“…But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food …” Daniel 1.8
Recent discussions on occupying the seats of the HK fraudulent election heats up again in the theological circles. Soon or later, someone will appeal to Daniel to justify Christian participation in politics. I’m not against participation, but the appeal to Daniel ought to be much more cautious than a rhetorical tactic. The appeal to Daniel (and many other biblical characters) is a popular tact to justify Christian involvement in politics, even in corrupt political systems.
Usually the argument goes something like this. Daniel is the typology of Christian participation in a corrupt political system. If Daniel can do it, why can’t I? Now, I’m no expert on HK politics, as I follow it as an amateur. However, I do know a thing or two about the Bible. Having spoken in Baltimore last year on the first half of Daniel and last weekend on the second half of Daniel, I think I ought to reflect on the appeal to Daniel in the HK election or any Christian participation in politics. I’ll only look at Daniel as a character in the book of Daniel. Anyone who wants to argue about authorship can go read some commentaries on Daniel. What exactly about Daniel that allows us to appeal to him as a typology for Christian participation in politics? Let me name just two criteria to make the matter simple.
The first appealing criteria about Daniel’s participation is intelligence. In order to navigate that system, Daniel had intelligence in abundance. The Bible says that he was without physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand and qualified to serve in the king’s palace (Dan. 1.4). What that meant was that he was an obvious genius and a physical specimen. He was near perfect. The Babylonians had superiority over Israel in every sense back in those days, whether in culture or military might. For the Babylonians to recognize these qualities, Daniel and his friends must have been quite outstanding, not just in an ordinary sense but in the sense of even greater than their superior captors. Yet, they didn’t stop at being intelligent. In a society where illiteracy was high, their mere ability to read literature set them apart from fellow Israelites, but they had further education to be informed by the language and literature of Babylon (Dan. 1.4). Thus, they had both nature and nurture on their side. What did learning the language and literature of Babylon do? The learning enabled Daniel and his friends to administer properly in their future leadership roles in serving the king. As far as whether we have people in the theological circle that would resemble Daniel’s education and intelligence, I’m not qualified to judge. Now, if we look at the situation in HK theological circles and those involved in the debate, there aren’t many who have had real government experience other than my colleague Dr. Freeman Huen. Whether you agree with him or not (certainly, he and I can disagree on some fine points for sure), he has walked the walk. For the most part, as far as I know, the rest are just like Donald Trump talking about longevity in business success or marriage. It’s mostly just fantastic balderdash and a good mix of hot humid air. I’m not talking about elitism here. I’m talking about competence.
The second appealing trait about Daniel’s participation is integrity. Daniel continued to take great risks even as he was serving the king. In fact, he would be safer not to serve the king and be an ordinary captive. We often notice the heroic exploits and piety of Daniel, but his prophetic office is where we can clearly see integrity. In Dan. 4, Daniel was forced to interpret a dream that was unfavorable to the king. In fact, it was a message of doom against the dignity of the king. In the Ancient Near East, the king’s honor was something a nation preserved. It was a supreme crime to offend the king’s honor. Daniel could’ve sugar-coated the interpretation about the king’s demise in Dan. 4, but he didn’t. He spoke plainly against the king without knowing what the final outcome would be. He even told the king he would eat grass. Next time you think you’re Daniel, ask yourself whether you have the courage to tell Xi Jingping to eat grass! Report back! As if that wasn’t courageous enough, we mustn’t fail to notice that roughly half of Daniel (Dan 7-12) was devoted to pronouncing doom against the Medo-Persian Empire where Daniel also served its kings. That fact alone shows that Daniel was a man who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth without having to measure the consequences of his prophecy. It’s already quite evident in HK politics that MANY “Christian politicians” haven’t only failed their duties but further succeeding in sugar-coating the lies from Beijing. Their participation is the very opposite of Daniel’s. They were eager to please the government or to participate in the governmental power structure. Their record is mostly abysmal, highlighted by the dire failure of Donald Tsang, a self-proclaimed Catholic. The theological circle is no different really. I’ve even heard a former principal of a major seminary who supported the pro-China speed rail spending (while the money could be spent on bettering the quality of life for the poor) previously now speaking on the destruction of crosses on mainland churches and blaming the churches for not dialoguing with government. How does any of this demonstrate the integrity of Daniel? If anything, these sad examples are the poverty in integrity. In the administration of Xi Jinping, Daniel would be imprisoned, tortured and put to death. In short, we don’t have people who have enough integrity to speak the truth forcefully without worrying about 1) personal interests 2) institutional interests (i.e., “mission” to China, especially to China’s wealthy and powerful elite). No, I can safely say that we don’t have a Daniel who’s qualified to serve the king now. Intelligence without integrity can do more harm than good.
Part of our job as church leaders, theologians and biblical scholars is to help the church and society where we are, but if we can’t fulfill that task, at least don’t hurt the people. So, before you dare to appeal to Daniel’s example, ask yourself whether you’re the kind of person like Daniel. I dare say that there aren’t too many people even in the history of humankind that’s like Daniel, let alone the corrupt circle of HK politics (and church denominations). The worst case scenario is the US. Here in the US, we have every candidate claiming piety towards the Christian God more than the next. I’m not against Christian involvement in politics (a successful example would be Abraham Kuyper), but I’m against the careless appeal to the Bible even when the appeal clearly doesn’t respect the text, culture and message of the Bible. Before you hijack the Bible for your own ambition or publicity, go read your Bible first!
As I said countless times, the problem isn’t the biblical text. The problem comes from foolish interpreters.