The tale of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt is famous. When the Israelites were under the heavy burden of Egyptian slavery, Moses compelled the Egyptian pharaoh to release them by proclaiming a series of increasingly costly events, enacted by God upon the Egyptians. The Israelites were spared the direct cost of the plagues, and eventually left with stolen goods from Egyptian households with Egyptian soldiers in pursuit. The story of the plagues culminates in the ritual of Passover, a significant piece of Jewish culture that reminds participants of God’s favoritism toward his chosen people and his promise of redemption.
There is considerable doubt in the archaeological community that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt, much less that they proclaimed and were spared from an epic series of plagues upon the Egyptian people. Some suggest that the assumed timeline of Egyptian history is incorrect, and at least one researcher has offered that significant volcanic activity could account for almost all of the plagues. However, to take the story as pure documentation of historical events misses its point. The three essential messages of the story are (1) Our god is better than your god, (2) God chooses spiritual leaders whom the multitudes must follow, and (3) Ritual has meaning.
While it seems silly to put the first message in terms of a grade-school taunt, there are plenty of people in the world today for whom that simple statement is the summation of their faith. “My god is better than your god, and therefore you are less worthy as a human being.” Less worthy of respect, less worthy of societal rights, even less worthy of life in some cases. It’s a central problem to the concept of an external deity, especially when certain people believe that they can understand that deity’s character and intentions better than anyone else. It must be incredibly frustrating for believers to hear such a cacophony of voices all proclaiming to know what God wants and rarely agreeing on anything. Responsible believers would do well to research their own scriptures and decide for themselves what spiritual truths lie therein, but the message “people need leaders to guide them into spiritual understanding” often stands in the way.
When we started looking at Exodus, I mentioned that we would do best to identify with Moses rather than the masses of Israelite “victims” in the tale. That isn’t implicit in the text, though. The story clearly suggests that there is a vast gulf between the chosen spiritual leaders and the masses they lead. The role of the masses is to be obedient to the leader, because the leader is proclaiming the will of God. To be obedient to the spiritual leader is to be obedient to God. And if you aren’t obedient, you will suffer – perhaps even the death of a child. Blind obedience is a fine way to maintain cultural integrity. Not so much for developing personal spirituality.
The problem, of course, is that people eventually abuse that spiritual authority. It would almost be a respectable system if those leaders cared first and foremost about the spiritual well-being of their flocks, but when a spiritual leader develops a personal agenda, it becomes a personal crusade. People with the authority of a pulpit or a microphone speak for God and proclaim who should be persecuted, who should be defended, who people should fall in love with, what people should legally be allowed to do with their bodies, who should be elected to office, what country the United States should bomb, what movies to watch or avoid… They strive to influence all manner of beliefs, behaviors, and decisions. And within the context of a religious culture teaching people that obedience to spiritual leaders is equivalent to obedience to God, people sometimes fail to use their own personal discernment in the face of messages from these authorities.
Then there is the matter of backlash in the face of disillusionment. Some people, upon recognizing that a spiritual leader has in some way failed them or led them astray, decide to take charge themselves. Religious institutions are filled with people on a quest for personal power, sometimes with a sense of righteous purpose, but almost always fueled by a measure of vindictiveness toward a person or group that didn’t quite fill out the role of spiritual leader satisfactorily. In many cases, these selfish campaigns for personal power ignore the impact on the broader spiritual community, and the negative ripples may spread further than the crusader even realizes.
It’s probably fortunate for some people that there is not an intelligent divine being looking on to the chaos caused by those who claim to be his mouthpieces. It’s dangerous to believe that you have a corner on the market of understanding what a god wants from his followers. Prophets and their devotees spend more time and energy arguing with one another than they spend on actually living spiritually meaningful lives. Unless, of course, arguing incessantly has some spiritual merit in a person’s belief system. I suppose that’s possible. I believe that there is a more satisfying way to live.
Leaders are important. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Innovators, visionaries, and mobilizers are necessary to propel a system forward, whether it’s an organization or a nation or a world. The key is for people to realize that these human beings are just that. Leaders are not granted divine immunity from fault or criticism. There are a lot of people who speak for particular beliefs or causes, but there is no one who speaks for God. Anyone in leadership benefits from people who are willing to think for themselves and evaluate the direction in which they are being led.
Which is where the third point of the Exodus story comes into play. Ritual is powerful. The Passover probably began as a bit of witchcraft, smearing lamb’s blood on a doorframe to keep evil spirits away. It evolved into a colorful story about a people’s relationship with their god and a practice that preserved a culture. The ritual embodies what is held to be spiritual truth, and it is a powerful symbol that touches the deepest parts of the human psyche. The Passover ritual also becomes translated into Christian communion, the church having converted the ritual into a new spiritual context, as organized religion so often does. Without the ritual, people may understand a set of beliefs intellectually, but the ritual reaches into places that the intellect doesn’t tread.
People have created rituals for a very long time. Rituals were initially ways to connect people with the natural world around them. Some of our contemporary celebrations (religious and otherwise) have been adapted from rituals honoring the natural occurrences of solstice and equinox. The key is to recognize what beliefs a ritual is establishing for you. Don’t take part in rituals that are not in alignment with what you truly believe. If you want to become more deeply in touch with the divine, be a part of or create your own rituals that speak to that truth. That goes for any belief system. If the rituals you participate in have become habitual and empty, find a way to revitalize the practice. When you are more deeply aware of who you are, you are more apt to see that value in others. This goes for people who believe that they are forgiven children of God as well as people who believe that the divine is something they embody within themselves.
When we are honest about the deep and undeniable truth, beauty, and creativity within us, we are able to inspire that awareness in others and we are able to guide progress in a direction that truly honors our connection to ourselves, the rest of humanity, and the natural world. In those moments of clarity when we set aside fears and personal agendas in order to consider the truths that run deeper than doctrines, then we stand a chance of speaking for the divine. And in those moments of clarity, it doesn’t matter who we convince. Truth does not need a bullhorn. Truth does not need to attack anything. Truth does not need defending. Truth does not need anyone to agree with it. Truth is simply and undeniably true.