3 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.Daniel 3:1 ESV
This post accompanies my general article “I am making everything New, and you can help, starting with COP26 in Glasgow, October 31-November 12 2021.”
You can view and also download the ‘Climate Intercessors’ 10 strategic prayers for COP26 document here: https://www.climateintercessors.org/10-prayers-for-cop26-1
Following Pope Francis on ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4, here’s a short summary of the issues at stake at COP26: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59075041
COP26 in Glasgow is about just one thing, namely saving the world. This will be achieved by reaching an earnest and honest covenant between the appointed leaders of some 200+ nations to reduce global heating gases in our atmosphere to levels that will restrain the average temperature of our planet to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees above that benchmark.
Or to put it a different way, COP26 is about just one thing, namely money. Carbon dioxide is produced by processes that consume coal, oil or natural gas, either to release energy- which is money- or to process other things that make money, such as steel. Methane is also a global heating gas, huge volumes of which are added to the atmosphere as a by product of rice paddy fields and industrial beef farming. Yet more is bubbling out of the melting permafrost in Arctic latitudes. How we heat our homes and move from A to B, what food is on our plates, and where in the world all our stuff comes from: CO2 (equivalent) emissions are in the warp and weft of our ‘civilised’ lives. At least, it is for those of us lucky to enjoy these modern benefits.
Is any of this new? Surely the ancients, the likes of which are the characters in the Biblical accounts, however real or semi-fictional or constructed they may be, knew little of our current challenges? Their lives were simply primitive, and they would have no grasp of our technology or economies.
Quite the opposite- in the Jewish scriptures all this social economy is very much taken as read. The book of Daniel does not enumerate what the duties of the civil servants in Babylon would include, because, for any civilisation, they are broadly constant. Food and fuel, shelter and sanitation, communication and transport, trade and warfare- we might not recognise their particular solutions, but you can predict what else would be on such a list. And for the leaders, the figure heads, the monarchs and highest ministers, their concerns are ever constant: fame, legacy, being the centre of attention, and most of all, staying there. This requires the management of the mindset of their people, even more than the management of the practical aspects of society.
This is why Nebuchadnezzar wants to build a statue to himself. This is what idolising himself as a god is for. This is the ever present temptation for leaders, and so many fall into it. For this reason, the economy of the kingdom is bent towards generating an excess of material and energy; and money buys both, if there is short supply. Invading your neighbours, prosecuting an imbalance of trade- these are shortcuts to the same, sequestrating the efforts and riches of others for your own ends. These ends are not needs– they are fatuous luxuries of excess.
As the third chapter of Daniel recounts, these techniques of societal manipulation are well-honed and generally highly effective. It takes extraordinary courage to go against the flow. A very different worldview is required to inspire the vision to put one’s life on the line to object. Such is in the minds of Daniel’s young peers, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, so when the call comes to bow down to the golden image of the king, they bluntly refuse.
This is the point we have come to today. The economies of the nations of the world have been constructed in order to meet the basic needs of their populations, but more than that, to maintain power structures. As the world has progressed from the great rival empires of the 19th century to the single global village we have become today, these structures of commerce and exploitation have become ever more entrenched. The haves of finance and industry now have more than the likes of Nebuchadnezzar and our modern day leaders, all far richer than any of the monarchs and even the empires of history. The universal one horse power horse was excelled by the steam engine. What was fuelled by coal and steam then became the franchise of oil – fuel oil, petrol, diesel and then aviation fuel. No column appeared in the ledger for the climate, but the cost- the great debt that we now face, the accumulating consequences of climate change- was nevertheless piling up, throwing the scale of Nebuchadnezzar’s self-aggrandising statue pale into insignificance.
Compare the narrative with what we know about the most substantial Wonder of the World to survive, The Great Pyramid, constructed at Giza during the reign of pharaoh Khufu (about 2551-2528 B.C.). His reign was only 20 years in duration, during which best estimates today are that some 20 000 willing workers were engaged in the ordered, efficient and highly skilful architecture, mining and construction of this grand pile of stones1. Perhaps only six months in every twelve were spent tilling the Nile floodplain to generate crops and therefore wealth in this nation, that so many could be spared to indulge in ‘cultural projects’ such as pyramids for dead leaders, or temples for the worship of… well, whatever it is decided shall be worshipped, by whoever it is decides such things.
But the three Jewish youths, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; they were having none of it. They’d tolerated being absorbed into the Babylonian education system and quietly suffered the indignity of being given idolatrous Babylonian names. They were content to be made useful in the service of the foreign king in a foreign land- they knew that God is God of All and can see our discipleship wherever we walk it out. But this last move was too much- we may find relationships between people and place to be deeply flawed; community relations may be tragically broken, but we can muddle through, despite the fact that so often lions find they’re being led by donkeys. Now the king says he is a god?! ‘Our self-image is founded on the fact that our existence as humans is the created and sustained act of our God,’ they say. ‘We will serve you, but we will not give His glory to you, O king!’
I must admit that the argument must be advanced with nuance, for I am not claiming that we should have remained in caves and worn skins. We don’t need to argue for personal taste either- the statuary of our current civilisations is the product of complex cultural factors, and even amongst Christian folk, post Reformation and Counter Reformation, the creative use of imagery has continued with passion. I observe that the elevation of Liberty as an icon in New York harbour is a pointer to the freedom we can only have when all are free. The figure of Christ the Redeemer over the city of Rio de Janeiro may yet speak of deeper ambitions to those revelling in the carnival below, or splashing in the sea on Copacabana beach. In today’s money, the local Catholic community spent $3.4 million on this statue over a decade from 1922, with the express intention to stir a revival of faith.
In 2003, Hindu Tamil Malaysians built a 43m statue of their god Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war using 350 tons of steel, 1550 cubic metres of concrete, and 300 litres of gold paint. Perhaps this gives us an idea of what Nebuchadnezzar had built in Babylon. Once such a grand vision has actually been constructed, I can’t help thinking that a more critical reality is likely to dawn on people. This statue stands inelegantly above what appears to be a brick built convenience block, flanked on one side by an exotic gateway, while a line of fast food outlets, souvenir booths and a Starbucks copy cat coffee restaurant are on the other. In the photo, tourists are milling about, taking next to no notice of the shiny statue they apparently came to see.
Then there is the ‘ Statue of Unity’ built between 2013 and 2018 at the behest of Narendra Modi (today in Glasgow representing his country at COP26) as “Gujarat’s tribute to the nation”. This $422 million project is claimed to celebrate the role of independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel who brought significant unity to India after the close of British Empire rule- a thoroughly worthy cause for a memorial. But whose memorial is it? Patel’s, or Modi’s? Did this investment in the world’s tallest statue- all 182m of it- really serve to increase the sum of community well-being in this huge nation wracked by such poverty and social division? My current next door neighbours left their families in India to come to work here in the UK at the local hospital, and in a care home, and they shared their anguish with me during the pandemic when bodies were burnt in makeshift crematoria outside their hospitals. So many died without oxygen or vaccinations.
In the UK we have different monuments now- towers of steel and concrete in the financial district of London , for example. We still have our Empire and Colonial trophies, so there is not such a desire for these things any more. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square can host a rolling programme of temporary exhibits, which come and go at a whim. Or perhaps we can tear down the statues of slavers and throw them in the canal. There is no single overriding narrative to hold our attention, but the haves still have too much.
Can we afford to fix the climate crisis? It seems that COVID19 has proven that we certainly can change the ways that things are done when there is a sufficient grasp of the new priorities. Children stayed at home to learn, business went online, and millions were paid from the public purse to do nothing. Nature got to breathe briefly, as the sky over my house was empty of planes, and lorries hardly disturbed the silence outside. There were more birds, and more sorts of birds in my neighbourhood. Some are still there.
We certainly stopped, though whether there has been a great reset remains to be seen.
There is enough money, at least to get started, and we are slowly discovering how we might remake the economies of our countries. It is not at all the end for either creativity or commerce- even for readers of the Daily Telegraph, the term social conservatism need not be an oxymoron. A Green Economy does not mean a return to a world without business, technology, science, invention- all of these are needed for our collective betterment. Science in its fruitfulness is a great boon: quite simply, the gift of God. But after the British Empire, Nebuchadnezzar, Modi and friends (in no particular order) we must examine the road into the Future between ‘We can…’ and ‘We should…’ In history past the Jews were known, and generally unpopular, for their attitude to idols of all kinds- at least that was what the Ten Commandments said they thought. Right now, like never before, we need to discover the examined life– our collective life, and especially what we invest in and spend on. We need a profoundly rectified world view– and no more golden statues.
Lord, we pray for wisdom on Wednesday for all the leaders at COP26 as they consider how the piles of money should be valued, and how they should be spent. We pray that the Earth and all communities and creatures that live on it will be valued above all the silver and gold. In Jesus’ parable, the wicked servant was commended for making peace with those he had wronged before his judgement was upon him. We ask that our financiers learn to cancel debts and make such restitution with our world and those who are being wronged.
Ms Thunberg was one of the environmental activists speaking at the “Fridays for Future” meeting of young activists at Festival Park, near the COP26 campus.
She said: “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs and that has led us nowhere. They have led us nowhere.”
“Inside COP there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis.
“Change is not going to come from inside there. That is not leadership – this is leadership.”
The Swedish teenager led cries of “climate justice” and “no more blah, blah, blah”.
“We’re sick and tired of it and we’re going to make the change whether they like it or not,” she added.
- 1 https://spectrum.ieee.org/how-many-people-did-it-take-to-build-the-great-pyramid
- Image reference Bing free image search 370870177
- King Nebuchadnezzar accuses the Jews of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego of not honouring his statue. On the left is a golden statue of a deity and a crowd of people worshiping the statue. In the background a burning oven. Anyone who refuses to worship the image is thrown into the furnace. Printmaker: Philips Galle (mentioned on object), after a design by: Maarten van Heemskerck (mentioned on object), publisher: Joannes Galle (mentioned on object)writer: Hadrianus Junius (mentioned on object) 1627 – 1678 https://commons-wikimedia-org.translate.goog/wiki/File:Nebukadnessar_beschuldigt_Sadrach,Mesach_en_Abednego_Geschiedenis_van_Sadrach,_Mesach_en_Abednego(serietitel),_RP-P-1904-3284.jpg?_x_tr_sl=nl&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=nui,sc
- Gallery: Statue of Liberty https://www.pexels.com/photo/statue-of-liberty-new-york-3913353/ Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro. https://unsplash.com/photos/OkiDIla7K8Q & https://unsplash.com/photos/o-bc8wuY29c
- https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgmckelvey/9509625464/in/photolist-iEWGkn-HUpTUi-f2kVwE-qy6CQ8-fukmK3-pi71TF-dW6TEE-fukjkJ-fu5XR6-fu5XDi-fu5YEe-noYTpJ-dW5KZ6-hPTZmp-pepqnG-hPU3Yz-hRgViX-hRgZyv-pi71KK-h1Q7P2-dW1k5e-gFoVbp-dW6UKs-f9RFme-dW1v52-dW6SzA-dW1iuX-dW1kxT-T6rJyx-U8wx96-faHVG1-dW1wtW-U8wz4D-T3GRKA-Uk5FdM-dW1uw8-dW1ssP(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
- The parable of the unjust steward. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+16&version=ESV
(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson