Some say it happened with the election of John F. Kennedy. Others, at his death. Still others argue that it started way before that, perhaps at the Civil War and certainly before World War II. While there is disagreement on whether it has been a long-term, gradual shift or an abrupt one of recent vintage, most agree with the results: America is no longer a Christian culture.
It wasn't always like this. Christians in America used to work and minister from a position of strength and in the context of a Christian world-view where laws and morals and the people themselves reflected familiarity with, and often a commitment to, the precepts of Christianity. That advantage is lost, and now, when we bear witness to Christ in the world, it is often in a setting of antagonism and hostility.
The prophet Daniel, as a young man, faced a dramatic shift in cultural context. He was an exile in one of the first deportations to Babylon from Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel and his friends were some of the elite, well-trained, cream-of-the-crop in Jerusalem. Now they were prisoners and slaves in a new culture. Daniel was no longer at home. He was in a strange place. He was no longer in the capital city of God in Jerusalem, but in the capital city of paganism in Babylon, where his neighbors didn't know anything about his beliefs or about his religion and certainly didn't follow the practices of his culture. How he lived and prospered can teach American Christians facing a new millennium in a pagan culture how to survive and how to be victorious. We don't live in Jerusalem any longer. How do we live in Babylon?
Start with purity. Bible students remember that Daniel was offered special food and wine from the king that violated God's directions to him. Daniel's response? He "resolved not to defile himself"(1:8). He suggested an experimental diet, got permission from his superior, and the experiment turned out well. But before he knew how it was going to turn out, he had already resolved in his heart that he was not going to defile himself. Psalm 16:4 says, "The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. But I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips."
Here's a good resolution for us ... We resolve not to defile ourselves. The truth is, even if no one else in the culture will live right, we can! Everyone else can disobey God in every point, but we still have it within our power to do what God has told us to do. We can be pure even if the world loves impurity. Your neighbors may go to the casino, or your relatives may endorse immorality, but you don't have to. The principle of purity can be applied on any issue. The culture may ignore the counsel of the church, but the church must remain undefiled.
There is a certain sadness in realizing that more and more we have to choose to absent ourselves from common amusements and activities. Who would've thought we'd ever have to ask, "Is it OK to see this Disney movie?" But, we no longer live in Jerusalem. No longer can we assume that if the community is for it, it must be acceptable.
I believe we can make a difference in the culture. But our impact on the world is regulated by our willingness to live according to our principles, especially when there is pressure to do otherwise. Nietzsche, the atheistic philosopher from the last century said, "I will believe in the Redeemer of the Christians when they act like they are redeemed."
Living in Babylon also demands preparation. Daniel 1:17 says, "To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning." They used their minds; and they didn't just memorize the Torah. Notice, they immersed themselves in "all kinds of literature and learning." They became smarter than those in their culture through preparation.
Recall the admonitions to "love the Lord with all your mind," "to be prepared to give an answer to every man," "to correctly handle the word of truth." Preparing intellectually is a requirement for living in Babylon. It's not just that our culture does not believe in the things of God, they are clueless about them. Oh, they have some ideas about religion and morality, but they are disoriented to truth. They don't know what to believe. That's the bad news. The good news is that you do! Because God's truth is on your side, if you'll get prepared, you will have an answer for them — and they desperately need that answer.
Too, their productivity caught the attention of the culture. "The king found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom (1:19-20)." These foreign slaves were put in charge of whole provinces of the kingdom because of their willingness to work hard.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon which can be paraphrased, "Get off your suitcases, unpack them, get a plot of ground, build a house, plant a garden, marry a wife, have some kids, and pray for the prosperity of that culture. Engage yourself in productive work." Christians must be productive even in a culture that's gone sour on us. There's never been a better time for us to be the best workers we can be in order to influence a hostile environment. We are to be concerned about the civic areas of life. We ought to care about roads, the water system, the environment, the children, the poor. Bruce Larson says that there are two conversions every believer needs. The first conversion is to get out of the world, and the second conversion is to get back into the world. Determine to be productive.
Adopting a lifestyle of praying is the next principle. Daniel couldn't change Babylon's course, but he knew the God Who could. The king had a dream that no one could interpret. Under the threat of death, Daniel appealed to his friends to join him in fervent prayer for God's wisdom and deliverance. He knew he couldn't succeed without God. So he gave himself to prayer.
A look at our culture ought to convince us of the need for prayer. Only God can deliver us. No program, no personality, no president, no plan is enough. A doctor who could do nothing further to halt his elderly patient's advancing illness told her, "All that we can do is pray." She replied, "Has it come to that?" Friends, we live in Babylon. It has come to that.
Finally, living in Babylon demands proclamation. Remember Daniel's words: "No one can interpret your dream, O King, but there is a God in heaven" Who can. (2:28). Daniel used the crisis in the king's life to bear personal, courageous, and faithful witness to the king of the most powerful empire of that day. Note what he said, "O king, be pleased to accept my advice. Renounce your sins by doing what is right and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue." Daniel was not afraid to give the Word of God when it needed to be given. He cared about him, and he told him the truth without compromise.
Christians who live right, prepare, care, and pray are going to have opportunities to bear witness to the God of Heaven during these days of crisis. Hurting people need the healing message. But we must remember to speak boldly, though some say the message is too harsh or too restrictive or too demanding. It is wrong for us to be arrogant and calloused because we have the truth. It's just as wrong, in an effort to be tender, to blunt the sharp edges of the Word of God. Proclaiming saving truth to a culture not attuned to the things of God is a sacred trust. Let us discharge it faithfully. Who knows? God may save the king.
The humorist and homespun philosopher Garrison Keiller has this advice that applies to Christians in Babylon: "What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time. When the country temporarily goes to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word."
David E. Hankins is vice-president for convention policy, Executive Committee.