Daniel 3:1-8 seems far removed to me as I read it. I cannot imagine a president of my country building statues to himself or herself, asking me to bow down and worship them as God at threat of fiery death. Yet this is what is envisioned happening to Daniel, and was not too uncommon in the ancient world in which the emperor was understood to be a divine figure, a god walking on earth.
The refusal of the three Jewish leaders here – Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego – is courageous. It inspires later people of faith of all backgrounds to stand against injustice, knowing some causes are more important than life. The fact that in the fiery furnace a fourth figure stands with them is suggestive of how when we stand against injustice, even when the heat of persecution falls upon us, we are not alone. God stands with us.
In the lives of the first audience of this text, which seems to have been written in the wake of Antiochus Epiphanes setting up in the temple of Holy Scripture idols to himself and his nation’s gods, as a conquering emperor from Greek-speaking lands, the Jewish nation was forced with a choice. Would they stay true to the God they knew, or abandon it all at risk of death? Many saints chose to stand against this threat to their faith at great risk, including torture and even death.
In Germany, in the early twentieth century, a man claimed himself to be founder of a German Reich, claiming almost god-like power for himself and his political party. This Hitler chose a program by which this system of belief was forced upon churches, and in which people who were gay, Jewish, or with disabilities (among others) were forcibly rounded up, tortured, and killed in throngs. Yet people of faith, like pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and like Corey Ten Boone, chose to refuse to lay aside their faith in order to be safe and protected. Bonhoeffer led a movement of Confessing Christians who stood against this naked abuse of power, reminding Germany God was God, not Hitler, and that all people deserve to be protected as children of God. Corey hid people in her home, which saved many lives but ultimately nearly cost hers.
Similarly in South Africa, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela stood with their faith in God against the hateful system of apartheid at great cost, and here in the South women and men like Martin Luther King stood against the hateful system of Jim Crow.
Though we do not necessarily share the same risks, there are still injustices we are called to stand with alongside these great heroes of faith. What’s more, we are called to remember those being persecuted. There are many parts of the world in which individuals are still being slaughtered for their faith, and we need to moved to see their plight. We need to work toward an end of all religious persecution until all God’s children can freely worship and live as God intends.