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"Into the Lions' Den" The Gospel of Double Consciousness by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - February 12, 2017

posted Feb 13, 2017, 12:12 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Recently I turned back to one of my old books.  David had a project for school and it led me to pick up W.E.B. duBois’ The Souls of Black Folks.  In that book, written over a century ago, duBois described a “double consciousness.”  duBois’ phrase spoke to the way he experienced the world both as an American and as someone who felt oppressed by America; a double conscious born of living as a racial other in a country dominated by whites.


He powerfully described this sensation of doubleness when he said:

One ever feels his twoness,

-- an American, a Negro;

Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings;

Two warring ideals in one dark body,

whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.


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Deep in the soul, duBois said, “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”


duBois has always spoken to me.  I knew a kind of double consciousness being gay and American.  I know African-Americans continue - a century after duBois - to feel this double consciousness.  And I realize that many in our country - immigrants, Muslims - feel a kind of double consciousness too.


Do you feel this in your soul?  A multiplicity of identities striving inside of you?  A conscious pride in America and conscious awareness that one is not fully accepted in America?  Or this present America?  A tension between being white and what whiteness means in our society?


Daniel lived more than two millennia before duBois.  He would not have spoken of a double consciousness to describe himself.  And yet, he lived with such a mix of identities - partly in, partly out; accepted, rejected; loving and seeing all that was unlovable in his country.  And so I realized this week, Daniel can be read as a Gospel of Double Consciousness.  In a time when our biggest national struggles concern who belongs and who does not, we need a word from the Gospel of Double Consciousness.


I’d recommend reading the whole book of Daniel but today we’ll stick to the story we heard from the Bible and saw enacted in drama this morning - Daniel and the Lions’ Den.


All of this took place during and after the Exile.  The Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem and taken much of its population into exile, into slavery.  Daniel rose as a servant in the new empire, an exile who landed on his feet.  The Babylonians were then defeated by the Persians.  Cyrus the Great freed the Jews but many stayed behind in their new home; Daniel stayed with them.  And there he again rose in prominence, becoming a key administrator in the new empire.


Of course there could not have been an actual Daniel who served four different emperors over the course of more than 100 years; this is folklore.  But the folklore is meant to explore how Jews lived in the empire of the Babylonians and the Persians, how they lived with a double consciousness.


In the story of Daniel and the Lions we get a view of Daniel in the court of the Persians.  The other court officials resented Daniel and his influence with the emperor.  The Persians looked at Daniel as a person who didn’t belong.  They asked themselves, “How did this Jew get here?” and “How did he get ahead of us?”  The Persians said amongst themselves, “This Daniel, this foreigner, is making us a stranger in our own land.”


Arlie Hochschild wrote about a similar dynamic in American society.  As a sociologist, she spent years looking at the resentments of white Americans.  She found what she called the deep story behind the resentment.  As she explained:

“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”


Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them...  Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”


That’s how the Persians viewed Daniel - a cheater, a line-cutter, someone whose very success came at their expense; his life making them feel betrayed.

 

The deep grievance the Persians felt made them scheme against Daniel.  The Persians planned to use Daniel’s religion against him.  So they convinced the emperor to issue an executive order; they lobbied him, saying, “Establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.”


The Persians knew Daniel couldn’t in good conscience follow the order.  Essentially, the Persians wanted to force Daniel to make an impossible choice between his dual identities, to force him to resolve his double consciousness by abandoning his “Jewishness” for his “Persian-ness.”


I’m just diving deep into this story, but doesn’t that sound like a struggle in America today?  We tell people with hyphenated identities to assimilate by acting white.  Just think: we have few African-American women as politicians, but we have even less with kinky hair.  (Gwen Moore is the only one I can think of.)  We have few gay politicians, but none who “act gay.”  (I know what you're thinking: Lindsey Graham.  But he doth protest he’s straight.)  And can we even imagine a Muslim running for office in a head scarf?  (Keith Ellison took the oath using Thomas Jefferson’s Qur'an and nearly brought down the house in controversy.)  Such people would be dismissed as engaging in “identity politics” all because they don’t suppress their own identities.


Daniel knew following the emperor’s command would contradict his own principles.  He couldn’t do both, couldn’t be true to both his identities.  And so, Daniel engaged in civil disobedience by praying publicly to the God of Israel.IMG_1765-575x314.jpg


Now translations of this moment differ.  Some - like our Pew Bible - emphasize Daniel continuing to do what he had always done.  “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.”  But other translations speak of Daniel being intentionally provocative.  “Daniel went home and opened his windows.”  I prefer this translation because it makes Daniel into a defiant hero, one who refused to compromise himself.  (Today, he’d be at the airport praying five times a day.)


Mahatma Gandhi read the story this way too.  Gandhi would have recognized himself in the double consciousness duBois described.  An Indian living in South Africa under white hegemony; he might have had a triple consciousness.  He lead protests against the treatment of Indians in South Africa including an effort by the colonial authorities to create a registry of all the Indians.


Gandhi’s leadership of protests against racism and registries in South Africa led him to articulate the concept of Satyagraha.  He explained this concept by referring back to the story of Daniel, saying, “Its root meaning is “holding on to truth”; hence, truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force…When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha in its purest form.”

In remembering the story of Daniel, we most often remember his facing down the lions.  But I think Gandhi is right to draw attention to his active resistance, his Satyagraha, his soul-force.  Daniel refused to comply with a law he thought wrong; and he refused to resist quietly.  He violated the law with his windows thrown open.


One of the great unsung heroes of the civil rights movement was Josephine Baker.  She refused to hide herself, to accept the limitations that prejudice tried to impose on her life.  So often, like a later-day Daniel, she flung open the window.  Back in 1951, Josephine Baker returned to America from France.  Her tour of America included a stop for lunch at the Biltmore in Los Angeles.


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A white man eating nearby scowled, “I won’t stay in the same room with her.”  (Actually, he used another word I won’t say.)  Baker wouldn’t cow to his racism.  She called the police on the man and then followed the squad car to the station to make sure they actually charged him, and took to the press to denounce his “un-American” and “un-democratic” behavior.  This was in 1951!


Josephine Baker was shockingly provocative - claiming her double identity with pride and asserting her right to equality with amazing force.  She succeeded in part because of her celebrity status but Daniel would have recognized her as a sister who would not bow to false gods.


Daniel’s defiance landed him in the lions’ den.  The emperor tried to save Daniel from his own command.  He begged Daniel to recant.  Daniel stayed true.  When he finally sent Daniel to his death, the emperor fasted and couldn’t sleep.  Guilt for what he had done plagued the emperor.  That’s the power of resistance: to show the costs to real people of oppressive laws and orders.


We mostly think of the gruesomeness of the lions - sharp teeth, ferocious power.  But lions in the Bible have even more meaning as symbolic creatures of chaos.  We hear this in our morning Psalm, where the accusers of an innocent man, the accusers of a man much like Daniel, are imagined as lions.

Many bulls encircle me,

  strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

they open wide their mouths at me,

  like a ravening and roaring lion.


Unexpectedly, Daniel survived the lions, survived the accusers, survived the chaos monsters.  The emperor rejoiced to find Daniel alive; so much so that he almost seems to become a convert to Judaism.  (Indeed other stories in the Bible credit this emperor with rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.)


Daniel’s story of unexpected reversal - one despised, now saved, finally vindicated - follows the pattern of Psalm 22.  We could even imagine Daniel having composed it himself.  But we probably most remember this Psalm because it was on the lips of Jesus when he died, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me.”


Jesus quoting it on the cross reminds us that his story connects to all the stories of resistance: back to Daniel and forward to Gandhi and beyond.  Like Daniel, a stone was rolled in front of his final chamber; and like Daniel, the powers of chaos could not contain him, because the power of chaos cannot stop soul-force.


We face situations of injustice today.  Oppression wrapped up in the rule of law and order.  But like Daniel, Jesus, and Josephine we can resist.  To forge, as duBois imagined, “a self-conscious personhood, to merge our double self into a better and truer self.”  And so to say to God with Daniel, with Jesus, with Josephine:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand,
True to our God,

True to our native land.  Alleluia and Amen.






Sources:

  • Blight, David, “Frederick Douglass, Refugee,” The Atlantic, February 7, 2017 (read as background).

  • DeParle, Jason, “Why Do People Who Need Help From the Government Hate It So Much?” New York Times, SEPT. 19, 2016.

  • Gandhi, Mahatma, Congress Report on the Punjab Disorders, 1920 (see pages 39-40).

  • Guker, Matthew Pratt, “Josephine Baker’s Iconoclasm,” The New Republic, January 19, 2015.

  • Yancy, George, “It’s Black History Month. Look in the Mirror,” New York Times, February 9, 2017 (read as background).

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