Suddenly, opposite the lampstand, the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall in the king’s palace. When the king saw the hand that wrote, his face became pale; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked.Daniel 5:5-6
It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.Luke 21:13-15
Long before I knew today’s story from the Book of Daniel, I knew the expression: “The writing is on the wall.” This meant that because of where we clearly found ourselves, often as the result of our own actions, something bad was going to happen. As we enter into what we call in the United States “the holiday season,” many people are faced with family reunions and celebrations. In recent decades, it seems as if the joyful and celebrative aspect of these reunions, long enshrined in literature and song, has been superseded by the dread of confronting differing world views and political and religious convictions, the differing interpretations of “the writing on the wall.”
Today we hear of Daniel who has the courage to tell the truth, what is certainly a difficult truth, to King Belshazzar. In the gospel, Jesus reminds us of where we can find the courage to speak the truth even when we feel under threat.
There is, clearly, a universal truth that no two of us read things in the same way. What our current day is bringing to the fore, however, is the inability to even agree on the literal meaning of the writing on the wall. In the scriptural story, the king is terrified because of the paranormal nature of the writing of the message. As for the message itself, he cannot even read it, let alone interpret it. So, Belshazzar offers Daniel status and power in the kingdom if he will read and interpret the message for him. Daniel tells the king that he can keep his gifts or give them to someone else, for to accept the gifs would already compromise him. He, Daniel, will, however, read the writing on the wall and interpret it in service, simply, to the truth of things.
In both scriptural readings today, we are reminded that while harmony and agreeability are important enough, there is a duty and responsibility to the truth that transcends it. Daniel tells Belshazzar that he is to lose his kingdom because “the God in whose hand is your life breath and the whole course of your life, you did not glorify.” In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says we shall be persecuted and betrayed by those closest to us because of our fidelity to his name. But the sign that we are being faithful, even as many reject us, is that we shall receive the inspiration of God to speak the truth in defense of ourselves. There is an inextricable connection between fidelity, to God and ourselves and commitment to and expression of the truth.
The dreaded part of our encounters in familial celebrations arises in good part by our suppression and avoidance of “the writing on the wall.” Everybody knows a truth that is not being acknowledged or faced, but the interpretations of that truth, especially over time, become more and more divergent. In distance and lack of communication, those differing interpretations become increasingly volatile in us. So, the enforced intimacy, the pretense of familial love and affection, of the holidays becomes a flashpoint in reaction to the lack of communication and intimacy through the rest of the year. Absent a Daniel, or family therapist, to come and read and interpret what is written on the wall before us, what are we to do?
It is now a bit of a cliché to say the the personal is political and the political is personal. Yet, it is nonetheless true. The conflict with differing interpretations of the truth that we experience at the personal, familial, and communal levels is related to the conflicts we live with societally and politically. One of my great fears is that the dynamics of our politics, at present, are normalizing and enhancing our already strong tendency to relativism and subjectivism. For a very long time now, we have drifted in our political life to the current extreme situation where there is no accountability for blatant lying on the part of our leaders. What we now call balance is no longer the inevitable difference of interpretation about the same reality or facts, but it is rather balancing the facts or the truth of a matter with a self-serving falsehood. We now take for granted that we do not share a common search for the truth of things, but rather we seek whatever, truthful or not, that will enhance our personal or group advantage. As we are witnessing in the current impeachment proceedings, there is no longer a shared commitment to the truth as the common good, for we seem to have lost the sense that it is the truth that sets us free and not the prevailing of our own point of view.
This social and political reality actually deforms us at the personal and relational levels. Given the role of social media in continually evoking and exciting our own prejudices, we find it more and more difficult to experience the silence and detachment required to hear our own truth. The more we become part of a collective of any kind, the less we are attuned to the indicators in us and between us of our own truth and falsehood. Without falling into a “how to” or “self help” perspective, perhaps we can consider three dispositions that can serve our potential to read the writing on the wall and to truthfully interpret it. The three are: detachment, humility, and courage.
Detachment is an ability for distance from our own biases and agenda. It is a capacity not to take ourselves too seriously. Jesus tells us in the gospel that when we are called to give testimony, we are not to prepare our defense beforehand. This may well seem strange to us, but what Jesus is saying is we must detach from what we hold on to, even our ideas, and then there will be an open space in us for God to inspire us to respond truthfully to the situation. In our anxiety and fear, in our pride and arrogance, we’ll only reinforce our own position and remain unable to see what is before us. To be open in the way that Jesus describes is something we develop only over a lifetime of practice. In detachment we shall respond to the situation and others taking into account the truth, which includes the appropriate respect, compassion, and justice owed to the others.
Humility disposes us to begin with the truth of who we are. Especially in family or community situations where our relationships are so intertwined and, therefore, so complex, it is not easy for us to “stay within ourselves.” It is in a humility, which at once so values ourselves while, at the same time, recognizing the manifestations of the pride form in us, that we can be, act, and speak out of the truth of both our own significance and our own smallness. In the humble truth of who we are, we come to know the meaning of reverence and respect. In reverence for ourselves, in our strengths and brokenness, we have the capacity for reverence for the others, in what we love and what we hate in them.
What emerges clearly in both Daniel and in the disciple Jesus describes in the gospel is courage. It is courage, often called fortitude in the tradition, that empowers us to think what must be thought, to say what must be said, and to do what must be done. This is not only confrontational. Just as often it is the willingness to be loving and vulnerable. I have some younger confreres who teach me continually about courage. They are ones who dare to stand in the truth, even when the powerful are demanding their collusion. They refuse to compromise the truth even when authorities disbelieve and even threaten them. Courage springs from humility. To live in the truth of who we are, as St. Teresa of Avila defines humility, is to be present out of our heart. From there it is impossible to compromise with the truth.
Every family, every community, every nation needs witnesses to the truth. Not ideologues whose “truth” is predictable and manipulative, but rather those who live in openness to reality. It is actually possible to attain power and control based on illusion. But this is to build on sand. Eventually, as Daniel tells Belshazzar, whatever is built on untruth will crumble and fall. In the lives of all of us, there will come times when we must choose between the truth and acceptability. This is why Jesus says that the time will come when even those whom we would think constitute our lives will reject us. Discipleship is finally about a core identity that goes deeper than any other relationship. And so, any form of courage is first the courage to bear with our own loneliness, at those moments when our own “tribe” isn’t acknowledging the truth. Isn’t this precisely our political problem at the moment?
The various households of my family were always visiting back and forth, and I spent a lot of time as a child listening to the grownups’ talk—the ever-circling patterns of reminding that carried their thoughts from the present to the past. Some stories were repeated many times; because there was much shared knowledge, nobody would have thought of objecting to the re-telling of a well known story. This repetition of what was known in common, I think, was a sort of ritualization of the family’s awareness of itself as a unit holding together through time. Among these stories there were a good many memories of slavery, casually told and heard, usually without comment beyond the facts of the narrative. What interests me about them now is that they were not forgotten, and that they were remembered and retold casually. For years that was the way I knew them—casually. They interested me, as the other stories did, because of the sense of the past I got from them. But the moral strain in them never reached me until some years after I had become a man. There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. For me, that my people had owned slaves once seemed merely a curious fact. Later, I think, I took it to prove that I was somehow special, being thus associated with a historical scandal. It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, pp. 5-6