Clay feet

Roger Gench reflects on the politics of power found in Daniel 2, the problematic theology of the American dream and the necessity of diversity.

Photo by Paul Blenkhorn on Unsplash

I did not grow up reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. When I became Presbyterian 40-plus years ago and noticed how others had memorized these ancient creeds, I dutifully did the same. But I always stumbled on one phrase: “crucified (or suffered) under Pontius Pilate.” Why not just “crucified, died and was buried”?

These creeds developed in the early church right under Caesar’s nose, which makes the phrase all the more intriguing. The Apostles’ Creed, the first to emerge, grew out of a church developing under Roman occupation. Later, the Nicene Creed emerged from a church that had been significantly co-opted by the Roman Emperor Constantine. So the words “crucified (or suffered) under Pontius Pilate” could have been downright radical.

In his 2019 book Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, theologian Luke Bretherton’s commentary on this creedal phrase struck me as spot-on. He argues it represents the judgment of God, passed on all local political orders that engage in tyrannical practices. Accordingly, the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension “expose the limits of their power and their fear of their own limits.” In other words, we can see Pilate as a type – a leader who represents the abuse of power in all locales in all times and places – and God the Son, the crucified and risen Christ, is about exposing the limits of such power and the fears of its limitation. The creeds affirm that God does exactly this.

Bretherton is right about God judging tyrannical practices, because we see the same thing in Israel’s primal story of liberation from Pharaoh’s forced labor camps, exposing the limits of abusive displays of power and fears of its limits. We saw God’s work more recently when a courageous 25-year-old, Cassidy Hutchinson – a top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – testified on national television before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Hutchinson recalled former President Donald Trump’s outburst after he heard Attorney General Bill Barr say there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

We also see this courage in the story about King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream – actually a nightmare – described in the second chapter of the book of Daniel. The king’s dream exposes the limits of the king’s power and also his fear of these limits, which troubles him so much he cannot sleep. So he calls in his chief prognosticators, folks schooled in deciphering such things. But the king doesn’t want them to simply interpret the dream; he asks them to recount it, too. As an added incentive, he threatens to tear them limb from limb if they cannot do so. To say the least, this threat is far more alarming than throwing one’s lunch against the wall — this is serious business!

This scene has multiple interpretations, but one in particular has caught my attention: maybe the king demands that his sages retell as well as interpret his dream because he has forgotten it. Think about it. If you were a person of consequence and power, couldn’t a dream – a nightmare – be so traumatizing that you might not fully recollect it? Perhaps somewhere deep in his psyche, the king does not want to remember it. What would be the nature of such a dream? Could it have been a dream that exposes his core fear, namely the limits and loss of his power?

His staff might suspect as much; they are not stupid. They have been around power for most of their lives. So when the king has a nightmare so troublesome he can’t or won’t remember it, they can probably imagine what the royal nightmare was about: the loss of power. They might also suspect that recounting such a dream and its interpretation will not go well for them. So they use delaying tactics and hope the king’s trauma will subside.

This is where Daniel enters the story. A courageous young exile with a reputation for dream analysis, Daniel is summoned and testifies before a national audience, both retelling and interpreting the king’s dream in full: a dream of a giant statue with disintegrating clay feet. Most of us would shake in our sandals if we faced this duty, but Daniel has prayed to God and now calmly and courageously delivers the message not as his own but as a message he has personally received from God. The truth he delivers concerns the God of the Exodus and of the prophets, one who exposes the limits of the king’s power and his fear of those limits.

Could the story be any more relevant in our own time and place? What nightmare are we forgetting — one, perhaps, that traumatizes our nation? We must consider this important question in these politically polarized days. Many subterranean nightmares no doubt continue to trouble us, but let’s consider one prompted by engaging with the story of Daniel, that disenfranchised Israelite exiled in a foreign land who exposed the nightmare of a high and mighty king.

For me, Daniel’s story brings to mind the essential workers of the pandemic, now largely forgotten. Many of them are Black and Brown; many are immigrants who came here in hopes of the American dream; others are native-born with dreams deferred; and far too many are marginalized. Haven’t these workers mightily exposed the limits of privileged power and the core fears associated with them? Is the plight of essential workers a nightmare that many of us want to forget? We call them essential, yet we fail to pay many of them a living wage, enough to create a life. Even as the pandemic recedes in mind and thought, these essential workers continue to keep our country up and running.

Of all the books I have read of late, the most poignant and relevant in this moment is Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. She exposes the zero-sum paradigm: the predominant notion that says, “If you win, I lose.” In this country, the zero-sum paradigm is ingrained in our racial history. It promotes the lie that claims if people from racial/ethnic minorities win, White people lose. McGhee says this zero-sum paradigm is the default framework for the conservative media, which uses terms like “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders,” “handouts” and “special favors.” It says, “They’re coming after your job, your safety and your way of life.” This is the zero-sum way of seeing things.

McGhee contends the opposite is actually the case. “The diversity that is causing an often-unconscious racial panic in so many white Americans is actually our biggest strategic asset. The research has borne this out in education, jurisprudence, business, and the economy. Put simply,” she says, “we need each other. Our differences have the potential to make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and fairer. Once we abandon the false idea of zero-sum competition, the benefits of diversity become evident.”

The American dream of the self-made person who beats everyone to the top and feels he or she deserves to be there is a downright lie, and the greatest fear of those who promote it centers on being unseated and exposed. Indeed, the limits of perceived privilege desperately need exposure as the great American lie. The great fear of the limits of power is holding our nation back from seeing that our real power lies in our diversity, our interrelationships and our interdependencies. These form the real American dream and God’s dream for us all: the dream of receiving and honoring one another’s differences as gifts to cherish and reward accordingly, so we enable all to create a life together — the abundant, flourishing life that is God’s will for us all.