“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.”
At the end of the historical books of the Bible, after the kings and the exile and the return home to Israel, the perspective of the biblical writers travels back to the vast Persian Empire—where it just left—to the great city of Susa. Here we find Esther, a Jewish orphan taken in by her cousin Mordecai. She lives as a minority in a strange land, and she drifts day-to-day unnoticed by the pagans.
Her story begins, though, without her, when Queen Vashti refuses her husband King Xerxes and is thus banished from his court. To replace her, the king holds a beauty pageant of sorts throughout Persia, and Esther is chosen to be his lovely bride (though her relation to the Jews remains hidden). Meanwhile, because he has been personally offended by Mordecai, Xerxes’ right-hand man Haman is plotting to eradicate the Jews in Persia. But just in time, the queen bravely reveals her ethnicity to the king so that Haman’s plan is thwarted and the Jews are saved. Esther, despite her hiding—and the promiscuity that some accuse her of, is able to bring about a righteous end and the salvation of her people.
Not long before Esther, another generation of Jews lived in the king’s palace. The young noble Daniel is among these sojourners in Persia, and he is taken into the royal courts along with his friends to learn the language of the Chaldeans and serve the king. There he is exalted and his name is established.
His story begins in the presence of the king’s chief eunuch as he is prepared to be assimilated into King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Daniel and his friends are given the “king’s food” (likely something unclean) in order to prepare them for royal service. But Daniel declines and, instead, declares a challenge: “Please test your servants for ten days. Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink—then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food.” God blesses the Hebrews, and at the end of ten days, they are declared fitter and wiser than their Babylonian counterparts. From this day on, Daniel serves the foreign kings—uncompromising and with God at his side.
These popular biblical characters demonstrate two competing ways for living the Christian life in exile. On one hand, we have an approach that acknowledges the fallen-state of the world and hopes to operate within it (Esther); the 20th century theologian Rienhold Niebuhr seems to support this. On the other hand, we have an approach that acknowledges the fallen world but refuses to compromise our divine mandate (Daniel); Niebuhr’s contemporary opponent Stanley Hauerwas claims to support this method of Christian living.
Rienhold Niebuhr’s logic and theology has influenced most of American Christianity, and when you understand it, you can start to see it play out in the choices and lives of most Christians in this country. Niebuhr’s theology begins with the belief that sin is a social event, a phenomenon that all people are entrenched in and take part in, and that the primary sin of our society is pride or selfishness (you might be more familiar with this concept from the chapter of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity entitled “The Great Sin”). This pride leads people to attempt to morally fulfill biblical commandments as individuals. Niebuhr argued that these attempts are impossible, demonstrating people’s self-love (i.e. the Promethean Illusion). In response, he sought to defeat this hypocrisy in society and the self-righteous illusions that come with it. Niebuhr posited that the answer is Christianity’s sacrificial love.
I realize that Niebuhr’s logic is fairly dense. But, in short, his theology plays out as Christians working with the resources they have available to them. The world is fallen and trying to perfectly live out the Bible’s call within the world cannot be done, so Christians accept this world and little-by-little try to make it better. It is a step process with compromises along the way, but continually trying to renew the world through sacrificial love.
Hauerwas disagrees. He associates Niebuhr with liberal Christianity, thus accusing him of poor theology—that what Niebuhr is proposing is not Christian. Hauerwas instead affirms a language and narrative theology. His beliefs are built on the foundation of Christianity itself and the language of that religion. There is no compromise, simply living out Christian ideals.
So we have our dichotomy: Esther vs. Daniel, Niebuhr vs. Hauerwas, Compromise vs. Confrontation. Which is the ultimate Christian model? They seem to be pretty exclusive, so I posit that one must assume control of our ethical lives (i.e. everything about our lives). Will we never settle for what can be done in this fallen world, and always and only live Christ’s Christianity? Or will we act rationally and realistically, inching ever forward, pulling this world from the muck and mire?
As we’ve already seen, there are biblical examples of both, and there are plenty more than Esther and Daniel. Still, there is an example that is above the rest. It is Jesus of Nazareth. At first glance, it may seem that we seen the Niebuhrian theology in Jesus, because he accommodated to become human and be with us in exile from God. But that is merely a compromise of presence (an act of humility), not of morality. We Christians could keep in our high-walled temples, but we go out into the world. And like Christ’s godliness, we are uncompromising, striving for perfection. Our example of life in exile is always Christ Jesus.