* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Exodus 32-33: Golden Calves and Undeniable Access to the Divine

Those who assume that the Bible tells things chronologically with infallible accuracy must draw some strange conclusions about the events of Exodus 32-33.  The Israelites are either outright liars, fickle with their word, or they have the brains of carrots.  A few chapters back, Moses told them all what God wanted them to do, and all the Israelites agreed to it.  Aaron was there, along with all the other Israelite leaders.  Then, Moses went off to get the stone tablets God was carving for him, which took about 5 weeks.  In that span of time, the Israelites, with cooperation from Aaron, forgot what they had promised and made a golden calf to worship.

As Aaron tells the story, the Israelites were evil-hearted from the start.  They didn't know what had happened to Moses, and they wanted Aaron to make some gods to go before them, so Aaron told them to take off all their jewelry, which he threw into the fire and -- Voila! -- out came a statue of a calf.  That was apparently a god the Israelites could relate to and worship for a few weeks before they got distracted by something else.

Well, Moses was so angry that he broke the stone tablets he had spent so much time carving, melted down the golden idol, ground the gold into powder, scattered it in the water supply and made the Israelites drink it.  Then he ordered the Levites to kill 3,000 of their fellow Jews.  That's less than 1% of the total Israelite population as the Bible records it, but it's still a hell of a violent streak. Back in Genesis, Jacob had this to say about Levi and his descendants:
"their swords are weapons of violence.
 Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel."
Moses was apparently more comfortable with their genetic propensity for violence.

The story is illustrative of a big issue, obviously.  We want something concrete to believe in.  Even when we believe we know the divine on some level, we still want something tangible.  People (both in and out of the church) worship all sorts of things: money or the accumulation of personal possessions, fame or acknowledgment, physical pleasure, power over other people, political favor -- the list could go on and on.  Very few people sincerely worship an intangible, invisible force that epitomizes unconditional love for all, which is how the Christian god is often portrayed.  Even the Israelite god in Exodus was closer to a Greek deity with human emotions and weaknesses, as we'll see in just a moment.

First, though, let's consider what worshiping external things really says about us psychologically.  The idea of worship literally means that one is attributing worth to something.  To worship a thing is to proclaim its worthiness.  And when we truly worship something, a part of us is committed to the belief that whatever we're worshiping is worthy of our total effort, adoration, gratitude -- the fullness of who we are.  It's why some people who worship success become workaholics and why some people who worship fame do incredibly stupid things just for the attention it will garner.  Our perception isn't always healthy.  It can't be completely healthy when we are looking outside of ourselves for a target to which we can attribute value.

We are terribly uncomfortable with the idea that we ourselves are worthy of anything, that we have value.  It's a bit of a burden for some people.  If you are worth something, then you have to live up to that somehow.  If you have value, then you have to maintain that value.  As if you have to keep proving your worthiness to yourself, and potentially to everybody else.  So we look to something outside of ourselves so we don't have to look inward and potentially face the fear that we are, at the end of the day, valueless.  That we do not even approach worthiness.  Much better to find something tangible that we can target.  Money.  Titles.  Golden calf.
What's very interesting about the Exodus story is that God tells Moses that he needs to take those people away.  They need to get on the road, and God will send an angel ahead of them to clear their enemies away.  If the Israelites wait around, God may not be able to control his anger at this whole idolatry business, and he just may destroy them all.  And God can't travel with them, because he is so angry that he'd just kill them en route.  But when Moses pleads with him, God changes his tune rather quickly.  Actually, Moses' pleading comes across as a bit manipulative and demanding, but the point is that it doesn't ultimately matter what Moses or the Israelites do, the divine presence won't abandon them. 

This suggests a deep truth about the character of the divine: It cannot be separated from us.  Even when we have acted in ways that betray that divine nature within us, when we have pursued things that do not lead us to satisfaction or happiness or peace, there is no chance that we will be abandoned by our divine nature.  We cannot ultimately blot it out or eradicate it.  The divine is a part of who we are, even if we decide to use some external imagery to relate to it. 

People who recognize that there is nothing earthly that is truly worth that level of devotion sometimes find solace in the concept that there is something bigger, something beyond our complete perception, watching over us and guiding us.  That there is someone who has taken care of all our mistakes -- covered over our unworthiness.  Certainly that figure is worthy.  That person is valuable enough to be worshiped.  That person surpasses all that any human being could hope to be, especially us.  And thus the stories and the beliefs and the mythology is born.  Because we crave some source of meaning, and we are too afraid to look within to find it. 

We build golden calves and mythologies because we crave some source of meaning, and we are too afraid to look within to find it.

Stop being afraid to look within yourself.  There is nothing you need to do to have value.  You simply are valuable.  You are worthy of your highest level of commitment because you are you.  The divine is a part of who you are, inseparable and yet deep enough to run the risk of being overlooked.  There is no amount of money or fame or drugs or charity or sermons or political action or Communion that can truly overshadow the profound value and worthiness of being you.  You are worth your best effort.  You do not need to use any adornments to shield yourself from any ugly truth about who you are.  That fear is a lie.  You are worthy.  Period.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Abortion, Spirituality, and Why Debating the Right to Life Will Always End in Stalemate

Earlier this week marked the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision that sparked a national debate about abortion that has now raged for decades.  On the one hand, there is almost no point in discussing abortion in an abstract sense, as people on both sides of the issue have firmly-rooted opinions based on mostly emotional arguments.  What actual data there is on the subject has been interpreted to suit the stance of whomever is quoting the statistics, so it's even hard to have a conversation about abortion from a strictly scientific standpoint.  Emotions drive people, and that drive is especially intense on such a loaded topic.  Still, if one is to consider spiritual matters, it seems that the whole right-to-life debate must be addressed at some point.  It will certainly be a hot topic in this year's election, and it is obviously at the forefront of many people's minds this week.

Abortion gets labeled in different ways, depending on who's doing the labeling.  It may be about a woman's right to choose, or about life beginning at conception, or about the murder of American citizens, or about legislating morality, or any number of other angles.  First and foremost, I want to be clear on my personal opinion, as a male without any children or any plans to procreate.  I believe in personal freedom.  I believe in second chances.  I believe that people know themselves, often better than they realize, and that most individuals have the ability to be personally responsible for their actions.  I am in favor of legalized abortion, and I'll go more into detail about where that intersects with my view of spirituality in a moment.

First, I want to address the religious perspective that has claimed the label of being "pro-life."  It is certainly a compelling and impassioned stance which claims to be based on biblical principles.  A strictly biblical view of the god of the Israelites won't lead to a modern-day anti-abortion activist's beliefs, though.  The Ten Commandments do instruct people not to kill, although there are some caveats made for accidentally beating a slave to death.  The true meaning, though, is clear as one continues through the Old Testament.  The actual commandment is closer to "Don't kill a fellow Israelite who is adhering to the cultural mores."

People were put to death by the Israelites all over the place, and not just soldiers on the field of battle.  If one accepts the Good Book as legitimate history, the Jews conquered cities and slaughtered all of the women and children.  More than once.  And not just because some general was bloodthirsty.  They slaughtered innocent people because God told them to.  Because they weren't Israelites.  Israelite operatives were even sneaky sometimes about killing the enemies of their people, using a weapon held in the left hand, or driving a tent stake through someone's temple while they were sleeping.  Sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.  How can one argue that this deity actually has respect for human life?

One can't even say that the life of an Israelite is sacred.  Despite what may have appeared in the Ten Commandment, even Israelites were subjected to the death penalty for almost anything deemed immoral by the authorities of the day.  Of course, this was considered to be ordered by God as well.  At the word of a couple of witnesses, an Israelite could be executed for worshiping a foreign god, bad-mouthing a judge, marrying someone who isn't an Israelite, committing adultery (just the women, though), homosexuality, prostitution, and a host of other things.  Granted, we still consider the death penalty to be appropriate for certain crimes, and there may be other crimes for which we'd like to see a person killed.  The point is, the god of the Israelites, as depicted in the Bible, was more concerned about preserving a culture of purity than he was about the value of human life.

In the New Testament, there is much less of this sort of sanctioned killing.  For one reason, the Jewish people were under Roman rule at the time, so their system of crime and punishment was subjugated to Roman law.  And they certainly weren't going to war with anyone.  Still, God manages to kill off a few people who disobey him.  One couple is struck dead for lying about selling property and trying to keep some of the proceeds from the early church.  This is a capital offense.  It's still hard to see the value for human life in things like that.  On the bright side, by the end of the New Testament, it's clear that the early church was committed to the idea that all people are of equal value.

There are other reasons for a person to argue against abortion, however.  Some may say that they are concerned for the psychological well-being of the mothers-to-be, but that could be addressed without making abortion illegal.  Instead, a great deal of money and rhetoric goes into convincing people that abortion is morally wrong.  Is the motivation really about the sanctity of human life?  Do the people who argue against abortion also argue against the death penalty?  Or do they also contribute money towards AIDS research?  Or even cancer research?  Do these proponents of life also protest wars in which innocent people are killed?  Or do they accept collateral damage when they consider it a "just" war?  The credibility of some of the loudest advocates for the "right to life" may be sullied if their complete philosophies about human life were scrutinized.

And what would happen if the nation's population were to suddenly swell with unwanted children?  What is the end result the opponents of abortion foresee?  While there have been studies that link the legalization of abortion with a decrease in crime rate, we cannot ultimately predict what the life of an unborn person would be like any more than we can predict with any certainty what the life of a stillborn infant would hold.  Even with abortion legal, the number of child abuse cases in this country is staggering.  If women who choose to give birth cannot even ensure a safe and loving environment for their children, what can we expect of women who do not actually want the children they are forced to carry to term?

The bottom line is that we cannot know.  We do not know how those women would behave as mothers, and we do not know how their children would turn out.  We do not know whether disinterested fathers would take responsibility.  We cannot know the actual impact on schools, the job market, the society.  Any claim would be speculation, and it seems dubious to force people to decide whether women should be allowed a choice regarding abortions based on speculation.  In fact, if someone claims to know the future, that Old Testament God would tell us to put them to death for being a witch.

President Obama once said that if one of his daughters made a mistake, he wouldn't want them punished with a child.  That statement has been bandied about by some people, the interpretation being that children are a punishment.  It's easy to twist words around.  The point is that if a girl gets pregnant and is forced to have the child, that child becomes like a punishment.  A child can disrupt the entire course of someone's life.  It can mean a change in what a person is able to earn, and it can mean a change in what a person is able to contribute to the world.  Ideally, a child is pretty high on the priority list for a mother.  Other things have to take a back seat.  While it has been said that no one is ever really ready for children, there are many people who look upon their children as a blessing.  Some people still see their children as a burden, but a burden they are willing to bear.  If someone is looking at having a child as a punishment, what kind of parent will that person be?  Again, some speculation would be involved in answering that question, but I'm grateful my mother didn't think of me as a punishment.  

As I have stated many times, each person holds within them a deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity.  Each person can look within themselves and find the divine.  If we value human life, we must acknowledge a respect for those people already living.  We must trust at a certain level that people are capable and valuable.  Otherwise, why would we care about life or abortion or any related topic?  Until our society is through applauding violence against people of different religions, condoning the deaths of people who disagree with our international policies, and arguing about whether people of different lifestyle choices deserve equal treatment, the claim that any group is opposed to abortion out of respect for human life is going to seem a bit suspect.  Let's first eradicate child abuse—domestic violence of all kinds for that matter.  Let's make sure the children who come into this world will have the possibility of meaningful employment.  Let's do everything in our power to bequeath a world worth living in to those who come after us.  Until then, whether or not a woman chooses to bear a child or have an abortion seems rather insignificant. 

Plus, I've noticed that women are still having children.  Many of them love their children more than anything in the world.  That hasn't changed just because abortion became legal.  I believe that people know themselves, often better than they realize.  So I believe that women have the ability to know whether they truly want to have a child.  I believe that is it possible to live in a world in which people are trusted with the decisions of their own lives.  If people are to be given an opportunity to be personally responsible for their actions, they must be free to act in accordance with their own conscience.  No politician or preacher or law can change the truth inside of a person.  Whether a woman chooses to have children, or chooses to have an abortion, or chooses to never be in a circumstance that would necessitate such a decision, there are consequences and rewards.  If we are truly concerned about the value of human life, perhaps there is a way for us to be present with the women around us, with love for them as human beings and respect their decisions. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Exodus 25-31: Being Specific About the Things We Call Sacred

The chapters that follow the Israelites’ agreement to Moses’ laws are extraordinarily detailed instructions about constructing holy places and items--the intended focal points of the culture. A tabernacle (or movable temple), a fancy container for the stone tablets on which their laws were carved, an elaborate breastplate for the high priest to wear, an altar table complete with golden plates and pitchers, and a lampstand. All of these items were representative of spiritual ideas that the Israelites valued. They also required an incredible amount of gold, acacia wood, and valuable gems—not to mention time and craftsmanship. Embedded in all of the detailed instructions for constructing these bits of religious paraphernalia are detailed instructions for consecrating the priests who would use it.

From a historical perspective, it’s hard to imagine the Israelites carrying around all of this wealth, but they did supposedly rob the Egyptians blind before their departure. All of the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, but the instructions say that each person is to give the same amount to the temple, whether they are rich or poor. How are there rich and poor among the Israelites at this point? Or was Moses just thinking ahead? Or was this written at some later time and inserted among these other holy instructions to legitimize it? These instructions were, after all, supposed to be coming from God directly.

One could get lost in the details of these directions, which actually include the names of craftsmen God has chosen to oversee various parts of the project. The fact that so many details exist is worth noting, however. Anyone who has ever been part of a collaborative effort knows how much easier it would be if all of the instructions were spelled out explicitly and came from an infallible source. Often, people come to the table with their own ideas believing that their way of doing something is superior to everyone else’s and the bulk of the collaborative effort is spent just trying to decide how something is going to be done. That was not what the Israelites in the story needed to spend time on.

Giving people a clear task and setting them to it is a brilliant bit of leadership. Stay busy doing something sacred and you won’t be complaining as much. And the instructions came from God, so there’s no arguing with how you’re going to do it; there is only the task itself to focus on. On top of that, God named the people who are in charge of various tasks, so there’s no reason to argue with their authority. God has appointed them, so just follow their direction and focus on the task. Brilliant. Of course, as we see just after this span of chapters, people still have a mind of their own, but that’s beside the point.

It would be wonderful if we had such detailed instructions for the things we spend our time on. We could get a lot more accomplished. One obstacle is that we so rarely consider anything to be sacred anymore. Even people who spend a great deal of time involved in church activities do not really grasp the idea that what they are doing is somehow holy, elevated, or special. In many Protestant churches, there is still the problem of people who lack respect for their spiritual leaders and time lost debating whose idea is superior, with spirituality and faith being the furthest thing from the conversation. The religious implements that Moses described were something special. Work on them was meaningful because the end product was sacred. We don’t often have that sense of meaning in the things we do.

With an understanding that the divine is truly a facet of who we are, though, we can recognize our own authority to determine for ourselves what has meaning in our lives. We determine what is sacred and holy and special to us. We don’t require an outside authority to direct us with the details, and often we are culturally trained to question authority and challenge any manner of control that someone tries to exert over us. It becomes a fight to defend our autonomy rather than a calm and purposeful sense of what has meaning to us. Our energy gets spent on defending ourselves rather than doing the things that have real value.

There are times when partnership is necessary, too. How do we collaborate when each individual decides what is sacred and meaningful? We could just assign leadership, the way Moses’ instructions do. “This person is in charge of this task, no questions or arguments.” Of course, every collaborator would have to agree on who that person will be. The key is in realizing that the collaboration itself has something sacred about it. Here are these people, each embodying those divine qualities of truth, beauty, and creativity, all committed to a meaningful purpose. It isn’t necessary to be in control, or to defend one’s ideas. The role of each individual in that collaboration is to speak from a place of truth and inspiration that is deeper than ego and petty agendas. Partnership is something sacred. It’s something that calls forth the divine within us if we allow it.

In our own lives, we are in charge of what is sacred. And if we do not ascribe meaning to our activities, no one else will do it for us. It is our own responsibility to recognize what is holy to us. Likewise, it's not our place to decide for anyone else what is sacred or holy. Their own divine self will guide them in that regard. When we collaborate with others, we have an opportunity to share that sacred space with other people, to learn what means holiness to them and to share our own sense of meaning and purpose. When we begin to see how deeply meaningful our actions are, the sacredness of what we choose to do with our time and energy, perhaps we will put the same level of attention into our lives as Moses did when giving instructions about the Israelites’ implements of worship.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rewriting Exodus 20-23: Divine Guidance without Attempting to Control the Masses

Lest we completely dismiss these initial laws of Moses for being misguided or naive, it's worth remembering that Moses is an incredible example of a person doing his best to follow the guidance of his divine self.  His weaknesses come out, but he's in a vulnerable and visible position.  He gets frustrated with the people he's leading, but anyone would.  Whether the biblical depiction of Moses is historically accurate or pure fabrication, he serves as a model of connection with his divine character.  Thus, there is bound to be some value in the direction he attempted to give the Israelites through laws.

When we take away the threat of death and look at these laws as words of guidance rather than punishable offenses, we can see some remarkable and noteworthy ideas.  In a sense, the punishment for ignoring this guidance is that we are less happy and engaged in life than we could be.  Perhaps living a life of misery is worse than death for some people.  The reward for following this guidance, though, is a more fulfilling life.  Deeper connection with ourselves and with other people.  A more purposeful, intentional, and meaningful existence.  Later in the Bible, Jesus sums it all up by directing people to love God and love their fellow human beings.  There may be some value at starting from the thoroughness of Moses before getting to the broad summary, though.

Beginning with Exodus 20:  The divine within you is worth acknowledging.  Don't put the deep truth you know aside for the persuasive words of another.  Rather, allow wisdom from outside of your self to temper your awareness and understanding of the inspiration and truth and beauty within you.  This is easiest to do if you spend time becoming aware of your divine character.  Remember that you have value, that you are worth spending time on.  If there is anything that can be called "holy," you are holy.  Treat yourself that way.

Listen to the wisdom of your parents without obligation or entitlement.  They have lived through experiences that you will never have.  They have walked through fires that you will never know.  And yet, they cannot live your life for you.  You must ultimately walk your own path and make your own decisions.

Respect human life more than your own anger.  Your anger can never justify taking another person's life.  Value the trust that other people place in you.  You ultimately suffer when you commit acts of betrayal, no matter how well you know the person or what they have done to you.  If you want something, pay for it honestly.  That may mean making some difficult financial decisions, but that process also brings clarity about what matters most to you. 

Tell the truth.  If you speak about yourself or about someone else, be honest.  Recognize that everyone lives through a different set of circumstances and values.  Value what you have and celebrate what those around you have.  We can always find flaws and disappointments in our own circumstances, and the people we are tempted to envy can find flaws and disappointments in their lives.  Envy robs us of fully appreciating what we have.      

Embrace personal responsibility.  You are responsible for your life, and you are accountable for your actions.  Blaming other people or bemoaning your lot in life won't change anything.  You are the one at the helm of your own decisions.  Should you do something that brings harm to another person, be honest about it and face the consequences.  More importantly, strive to avoid doing harm in the first place. 

As you become more aware of your own divine character, remember that everyone possesses within them that same deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity.  Even when you have a hard time respecting a person's actions or decisions, at least respect that there is something of that divine character somewhere within them.  If it makes you holy, then they are likewise holy and worth being treated as such. 

You won't be punished with death if you don't do these things.  Going against your own divine character is punishment in and of itself.  I'll restate, though, that the reward for following this guidance is a more fulfilling life.  Deeper connection with yourself and with other people.  A more purposeful, intentional, and meaningful existence.  Something truly sacred.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Exodus 19-24: The Voice of God and the Death Penalty Cannot Control a Society

Societies need laws.  Even though we all have an innate sense of right and wrong, and we have feelings like guilt and shame to guide our behavior, societies need laws.  It's important to have some ground rules about how people are allowed to treat one another, just to clarify any discrepancies.  Laws also provide a sense of repercussion for when someone's behavior is out of line: If you do this, then this will happen to you.  The punishment isn't necessarily a deterrent, but it defines the consequences for one's actions.

Exodus 19-24 is about creating laws.  We've already seen that the Israelites have the capacity for some pretty rotten behavior, just like any group of people.  It may be tempting to excuse some of that because they didn't have any guidelines written down, but I believe that people still know right from wrong.  Rather than sheer education about morality, it seems that the purpose of creating a set of laws is more likely (a) to encourage people to do what they know is right more often, and (b) to define a set of consequences for when someone decides to do something harmful to another human being.  The Moses solution to these matters is to claim that the laws originate from God, so there can be no arguing or debate about them.  He also applies the death penalty liberally, should people need additional deterrent.

The setup is brilliant.  There is a display of God's ferocious voice on Mount Sinai, with the people kept behind a boundary (because touching the holy mountain would kill them).  According to the telling in Exodus, the theatrics should have been impressive enough to make anyone think twice before disobeying the command of God.  Over the course of the chapters, it's not quite clear which elders were allowed on the mountain when, or how many times Moses went up and down the mountain, or how long the Israelites were camped out near the mountain.  It is clear that they were there for awhile and that the place was holy.  Mount Sinai is a symbolic representation of a place where the divine and the physical meet.

The laws are another matter.  First, there are the famous Ten Commandments, about which much has been written.  It's been noted that they are almost all in the negative, i.e. "You must not ..."  And later on in the biblical narrative, Jesus' commands contrast with that by telling people what to do instead of what not to do.  Neuro-linguistic programming aside, the laws of Moses are clearly an attempt at control, and some measure of control may have been completely necessary for the survival of the Jewish society.  Ultimately, though, the Jewish people didn't do any better than any other society with regard to obedience, despite the claim that the laws came from God.  The rest of the Old Testament is the record of that told through their own eyes.

Looking at the laws themselves, most of them make sense for a society and seem quite rational.  If you damage or steal someone else's property, you are responsible for paying for it along with a monetary penalty.  If you kill another person, you will be put to death.  If you harm someone without killing them, the same level of harm will be enacted upon you.  Justice.  There are even specific detailed cases that are included for the sake of clarity.

Some of these laws are not enforceable, nor are they intended to be.  In a couple of places, the command is given not to mistreat foreigners, and then God promises that the Israelites will destroy six groups of people completely.  It seems like this destruction would probably involve something those people would consider "mistreatment," not to mention killing.  There is the proclamation that witches should be put to death, and we know how that went in Salem (and much of Europe).  But then, no one claimed that these laws were on the cutting edge of women's rights.  If a man rapes a virgin, he has to marry her or at least pay for her, but if he "dishonors" his parents, he gets put to death.  Who gets to decide whether a man has "dishonored" his parents anyway?

The point is that the laws that make sense in these chapters are the same kind of laws that every successful society has established.  They don't have to carry a death penalty or be attributed to an unquestionable deity for people to understand why those kinds of laws make sense.  The laws help to clarify the wrongness of the very things we are already wired to feel shame about.  The problem with their iteration in Exodus is that the culture did not recognize all people as having equal value.  If a son strikes his violent and abusive father, the son gets put to death while the father continues to be violent and abusive, as long as he doesn't kill another man.  If he kills a slave, he just has to pay for the slave.  If he kills a foreigner, chances are that he's just doing God's work. But if he exploits a widow, then he will be put to the sword.  The "laws" then become just a concrete way of articulating who can get away with what in the society.

Our society has laws.  They are created by men, whom we know to be fallible.  For the most part, the consequences seems reasonable on paper, although in reality the punishment often seems light.  Still, few people would rationally introduce the death penalty for every crime.  The laws help to clarify how the society will respond to certain behavior, and the "justice" system is intended to carry out that response.  Laws and punishment don't really alter what people do all that much, though.  People still speed, even though they know they may get a ticket.  People still murder other people, even though they know they may get the death sentence.  People are still abuse and mistreat other people, even though there are legal consequences.

I believe that those individuals know that what they are doing is wrong, even without a law to tell them so.  I believe that when a corporation brings harm to people or the land on which they live, the people responsible for that decision know that what they have done is wrong.  I believe that when a person strikes another human being in anger, a part of him feels shame.  What he does with that shame is another matter entirely.  The greater the group of people responsible for a shameful act, the easier it is to brush past it and appreciate the perceived reward for bad behavior.  At the end of the day, we need a clear set of societal consequences for shameful behavior, because we do not have a universal respect for our fellow human beings and the world we share with them.

Moses missed the boat just like every other lawmaker.  You cannot control human behavior through laws, even with the voice of God to back you up and the most severe of penalties for disobedience.  Laws help a society hold together, but people will continue to break the laws of a society as long as the society's values are misguided.  If the society values money, people will do shameful things to get more money.  If the society values power, people will do shameful things to get more power.  Laws cannot change that.

Wouldn't it be something if the society valued its people?  Wouldn't it be something if people looked at themselves and the other people around them and saw something worth more than money and power?  Wouldn't it be something if people saw the resources of the world and felt a deep sense of respect rather than greed?  I don't know if a society can change in such a fundamental way.  I know that individuals can.  I know that it is possible for an individual to see the truth and beauty and creativity within every person.  All it requires is a willingness to see it.  There are no laws that can govern or enforce it, but if we all managed to do it, we may not need so many laws.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Exodus 15-18: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

In the Exodus story (picking up in chapter 15), there is a celebration after the Israelites watch Pharaoh's forces get swept away by the waters of the Red Sea.  The Jews sing a song crediting God with their escape from Egypt with the plunder they stole from the Egyptians and their safe passage into the wilderness.  Until they have trouble finding potable water, that is.  Then, there are complaints until Moses works some magic with a water-purifying stick, and God is once more praised for watching out for the Israelites.  Until they have trouble finding enough food to fill their bellies, that is.  Then they tell Moses that he should have left them all in Egypt instead of taking them out into the desert to die.  So, Moses instructs them on how to gather food from the harsh environment so that the community has plenty, and everyone praises God for providing.

This trend continues: The Israelites have trouble finding water again.  They gripe at Moses for taking them into the wilderness to die.  Moses uses a magic stick.  God is praised.  The Israelites face hostile nomads.  Moses determines the outcome of the battle by raising or lowering his magic stick.  God is praised.  Then, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, pays a visit.  He tells Moses that it isn't wise to be the only person to whom the entire Israelite community comes for advice and leadership.  Jethro suggests bureaucracy, a formula of delegation that will spread authority out a bit among the people.  Moses likes the idea and puts it into practice.

It's interesting that God isn't credited with the idea of bureaucracy, but Jethro's suggestion to "teach them the decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave" is essentially an admonition to encourage spiritual maturity in a people whose faith is threatened by every troublesome circumstance.  Not a bad suggestion.  Build up the faith of a people and they will be a little more able to take care of themselves.  It's a far cry from the practice of some twenty-first century spiritual leaders who think it's best to tell people what to think and feel with an overbearing volume and repetition that prevents people from thinking for themselves.

If a people believe that a higher power is watching out for their well-being, expressions of gratitude seem appropriate.  It is perhaps dubious for modern-day Christians to look back at the Song of Miriam and formulate a philosophy of international relations based on the assumption that God will smash their enemies, unleash his blazing fury, and consume them like straw.  Being grateful for the good things that happen in life is healthy, though, especially when you consider just having enough food and water to be a blessing.  Those with a more mature faith might even be able to express gratitude when survival is in question or when they experience some degree of unpleasantness in life.  That seems to be where Jethro's idea could ultimately lead, even if his goal at the time was just to spread out Moses' leadership and authority a bit.

The problem with Moses' identity among the wandering Israelites is that he has become the only man with the answers.  He is the only one who is entitled to say what God wants from the people.  He is the only one who can provide sustenance for them.  Moses is essentially their god, even though they aren't recorded as praising him directly.  He has set himself up with unassailable authority because he communicates with God and the people do not.  They need him in order to receive God's blessings.  They need him to survive.  Or so it would seem, at least.  Jethro saw clearly that nothing good can come of one person wielding that level of power over a community.

As the story continues, we'll see that there is still a great deal of "I know what God wants and you don't."  When the governing rules of the community are delivered, they still come with the threat of "do what God wants or die."  It would seem that spiritual maturity is a scary prospect for both sides.  It isn't as easy for a leader to compel people to do what he wants once those people start thinking for themselves a little more.  But there's also a great deal of vulnerability in developing personal responsibility for one's own beliefs.  In a way, the whole of the Bible (and perhaps every religious text) is about that struggle to accept the responsibility of spiritual maturity in order to reap the tremendous rewards.

Historically, there may never have been an Israelite exodus from Egypt.  Still, if there was, I believe that the Israelites would have been able to survive without Moses.  It may not have been pleasant, and they may have lost many of their number in the process, but perhaps they would have become a more tightly woven community as well.  People are capable of a great many things, whether it's purifying water to drink, surviving off the food that the land provides, or defending themselves against actual aggressors.  To give all the credit for such things to a single individual in a community is lazy and immature.  Consistently waiting for Moses or God or someone else to act on your behalf reflects not only a sense that you are too weak to take care of yourself, but also that you deserve to have your every need provided for you by someone else.  People are capable of more than that.  Be sincerely grateful and earnestly praise God if that makes sense for you.  But also recognize your own responsibility for your thoughts and actions.  Personal responsibility is at the very heart of spiritual maturity.