In the film The Godfather, and in Mario Puzo’s book which inspired it, one of the underlying motifs is that of the relationship between the Godfather and his community.  Everyone knows how it works: you do a ‘favour’ for the Don, and he does one for you.  It’s a reciprocal arrangement whereby individuals benefit from being part of the Godfather’s community, and the community benefits from their loyalty to the Godfather.  Treachery against the family is not tolerated, loyalty is absolute.

This well-known feature of the Italian crime syndicate derives from the culture of ancient Rome, where great men like Caesar relied on the support of their ‘clients’ to vote for them, promote their interests, and even form mobs to agitate for them.  In return, the ‘patron’ looked after his people, by giving them a daily allowance of money or finding them jobs or homes. ‘Greatness’ could be measured in the number of followers (Twitter?) and power manipulated through the ability to control the masses.

Via a different route the same Roman custom worked its way into the feudal society of western Europe: a king would give land to his great barons in exchange for their military service and taxes.  They in turn would hand some of that land to lesser nobles in the same way.  In an investiture service the liegeman would kneel before his lord with his hands together in supplication and swear his allegiance.  The lord would then place his hands over theirs and accept their fealty.

These ritual declarations of loyalty are repeated whenever a new Godfather/ Caesar/King comes to power, to ensure that he has the full support of his major vassals.  For example, the closing scene of The Godfather shows the senior members of the family kissing the hand of Michael Corleone to demonstrate they submit to him as his father’s heir, mirroring an earlier scene in the film where they do the same to Don Vito.

These practices are reflected in many cultures worldwide, and they are also found in the Bible.  Twice in the book of Daniel we find different kings demanding fealty, and Daniel and his friends break all the norms of Mesopotamian society because of their loyalty to God.  Jesus made it clear he expected his followers to take sides when he said “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).  And megalomaniac Roman emperors executed Christians who refused to make sacrifices to the emperor while saying “Caesar is Lord”.

Perhaps the strongest Biblical example is part of the Exodus story, where God sets out the deal “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Exodus 6:7).  He then gives them the Law, and much of the subsequent justification for the Law can be summed up as “do not do this, because the nations around you do it, and you are different.”

God makes it clear right from the start that his kingdom has behavioural standards.  Keep them and there are rewards; depart from them and there are consequences.  The big question for us, in our cross-cultural world, is not who we will serve – we have already decided that.  It’s how will we be loyal?  In a world where compromise is so easy, how do we make righteous choices even if there are serious consequences?

As outsiders in the culture they serve, mission workers can often be targets of begging, bribery and manipulation by people who think we don’t know the unspoken rules of their society.  So, following in the footsteps of Daniel and his friends 2,500 years later:

  • How are we bowing down to other gods, not in the sense that we pray to idols, but in how we handle our financial planning, demonstrate our faith in God rather than human goodwill, and seek solutions in prayer?
  • If eating foreign food is not an issue, what does cross-cultural compromise look like with regard to bribery, patronage and employment?
  • How do we maintain a public commitment to our faith in a world which is increasingly intolerant of Christianity?

Daniel’s reputation and character were unimpeachable.  He stood out from the prevailing culture around him and refused to compromise his loyalty to God.  Even his enemies recognised that (Daniel 6:4-5).  Can that be said of us?