ENDURING STICKING POINTS part 2 of 4

sunsetWhen I talk about wisdom-based diplomacy and negotiations, questions may arise about the approach that wisdom would take toward militants whose core religious-political position is to put a gun to your head and say, “Submit or die.” Although the number of submit-or-die militants is small, everyone today knows what kinds of organized violence and murder they are capable of, on both large and small scales. So let me state categorically that there is no negotiating with submit-or-die ideologues. That, I believe, is a basic principle of the agency of wisdom.

On the other hand, if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends but to your adversaries or enemies. This is where wisdom-based negotiations can excel, even in such contexts as, for instance, U.S. talks with the Iranian regime, or even with Hamas or leaders of the Taliban who are sincerely open to seeking a negotiated peace. I believe that the agency of wisdom not only accepts this principle but is more than able to meet the challenge, to those who are open to it.

It was through a long series of difficult negotiations that apartheid ended in South Africa (1993). Likewise, a peace agreement among a diverse array of religious and political adversaries was reached in Northern Ireland and between the British and Irish governments (1998). Two stunning examples from the Middle East are the Israel-Egypt (1979) and the Israel-Jordan (1994) peace treaties. Many political ideologues in Israel (elsewhere, too) had been arguing that democracy in the Arab world was a necessary precondition for any normalization of relations between Israel (a democracy) and her neighbors. Yet adversaries talked and reached agreements.

Peaceable agreements, however, take place only around a table of adversaries who are willing to negotiate. So let me again state that there is no place at the table for submit-or-die militants. Wisdom is no fool.

Nevertheless, religious believers with strong core convictions can feel pretty nervous moving to this edge. I get that. I have found it helpful to talk about it in the context of “sticking points,” and here we can learn more from Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), who faced some extreme tests of conviction. For they were not wafflers or ungodly compromisers, nor did the play both ends against the middle. They were in fact willing to die for certain beliefs. And for that reason their sticking points provide insight.

For instance, although the four friends from Jerusalem were devoted Jews, when they were in Babylon they were not fussed about rising to positions of political power in what for them was a “pagan” nation. To enter that career entailed being put through a specialized course of studies that would scandalize many Christians. That is, their consciences were clear about something that would be a sticking point for many devout believers today.

lightThat it was not a sticking point for these four Yahwists probably seems odd to us because it does not square with what we think their obedience to the Mosaic law, on which their religious convictions were based, required. But that is our understanding of what was required of them as devout Jews. Clearly it was not their understanding. This, I suspect, was because the interplay of religion and politics was normative throughout the old-world Middle East. No one questioned it. For the peoples of those cultures it was a moot point.

In many of those cultures, but not in Israel, the kings were considered gods or demigods. Yet in Israel’s king-prophet-priest setup, religion did play something of a constitutional role in that nation. Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues were born and raised in this system. In other words, the basic questions that Americans quibble over today about the separation of church and state did not concern the peoples of the old-world Middle East, where secularism was unimaginable.

Religion and politics mixed like soup and water in Babylon. Neither the Chaldeans nor the four Yahwists thought it even remotely strange, never mind impossible, that officials with different core religious beliefs served alongside one another in the political decision making of the nation. They just got on with it. And in that sense it was not unlike the American political system and other Western governments today, but quite unlike governments in Muslim majority countries in the Middle East where those in office must hold to the same core religious belief.

Further, the religious-political edifice of Babylon was a legal construct backed by law, and government officials of any accepted religion were protected by that law. So much so that when Daniel’s political enemies go so far as to conspire to get him killed, they have to resort to getting a law passed to frame Daniel, for they want it to be seen publicly as a proper act of government (Daniel 6:1-24). (A similarly motivated political frame-up job is concocted against Naboth by the politically astute Jezebel, King Ahab’s consort; 1 Kings 21.)

One of the sticking points, then, that concerned the four Yahwists was not “should we enter Babylonian politics?” The question was “where should we draw the red line as insiders? Where will we dig in our heels and say This far but no farther.” So, as we have seen in previous posts, they would not eat from the king’s menu and they would not rely on “occult” practices as their source for interpreting dreams and visions.

In the next post, I will ask some awkward questions about why these devout Yahwists had dissimilar sticking points among themselves on some life-or-death issues.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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