One of the things that I love about religious liberty is how we can find it in the most inauspicious places in the Biblical record. One of my favorites is Dan. 1:8-19, where we find a story of Daniel and his friends in Babylon. I think this story does two things related to religious liberty – it shows us how to win friends and influence people and answers the fundamental question of what religious liberty is. Daniel and his friends are captives in Babylon and find themselves in training to become part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s personal service. They decide that they do not want to eat the King’s food for religious reasons. Daniel convinces their overseer to let them try a diet of vegetables and water for ten days. When the overseer sees that the diet has been beneficial to them, he lets them continue. When it comes time to go before the King, no one is better than these four men. In modern parlance what we have here is an example of a religious exemption. Daniel and his friends have a conscientious objection to eating the King’s food. They ask for an exemption and receive it. What can we learn from these men’s exercise of the right of conscience?
First, Daniel does not seek to impose his morality on others. He does not ask that every single person in the King’s service be forced to eat vegetables and water. He doesn’t even ask that all the Jewish captives eat vegetables and water. Daniel is concerned for himself and his friends who have decided to do this with him. Each person in this training program is deciding for themselves if they will eat the King’s food. Sometimes we are too concerned with trying to exercise other people’s consciences for them. The recent issue of Hobby Lobby and contraception is a good example of this. Hobby Lobby is attempting to use their influence over their employees to attempt to decide for them whether they should have access to contraception in a health insurance plan that belongs to the employee. The employees who want to refrain from contraception should be able to do so, and those who wish to use contraception should be able to as well. An employer’s conscience should not be making up my mind for me. Daniel’s conscience should not be making up the minds of every Jew in the King’s service.
The second lesson we can learn from Daniel is that we should start with the people closest to us. Daniel actually tries to go above the person closest to him and fails. (Dan 1:10) But when he goes to the closest person with control over the food, the overseer, he is able to receive the exemption he is seeking. There are times when we do the same thing. We want to lobby Congress, we want to be active in politics and make grand sweeping changes. There are times when those things are necessary. But how often are we willing to just talk to the co-worker, the boss, or our neighbors? Everyone has a circle of influence, and hopefully it includes people who don’t know Jesus. Our influence will work best when we attempt to introduce Jesus to the people right around us, who know us best.
Of course, how successful we will be in that venture is based on the third lesson that Daniel teaches us. Daniel was able to convince the overseer to grant their exemption by showing him that their plan would work. (Dan 1:15) Are we showing people that a life in Christ works? Why would anyone want to link up with a god that has his disciples looking beat up and beaten down by life? People should be able to see something different in us, in the way we look, in the way we act; in the way we treat others. We have no hope to win friends and influence people if we cannot show that a life with Christ, at whatever level you live it, is a better life than they have now. Telling them alone will not accomplish that task.
So what is religious liberty? Religious liberty is the ability to decide for yourself how you will live. Daniel and his friends decided they did not want to eat the King’s food because they thought it would defile them. Whether they were right or wrong is not the issue. The issue is that they made that decision and were able to live out that decision. The ability to decide for yourself is a right that has been extended by God to every human being. Not just to Adventists, not just to Christians, but to everyone. Even the most ardent atheist has this ability. Any attempt to restrict anyone’s faith or lack thereof is as much a violation of the principles of God as if it happened to the holiest Christian. But religious liberty and the right of conscience is also the best way to win friends and influence people. Instead of imposing our morality on others, the way to true change is to introduce people to Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to do Its work, and let the person make their own decision. We should be showing people that a life in Christ actually works, that it gives a joy and a peace that is indescribable. I believe if we do these things God will honor our efforts and we may, like Daniel and his friends, find ourselves ascending to heights higher than we could have imagined.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/jason-hines.
Image Credit: Photo by Sharon Pittaway on UnSplash
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