Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)
I’ve recently been devouring a series of fictional spy thrillers by one of my favorite authors writing under a pen name. In one of the books, the author uses a real event from post-World War II history as a backdrop to one of the stories. As a lover of history, I was amazed that I don’t ever remember learning about it. Scholars have said it is the most horrific example of human cruelty in the 20th century, ranking its intensity as worse than the Holocaust though its scope was relatively small.
In Communist Romania, Pitesti Prison was the center of an experimental “re-education system” that was focused on mainly young men who politically opposed the Communist regime. Many of them did so because of their Jewish or Christian faith. No one knows how many victims were subjected to the horror. Estimates range from 780 to 5,000. It lasted from 1949-1951. The experiment’s goal was to re-educate prisoners into discarding past religious convictions and ideology, and, eventually, to alter their personalities to the point of absolute obedience. It systemically tortured subjects both psychologically and physically. Subjects were forced to identify those among their torturers who were less brutal or more indulgent in their torture. Public humiliation was used to get subjects to denounce all personal beliefs, loyalties, and values, which included sacrilegious and blasphemous rituals meant to mock the actual religious rituals the victims had originally held dear. The descriptions of the torture and humiliation are so horrific that I refuse to even describe them.
The past few days, the Pitesti Prison experiment has come to mind as I read about the “re-education” that the ancient Babylonians put Daniel and his friends through. Obviously, their experience as described in the past two chapters has been fairly benign, intended to identify the best-of-the-best for key roles in the King’s administration. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its dangers.
History is filled with stories of rulers with absolute power who entertained themselves by making subjects do unimaginable things and killing individuals in horrific ways for sport. The ancient Assyrians and Babylonians were known for their brutality. It’s one of the reasons they successfully conquered so much territory in building their empires.
Today’s chapter is one of the most famous stories within the Great Story. The king sets up a giant image out on a plain and demands everyone to bow down and worship it. The re-educated captives from Judah, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refuse to do so in obedience to the Law of Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
The king, furious over their refusal, threw the three of them into a giant furnace (likely used in the forging and erecting of the giant statue). The king looks into the furnace to watch them burn only to see them hanging out with a fourth individual the king describes as “a son of the gods.” God miraculously protects the boys and Nebuchadnezzar promotes them.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself continuing to contemplate the idea of loving one’s enemy or enemies, and maintaining one’s faith even in the midst of an antagonistic culture. I’m eternally grateful not to have been subjected to an experience like Pitesti Prison or its ancient Babylonian equivalent. Nevertheless, I must consider – even in a relatively free and tolerant culture – how much I’m willing to compromise with popular culture and when I must draw the line because of the convictions of my faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were given a very clear line by King Nebuchadnezzar along with very stark consequences for non-capitulation. Along my spiritual journey, I’ve found it difficult when the lines of compromise are vague and the consequences seemingly non-existent.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.