck, you will bow down and worship the god of the empire, and whoever does not bow down and worship will be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.
Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the advertising jingle, the cash register, the Venmo app, the police siren, the national anthem, the text notification, or the ice cream truck, the people of all races and ethnicities, all genders and sexual orientations, all job descriptions and social positions, bowed down to worship the god that the emperor had set up, the god of the Money and Status and Respectability.
Now around this time, some especially ambitious subjects of the empire came forward, maybe they were clergy with a thin veneer of propriety, or maybe they were Karens with concerns about law and order, or maybe they were just trying to curry favor with power….Anyway, these favor-seeking ones denounced our three captive bureaucrats—Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego—saying, “Oh, emperor, you great one, you have issued a decree that whenever anyone hears the sound of the advertising jingle, the cash register, the Venmo app, the police siren, the national anthem, the text notification, or the ice cream truck, they should bow down and worship the god of the More Money or More Status or More Respectability, but there are three oppressed people who are refusing to bow down.
Then, in a rage, the emperor called for Shadrack, Meshach and Lil Nas…I mean Abednego, to be brought before him and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not worship the gods I have set up and do not serve them? Now if you are prepared, when you hear the sound of the the advertising jingle, the cash register, the Venmo app, the police siren, the national anthem, the text notification, or the ice cream truck, to bow down, then well and good, but if not, you shall immediately be thrown into the blazing furnace, and what god will come to your rescue then?”
And then Shadrack Meshach, and Abednego replied: “Sir, we have no defense to present to you in this matter. If the God we serve, the god of integrity and liberation and love, can save us, then let them save us. But if not, let it be known to you that we STILL will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
Enraged, the king ordered all his servants to assemble—the judges and lawyers, the doctors and nurses, the teachers and nonprofit directors, the pastors and the Amazon warehouse workers. Then, in front of everyone, he ordered his court police, his border patrol, and his military to seize Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego. He had them bound, head, hands and feet, and he ordered the furnace heated to seven times its usual temperature. When they had done this, he ordered them to throw Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego into the fire. Eyewitnesses report that the furnace was so hot that it immediately consumed the soldiers who threw them in.
In just a little while, the emperor’s mouth fell open in astonishment, and he called his closest advisors and asked them, “Was it not three people we bound head and foot and threw into the flaming furnace just now?”
“Yes, sir,” they replied.
“Why then do I see four people walking around in the flames, unbound and unharmed, and with the fourth having the appearance of a god??”
Terrified, the emperor ordered the furnace door to be opened, and out stepped Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, completely unharmed. And the emperor fell to his knees and worshipped the God of integrity, love, and liberation.
This is a story adapted from the book of Daniel, chapter 3.
Who are Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego? What were their names before the empire got hold of them? Their names might have been Colin Kaepernick, or Lil Nas X, or Harsha Walia, who was just fired from her nonprofit civil rights organization for tweeting the phrase “burn it all down.” Maybe their names were Edward Snowden, or Nicole Hannah Jones, or Tania (Taynia) Aubid of the Anishinaabe women who are fighting the Line 3 oil pipeline. Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego are the whistleblowers, the water protectors, the Black freedom fighters, the boundary bosses who know their limits and honor them, the lovers of life, the queer and trans* people who insist on being who they were created to be, the revolutionaries by birth or by choice who will neither bow nor worship the god of the dominant culture, in other words, how you are supposed to act.
In a sense, Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego could bear any of our names. In the context in which we are now living, we are all prisoners of war in the attack on our humanity and on life itself. Some of us are made to feel more comfortable within that regime than others—those of us who are white, those us who are cis gender and heterosexual, those of us with wealth. (While our integrity is not flammable, it is sometimes hard to locate under the layers of privilege.) But the point is that we are all, in one way or another, being groomed to take our place within the systems of extraction. For some of us, the only legal way out of poverty is to join a police force or border patrol or military who terrorize the people we come from. Others of us are tricked into positions where we think we can help, only to find ourselves gatekeeping access to resources, or teaching others to become productive cogs in the machine that is destroying them. The point is that we are all, in one way or another, being asked to bend our knees to the gods of empire. Our bodies are broken from the bending. We are evolving callouses on our knees from the kneeling. Most days my own legs buckle before I can even think about it.
But Meshach, Shadrack, and Abednego model something different. They would not bow. They would not bend. They would not worship the false gods of the empire. They chose instead their loyalty to the poor people from whom they come, their loyalty to the endangered orangutan and the blue whale and the redwood tree, and their loyalty to what they know to be true—that their integrity is not flammable! That the God they knew, the God they worshipped, the God who made them who they are with all the creativity, brilliance, and resourcefulness that caused the empire to promote them—the God who WAS their creativity, brilliance, and resourcefulness, because they were created in that God’s image, the same God who created the coral reefs and the rainforests with all their creatures, that that God was worth standing with. And so they said no to the worship of the gods of empire.
And they were not obstreperous about it; there is no bravado in their words. This was not a “my god can whup your god” moment, a triumphalist smackdown in the divine boxing match. These young resisters say, “We don’t actually know whether our God can save us, but what we do know is that we can’t bow down to worship THAT.”
This kind of vulnerabiity, I think, is our birth right and our true condition; it is what it means to be human, and only the privileges of empire make us confused about this. When it comes right down to it, we have only our love to save us. The truth is that many of those who will not or cannot bow down to the gods of prosperity, or heteronormativity, or whiteness—because of who they are and who they have been created to be—many of them do not survive, not in body. But what our faith teaches is that EVEN if we are thrown into the flaming furnace, even if we are hung from a cross or a lynching tree, even if we are condemned by the family or the nation that birthed us, even if the worst happens and our bodies burn up, there is something that lives on, something that cannot be consumed, because our integrity is not flammable.
Now I want to be clear. Not everyone has equal access to this choice. For some, it is bow down or don’t eat. Worship, or your children will not eat. Resistance is not some heroic individual effort. Our integrity is not individual; it binds us in solidarity to others so that we can transform the systems that ravage our people. Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were able to take the risk they did because they were part of a larger community of resistance. They knew their connection to their people and to the web of life. They felt the umbilical cord that connected them to all things. Integrity is not flammable, and neither is it individual.
This brings us to the mysterious fourth figure in the flames, the one the emperor saw walking with Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, the one who “had the appearance of a god.” Christians can’t help but read this fourth one as Jesus, and I believe that is true and right in the sense that Jesus was a brown-skinned man who likewise would not or could not bow to the systems that were destroying his people and who instead, like Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, chose to love to the death. The fourth one in the flames, I think, is the incarnation of all the love of all the people throughout all of history who have chosen to stand with life rather than bend to the false gods of profit or status or individual comfort or safety. I’m talking about Mahatma Gandhi and Mike Brown, Stephen Biko and Sandra Bland, Nelson Mandela and Alex Nieto, Martin Luther King and Philando Castille. There is a fellowship of the flames, a fire family that ensures that when we risk ourselves for love, we will never walk alone. Our vulnerability is made strong in community.
Friends, in a time of this much violence and exploitation, we are either functionaries tending the furnace, or we are bound for the fire. Some of us get to choose, and others do not, are bitten by the bullet before they have a chance. So many beloveds have already crossed through the flames to join the fellowship of fire. If you look, I think you can make them out: They are celebrating there, dancing there, living and loving and waiting to welcome us home, because like them, because of them, our integrity is not flammable.
Nichola Torbett is a spiritual seeker, recovering addict, gospel preacher, nonviolent direct action trainer, and regular contributor to the podcast The Word Is Resistance, available on SoundCloud. She walks dogs for a living and engages in the liberation struggle to stay alive.