I write as an individual fully grounded in my identity as a black man, endowed with the love and strength of my ancestors, and unapologetic for my devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I enter this reflection through a conversation on justice, race, and community, and arrive carrying the burden of grief, mourning, exhaustion, frustration, anger, and confusion. Expending all energy I have to hold onto the hope that change gon’ come — soon. I enter into this space with many questions. I enter feeling that the more I learn, the more I don’t know.
I enter this reflection holding a story from the prophetic book of Daniel that rests heavily upon my soul. It is a story of a king, Nebuchadnezzar, who exiled a people out of the land of Israel into Babylon. In order to “sanctify his power,” Nebuchadnezzar ratified an executive order demanding that all people under his sovereign rule (i.e. his system of supremacy) were by law expected to show deference and gratitude to his greatness by “bowing to the ground to worship his [90-foot tall, 9 foot wide] golden statue, set up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.”
So he sent out messages to all of his “high officers (cabinet members), the officials, the governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial leaders” (Daniel 3:2) that they were required to attend a dedication ceremony of the 90-foot tall golden statue of himself. The ceremony would be held so that all of the people of the land could assemble in obeisance to the king. His herald (verse 4) sent out a global mass media message through the ancient twitter-sphere, saying: (verse 5) “To you, O peoples, nations, and language groups, the following command is given: When you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, trigon, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music, you must bow down and pay homage to the golden statue, and whoever does not bow down and pay homage will immediately be thrown into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.”
As such, anyone under Nebuchadnezzar’s law and order platform, who did not submit to his narcissistic power, would be arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and placed on death row to be thrown into the execution chamber — a fiery furnace. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar declared to all insurrectionists, “YOU’RE FIRED!”
This leads us to one of the most pressing dilemmas that have confronted society throughout history, and that is the complicity of the crowd to tyrannical rule. For when the crowd bows to an unjust king, it bows to social injustice even if the intent is to do the right thing. When the crowd bows, it does so because it is grounded in a belief that the privilege of safety and protection of the empire is more expedient than justice. Thus when the crowd bows it remains still and silent, as its complacency becomes complicity, as a source of comfortability, because those who remain bowed, and “do not move, [never] notice their chains” (author unknown).
We are witnessing this today, as the crowd bows and remains still and silent to the oppression of black bodies under the obliviousness of the sin of indifference.
The crowd bows and remains still and silent to the criminalization of people of color. Still and silent to unlawful searches, seizures, and arrests. Still and silent to draconian sentencing and subsequent mass incarceration. Still and silent to the death penalty, and the execution of the most vulnerable, who are thrown into the fiery furnace of injustice, because the crowd becomes conditioned to, and normalizes unjust conditions created by an empire. This is because “The crowd is untruth,” and accountability to the least of these is surrendered to the narrative of the majority.
Every human life is sacred, and the crowd has a responsibility to be accountable to those who are unfairly arrested, unjustly prosecuted, unreasonably sentenced, and unforgivingly executed at the expense of their comfortability. The privileged crowd must never use its privileged right to remain silent by bowing “idly by while the blood of [its] brothers and sisters cry out…from the earth.”*
The crowd must use its privilege to resist and tear down the strongholds of empire by following the example of Christ and divest itself of its privilege and sacrifice self for the good of the community. Philippians 2:7,8: “Instead, Jesus gave up His divine privileges; took the humble position of a slave, and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
This is exactly what the three young brothers, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego did when commanded to bow down to empire. They ascribed to a counter-intuitive narrative by refusing to bow down to the king’s executive order and chose to stand for their rights. They chose to be aligned with the self-evident truths of morality and realized that conformity to any authority other than God would lead to a fate worse than death, i.e. enslavement to injustice for all.
Thus Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego decided to stand when all others bowed. They refused to follow the crowd, because they realized that “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity and become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being” (Donald Wigal Ph.D., The Wisdom Of Eleanor Roosevelt, 2003).
Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego understood that the laws of Nebuchadnezzar were unjust, that “the crowd was untruth” (Kierkegaard, Soren. The Crowd Is Untruth (Kindle Locations 2–3). Vanessa Myers. Kindle Edition). and therefore when the crowd chose to bow — they chose civil disobedience. They chose transgression in the name of liberation, recognizing that fighting for civil rights isn’t always civil. They realized that “Civil disobedience is not [the] problem. [The] problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves…and while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”**
So what shall we say of these things? We say that the burden of change rests on a few devoted Meshachs, Shadrachs, Abednegos, Harriet Tubmans, Ida B. Wells, and Angela Davis’ who choose to align with truth and fight for equity by relentlessly transgressing. By sitting down as Claudette Colvin sat at the age of 15 when empire told her to stand. Those faithful few who embrace freedom at all cost will have the courage to kneel like Colin Kaepernick; kneeling even if fined and punished by capitalistic tyrants. Even if it means sacrificing (and losing) everything for the cause of proclaiming the good news of justice to our poor sisters and brothers. The cause of declaring freedom for the mass incarcerated through prison abolishment. The cause of ensuring the recovery of sight for the blind through the transformation of our dilapidated educational system. The cause of setting the oppressed free from the vast injustices of the violence of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other phobias that produce hate and violence.
The cause of the prophetic witness of those who are willing to stand and proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favor of the persecuted who refuse to bow down. Who, as a prophetic witness to the righteousness of God will disobey the king because of the fundamental acts of faith and moral imperatives that compel those who are called out (i.e. The Ekklesia) to have the courage to stand. Those who subscribe to the minority report, and willingly engage in nonviolent active resistance, rebellion, and defiance in the face of injustice.
For as the great civil rights leader Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt, and any citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness. Every citizen is responsible for every act of [her] government,” and therefore every citizen we refuse to bow.
Rev. Scott Adams is Assistant Director of Interfaith and Ecumenical Ministries at Loyola University, and a member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.
Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.