* 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, March 25, 2012

Numbers 12-14: Trusting in Divine Inspiration

These chapters of the book of Numbers once more reflect a supreme being with menacing and punitive tendencies.  It's a view of God that still exists in many ways today, perhaps because it's easier for us to notice our struggles and mistakes than it is for us to take delight in our accomplishments.  Chapter 12 begins with an accusation against Moses, brought by his brother and sister.  Speaking for the Israelite god, Moses had commanded that the people remain pure by not intermarrying with the "unclean" people of the land around them.  And yet, Moses himself had married a Cushite.  This wife may have been Zipporah, whom Moses married before he became the leader of the Israelites, or this may refer to a second wife.  The important part of the story is the response to the accusation.

According to the tale, Miriam's lack of respect for Moses got her cursed with leprosy, and she was confined outside of the Israelite camp for a week.  She wasn't punished for noticing that Moses' own marriage broke orders everyone else was supposed to live by.  The punishment came because of her lack of respect for Moses.  The ability to curse people with leprosy seems a bit of an unfair advantage, though.  Coming from a perspective that rejects the existence of a supreme being, particularly one who would feel the need to get angry and punish someone for insulting Moses, the simplest explanation is that Moses himself had a few tricks up his sleeve. 

Leadership is tough to begin with.  When you're trying to tell people to behave one way while you are behaving differently, it becomes even tougher.  Aaron and Miriam weren't really making an astounding observation, but the way they went about their accusation was to grumble and gossip behind Moses' back.  Had they gone to him and pointed out the discrepancy with a modicum of concern for his own well-being, the story might have gone differently.  Sooner or later, the issue of living differently than what you're demanding of other people has to be addressed.  You can't just afflict everyone with leprosy after all, and Moses quickly had his hands full with more complaining from people.  Quite simply, people are better leaders when they are open to criticism without stooping to petty retaliations, and their followers are more likely to get what they want when they approach the person in charge with love and respect.

Once again, in Numbers 14, the Israelites cry out that they should have stayed in Egypt instead of following Moses out into the wilderness to die.  A special team of spies had gone to investigate the land of Canaan, the "promised land" where the Israelites were headed.  They came back with a report that the place was indeed bountiful, but it was also inhabited by peoples who were stronger and more numerous than the Israelite forces, willing and able to defend their lands against invasion.  So, the people were understandably demoralized.  The response from some of the spies was, "If we trust God, there is nothing to fear."

The Israelite god spends a lot of time being angry in this book.  He threatens to unleash his wrath on the Israelites, and Moses appeals to his sense of pride, suggesting that if the Egyptians were to hear about all the Israelites dying in the wilderness, they would think that the Israelite god was unreliable and weak.  As if The One True God would actually care what the Egyptians think.  So God relented and decided that he wouldn't kill the Israelites outright, he'd just deny them access to the land of milk and honey and force them to wander for forty years until they died of natural causes in the wilderness.  Because that would look good to the Egyptians.  God does strike down the spies who brought back doom-and-gloom reports about the Canaanites, and when the Israelites attempt a foray into Canaan the next day despite the proclamation of divine punishment, they are chased off by the local denizens.

There's a big problem with the whole "God is on our side" philosophy that still infects international politics today.  Every military and paramilitary force in existence seems to claim in one way or another that they are in the right, that God is on their side.  Can God really be on everyone's side in a war?  I suppose betting on all the horses in a race would guarantee that you pick a winner, but it seems ludicrous to assume that a perfect divine being is hedging his bets.  Do people actually believe they're going to win in combat because of divine intervention?  Or is the whole thing just intended as morale-boosting rhetoric?  If taken seriously, false belief can lead people to take some otherwise ill-advised actions, purely on faith that their god will work out the details in their favor.  I would like to believe that if there was an intelligent higher power that took an interest in humanity, our ability to reason and work out diplomatic solutions peacefully would be more impressive than our ability to effectively slaughter one another.  From the right perspective, a god that promises military victory in this day and age seems like a brutal, bloodthirsty primitive compared to a god that promises the ability to reach a satisfying compromise with minimal bloodshed.  Honestly, which seems like more of a miracle?

But the issue for the Israelites boiled down to trust.  When the odds seemed against them, were they willing to trust divine guidance, or were they going to doubt every step of the way?  Trust eventually led some of them to their destination.  Doubt prevented others from realizing the divine promise.  The underlying spiritual truth of the story really has nothing to do with plagues and punishments, it has to do with trust.

Within each of us, there is a spark of inspiration that grants us a vision of what we could accomplish.  For some people, it's just a momentary glimpse, seemingly little more than wishful thinking.  For other people, it becomes a detailed goal, a lifelong aspiration.  Sometimes, people create goals that are motivated by greed, that take advantage of other people, that capitalize on loopholes in an unfair system.  These kinds of goals reflect a lack of faith in oneself to actually do good in the world.  When you believe that it's unrealistic to actually achieve your dreams, it's easy to settle for the next best thing.  There are a lot of unhappy, dissatisfied wealthy people in the world who lost sight of their vision of what really mattered to them.  Some people manage to accomplish impressive feats without ever realizing the goal that truly inspires them. 

It all has to do with how we respond to that "divine" inspiration within us.  When we glimpse that inspiration that matches with our most noble intentions for ourselves and other people, we can either trust it or doubt it.  When we doubt it, we wind up punishing ourselves, in a way.  Denying ourselves the thing that we most deeply desire for ourselves and the world.  Settling for less.  Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are just being realistic.  But when we trust that spark of inspiration and feed it, we can start to see ways to move closer to it.  The initial idea may seem out of reach, but when we trust ourselves to create a path toward that inspired target, the very process nourishes the vision.

The feedback we get along the way may not always be what we would like it to be.  We may have to adjust our path to fit with reality, but that doesn't necessarily mean setting our sights lower in the long run.  It may mean changing the benchmarks along the way, not the ultimate goal.  New information may lead us to conclude that what we initially envisioned actually isn't a beneficial target for ourselves and others, in which case we have an opportunity to fine tune our target based on that new information.  But we have to first trust our inspiration in order to get to the point of clarifying or fine tuning targets and benchmarks.  The journey is rarely a straight line, but the first step is always to trust the inspiration. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Religious Faith Is Often Just a Synonym for Fear

One sometimes hears the argument that morality cannot exist without a god.  There is an often aggressive and even belligerent claim among believers that religion is necessary for society to keep on existing.  They claim that religion does more good than harm.  Many people have enumerated the horrific acts of violence that were fueled by religious fervor throughout humanity's history, and such acts continue today.  While the homosexual lifestyle is mostly verbally attacked in the United States, there are places in the world where suspected homosexuals are being killed, largely because of faith-based prejudice.  Women may be killed or mutilated without consequence in some parts of the twenty-first-century world because of the religious beliefs of the society into which they are born.  Moral behavior does not follow from religious belief.

Despite massive evidence against it, the mythical link between religion and morality remains so strong that many Americans would have a problem voting for an atheist president.  Presumably, they would prefer a leader who believes that he answers to a higher power, who embraces a responsibility to lead righteously.  And yet, faith has justified wars, excused oppressive laws, and masked hatred and bigotry.  Rather than ask whether there can be morality without religion, one must question why the two were ever rationally linked to begin with.  Religious belief may allow for unquestioned forgiveness, but it doesn't prevent abominable behavior.  Some people would also claim that religion provides a number of services as well, that faith motivates people to do good, and that good outweighs the evil that is done in the name of religion.

Fear is in some way the motivator for most claims of faith, however.  People believe in salvation because they fear damnation.  People believe in faith healing because they fear dying.  People believe in prayer because they fear all sorts of things: personal responsibility, medical procedures, collection agencies.  Groups who become targeted by religious leaders are actually the groups those leaders fear.  Homosexuals are denied the right to marry out of fear.  Women are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies because of fear.  National healthcare is opposed because of fear.  Dire predictions are made about "what will happen if...", and a segment of the population trembles.

Some of the fear gets expressed as righteous indignation or moral outrage.  Fervent believers fear that their faith will be marginalized in society, so they have to fight.  Religious leaders fear that they will have control over a smaller sector of the population, so they have to pronounce judgment loudly and foster more fear in those who still cling to their words.  In turn, believers are infused with a fear that the Others (homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, etc.) will somehow harm them just by existing.  They become afraid of letting their children be taught science by an atheist.  They become afraid of allowing a homosexual couple to move in on their street.  They become afraid of doing yoga because it is somehow connected with worshiping Hindu gods.  They become afraid of anyone with different clothing or accent or skin color, because different is somehow threatening.

But fear doesn't really convince anyone to change.  Yanking your child out of the atheist teacher's biology class won't ultimately keep your child from learning science, and it won't change the teacher's beliefs.  Denying a young single mother the opportunity to decide for herself whether she can realistically take care of an unwanted child doesn't guarantee that either person's life will be improved.  Prohibiting the homosexual couple from attending neighborhood social events won't convince them to change their lifestyle, although perhaps the belief is that your spot in heaven will be secure because you have refrained from socializing with heathens.  Look around!  Churches are full of people doing deplorable things.  Sinful things.  Immoral things.  Why don't they warrant a little fear?

Ah, but if we had to admit that immorality co-exists with faith, we'd have less of a reason to judge those scary Others who believe and behave differently from us.  Fear can make people just a little bit crazy.  Fearful people can fire a weapon without thinking.  Fearful people can start a hate campaign against someone without letting the truth get in the way of juicy accusations.  Fearful people can act without worrying about the consequences in someone else's life.  Fear is a very selfish emotion.  It doesn't allow room for much else, even though a person may believe that they are being compassionate or loving in some twisted way while doing something entirely motivated by fear. 

Fear is not exclusive to people of faith, however.  The wealthy are afraid of being impoverished.  The employed are afraid of being jobless.  Everyone has to deal with fears.  When the fears are justified by belief in a perfect higher power, however, there is little one can do to combat those fears.  If one realizes that the fears are all a product of one's own mind, they can be much more easily dispelled.  In many ways, religion relies on people being afraid.  The more conservative a sect is, the more fear is fostered in its faithful.  It's particularly strange for believers in an all-powerful deity to be so fearful.  Their fear suggests that perhaps their god is not powerful enough to handle the existence of atheists and homosexuals, that they somehow have to take matters into their own hands.  Or perhaps their fear is that their god will turn on them in wrath and judgment if they don't take action.  Either way, people who live with such fear paint a very strange and primitive picture of their god.

What about compassionate and loving acts done by people of faith, though?  Isn't there some counterbalance to the fear?  Of course there is, because people who are not overwhelmed by fear can relax and be nurturing to others.  Some people can be very compassionate in feeding the homeless people that they don't fear at a shelter and then turn around and be profoundly dispassionate toward one of those homeless people when they walk into a religious service.  In one instance, the person isn't at all threatening, and in the other, the person is threatening to upset comfortable norms.  But when fear is put aside, we can see the humanity in other people much more clearly.  We don't actually need a god to tell us to clothe people and feed them and treat people like human beings.  The absence of fear leaves room for compassionate behavior.

We have the ability and the responsibility to question our fear.  When you find yourself in judgment over someone else, what is it you're honestly fearing?  When you feel violently toward a person, or a group of people, what are you afraid they will do to upset the norms of your life?  When you become indignant or outraged about something, what are you really afraid of?  And is that fear in any way reasonable?  It is rational in that instance to be afraid?  Is it possible to set aside irrational fear -- no matter where that fear comes from -- to see another person's humanity?

Unfounded fear won't lead you to do anything good.  Believe instead in your ability to see that the people you're tempted to fear are just like you in so many ways, and believe in your ability to treat them with love and compassion.  You don't have to agree with everything about another person in order to treat him with love and compassion.  There's really nothing threatening about someone being different from you in some small ways.  Without fear, there is no cause for violence or oppression -- although it's important to realize that the whole world will not become rational and fearless all at once.  In the end, though, violence and hatred work against faith, even when they seem to be fueled by it.  You could be a vanguard for rational fearlessness, even if you believe in a higher power.  After all, wouldn't a reasonable god want you to be fearless in your faith?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Numbers 11: Replacing the Lesson that Complaining Will Get You Killed with Something More Useful

Chapters 7-10 of the book of Numbers recount more of the details of sacred paraphernalia, offerings made by different bloodlines, and the roles of different tribes within the Israelite community.  It may be useful to organize a society by predetermining what duties each person will have according to heredity.  All of the necessary tasks are covered and everyone knows what is expected of them.  This isn't how most civilizations work in the twenty-first century.  We've given up the idea that a deity has prescribed what our contributions to society will be based on our parentage.  Some people still believe that God has a plan for their lives.  People are just more free to individually interpret what that plan is in a well-established society which holds personal freedom as an ideal.

People still like to complain, however.  Even though our lot in life is not nearly as restrictively defined as the Israelites', we still find things to complain about.  One of the advantages of belief in an all-knowing deity who has a plan for your life is that you have someone to complain to when you don't enjoy the direction your life is taking.  In Numbers 11, when people complained to God, he took umbrage to the extent that he doled out poisonous food.  Nowadays, not many people seem to think that complaining to God will get them killed, but maybe the God in the story also had a valid point.

First, let's look at what the people were complaining about.  If we just assume the truth of the biblical story and leave archaeological research out of it, the Israelites had left what appeared to be a fairly cushy existence in slavery, with all the fish and cucumbers they could eat.  Life had been stable, even if they weren't as respected as the native Egyptians.  The human race still hasn't outgrown its propensity for looking down on foreigners, so before we think too ill of the Egyptians we might take a hard look at our modern sensibilities.  Once they left Egypt, the Israelites were not living the high life, but they also didn't take much personal responsibility for their predicament. They blamed Moses for convincing them to leave, and since Moses was God's spokesman, they blamed God too.  Never mind that they proudly looted the Egyptians as they willingly crossed the border into a barren wasteland which turned out to have no reliable food source and little water.

They discovered a substance that was edible.  It was there on the ground every morning, and they could grind it up and make little cakes out of it.  Since they didn't know what it was, they called it "what is it?", and since they didn't know where it came from, they quickly determined that it came from their god.  People trying to identify manna today have theorized various possibilities, from plant lice (what plants?) to hallucinogenic fungus.  The Israelites knew it as bread from heaven.  Their god was taking care of them.  But that's all there was.  Eating the same thing day after day, living as tent-dwelling nomads, not knowing where there would be another source of potable water -- it understandably wore on people who were used to a stable life and a stable diet.  Personal responsibility wasn't on their minds, though.  According to the biblical narrative, they didn't put their heads together and come up with viable solutions.  They complained.  Moses was the one in charge, so they complained to Moses.  God was the one responsible for guiding Moses, so they complained to God.

Moses complains to God, too.  In a mirror of an earlier passage from Exodus, Moses complains that God has made him the nurse maid of the Israelite multitude and asks how he is supposed to feed them.  Perhaps it was his way of goading God into action.  God's first response was to have Moses appoint elders to assist him.  Now, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, had given this advice back in Exodus, and elders got appointed, so it's likely that this is simply a different version of the story about how the first elders got appointed.  God gets all the credit for the idea in this one.  Sorry, Jethro -- your part's been cut.

God's other reactions to the Israelites are quite hostile, though.  When he first hears them complaining, he gets angry.  So angry that he burns part of their community.  Then, a "wind from the Lord" brings flocks of quail to the Israelites, and "while the meat was still in their teeth" he sends a plague among them and kills off a bunch of the complainers.  What!?  He gives them meat (which was obviously within his power to provide) and then punishes them for eating it.  The underlying messages to this are manifold, but among them are: Don't make God angry.  Don't complain.  Don't trust gifts from a divine source.  Appreciate what you have...

That last one's not actually a bad thing to remember.  While we may not like the way the Israelite god taught the lesson, the lesson is still valuable.  Even when we want to see some things improve in our lives, the place to start is by appreciating what we have.  What we have may just be a fabric roof over our heads, a meager water supply, and bushels of insect residue, but that's still food and shelter.  It's worth appreciating what we have, even when we aren't willing to settle for it.  When we utterly reject our circumstances, we waste energy on denying reality.  It's hard to find a way forward if you won't even accept where you are.

The rest of the story is frankly ludicrous.  A fire gets started, maliciously or by accident, and some people get sick because they didn't cook their food properly.  Because these things happened on the heels of some rampant complaining, the events get connected.  It's understandable that the human mind works that way, but it's nonsense.  The divine characteristics we all possess are not out to get us or punish us.  More to the point, the divine is personal -- it's not capable of wiping out communities of people or burning outposts.  There may be other parts of a person's psyche that contrive punishment, but the divine is simply the sense of deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we all possess.  So, it's not going to punish us for complaining.  Our divine self may actually be the source of some complaints, especially when we are complaining about a real injustice taking place around us.  How we deal with our complaints is the real issue.

We could sit on a bar stool and tell the guy pouring us drinks all of our problems.  We may call a friend and gripe for hours.  We might write angry letters or emails just to vent our frustrations.  There are so many unproductive things we can do with our complaints.  When we have a complaint about something, though, we also have the ability to evaluate our complaint.  If we are willing to start by really appreciating what we already have, our evaluation will be more accurate.

A complaint always arises from a desire.  So, instead of just declaring the wrongness of a situation, identify what it is that you want.  This may be coming from a very shallow part of your personality, or it may be a very deep-seated need that you've been ignoring.  If all of the Israelites did this, they might come up with hundreds of different actual desires underneath their complaints.  Some of them may have just wanted to find a spice plant to add some flavor variety to their hallucinogenic fungus.  Some of them may have wanted to wander closer to a larger body of water so they could fish.  Their solutions would not be universal.  Knowing the desire underneath the complaint is crucial to creating a solution.

Once you know what it is that you actually want, you can assess that desire based on reality and your core beliefs, which emerge from that divine character we've been talking about.  If what you realize you want is a more reliable vehicle, buying a new car may not be within the reality of your current finances.  In that case, you'll need to create a plan that will be a little more involved that going down to the dealership and throwing down your credit card.  If what you realize you want is to do bodily harm to another human being, you aren't done defining what you actually want.  When you are honestly tapping into your inner sense of truth, beauty, and creativity, it affects the way you see other people.  You may be so angry that you don't want to think of another person as a vulnerable, beautiful, inspiring human being.  That anger has a deeper desire beneath it.  What is it that you actually want?

This takes practice for anyone who isn't accustomed to defining their desires so precisely.  The good news is that there is no actual punishment for complaining to yourself, and you are the only person who can ultimately determine what desire is behind the complaint.  Once you have clearly defined that desire, and it matches with your deepest sense of truth and beauty with no indignation or machismo or emotional buffers, you can use your own personal creativity to determine a course of action.  You create the solutions to your complaints, and you have a capacity to do so in a way that is honors reality and honors the other people around you.  Some solutions are simple changes in your own behavior.  Some solutions may involve organizing other people, or becoming more involved in an existing organization, in a campaign against a larger injustice.  When you keep yourself grounded in the character of the divine, you'll be able to make adjustments to your plan whenever it veers away from reality or threatens to ignore the beauty and value of other people.

So, complain away.  Your complaints are most likely valid expressions of something you truly want.  Just be sure to complain to the one person who can actually do something about your complaint.  Ultimately, you are personally responsible for defining what you want, even if thousands of other people seem to have the same complaint as you.  When you respond from a place of deep truth, beauty, and creativity often enough, you may find that you skip over the complaining and cut straight to defining what you want.  That's alright, too.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Numbers 6: Dedicating Oneself to a Purpose and Finding Blessing Within

Honestly, I was ready to slip right past commenting on Numbers 6.  Truth be told, I am anxious to get further along toward the New Testament, since it has a lot more to do with healthy human interaction and less to do with preserving Israelite culture.  As I've made fairly clear, the Old Testament scriptures we've seen thus far seem to be about controlling a population and using the concept of an external, infallible, almighty intelligence to enforce that control.  There are also some profound truths that inescapably peer out from behind the very human fears that fill the biblical narrative.

Case in point: the Nazirites.  Nazirites were special people in the Israelite community.  Whereas many people were given tasks and roles by appointment, Nazirites made a personal choice to dedicate themselves.  It had nothing to do with bloodline or having their names appear on some sacred list, the Nazirites were simply those people who willingly committed themselves to a purpose.  Of course, their purpose was to serve their concept of God, but the choice was entirely theirs to make.

After a special preparatory period, the Nazirites were inducted with a special ceremony, marking their dedication with a meaningful and memorable experience.  They also bore outward signs of their purposefulness, with the very obvious shaving of their heads.  Through their behavior, their experience, and their appearance, they were outwardly and inwardly committed to what they considered to be a meaningful purpose.  Why don't we adopt similar practices in our own lives?  What prevents us from committing ourselves as intentionally to something profoundly meaningful?

The very first step in dedicating oneself is verbal declaration.  Intentionally announcing your purpose out loud to other people is incredibly powerful.  It will either solidify the underlying intention or expose it as a passing fancy.  Perhaps we avoid this because we are afraid of what it will look like to other people if we fail or go back on that intention later on.  Perhaps we don't want to risk ridicule if other people think our purposefulness is misguided.  Those fears are empty.  They are flimsy excuses that threaten to keep us from stepping forward into something that could be our life work.  State your purpose, out loud and often.

For the Nazirites, there was a period of preparation before their induction.  While your preparation may not pertain to diet or purification, there is still value in setting oneself up for success.  If your purpose is truly valuable, it is worth taking time to prepare yourself.  One doesn't set out to climb a mountain without a fair bit of physical preparation.  You can't expect to start a new dietary plan without cleaning out your refrigerator and your cabinets first.  It's the same with any purposeful endeavor.  Determine what preparations you need to make and allow yourself the time to be intentional in your approach

The Nazirites also had a ceremony that symbolically took them across the threshold of their commitment.  While this doesn't need to be a public affair, rituals are powerful tools that are underutilized by most of us.  When your purpose has been declared with intention and you have prepared yourself thoughtfully, create for yourself a rite of passage that carries you into the realm of purposefulness.  You could invite close friends to be a part of this, or it may be just for you, but make it a positive and memorable symbol of your commitment and your focus will be more easily maintained.

One can find any number of resources about accomplishing goals and living purposefully.  Some of them are valuable and some leave a lot to be desired.  The greatest advantage any person has in accomplishing any goal is their own personal passion about what they're doing.  If you dedicate your time and energy toward something you are passionate about, the rest of these elements are simply enhancements to that passion.  The Nazirite model is simply one way to pursue that passion with clear and focused dedication.  Declare your intention out loud (to other people), prepare yourself thoughtfully, and acknowledge your purpose with some positive and memorable ceremony.     

The end of Numbers 6 holds a blessing with which many Christians are familiar.  It also works if one recognizes that the seat of divinity lies within.  It can be a challenge at first to trust an internal voice, but the divine self has a character very different from the fearful and abusive self-talk we all carry around.  The divine guidance from within possesses those distinctive qualities of deep truth, beauty, and creativity.  When we allow ourselves to tap into that resource, we are in a way blessing ourselves.

That divine self is the part within us that truly wants us to succeed, that finds ways to keep us on our purposeful path.  It is the part of ourselves that shines from within, that sees someone beautiful when we look intentionally in the mirror.  It is the part of us that is willing to forgive ourselves when we get off track, and the inner sense of peacefulness and reassurance that is always available to us when we are willing to receive it.  We have these things inside of us.  We don't always accept that part of ourselves, but it is crucial for us to acknowledge this reserve of strength and graciousness and peace when we dedicate ourselves to a meaningful purpose.  Our noble passions are worth our dedication.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Numbers 5: Forgiveness and Communication Is Just So Much Simpler

Numbers chapter 5 brings up some issues that have already been addressed in previous books of scripture: atonement and adultery.  Unlike some previous verses dealing with adultery, we now get a formula that the priest is supposed to follow if a husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful.  The wife really has no say in the matter, and let's face it, refusing to succumb to the priest's "faithfulness test" would probably be seen as an admission of guilt, the punishment for which is death by stoning.  The formula assumes that there is nothing wrong with a husband being so jealous that he would make a spectacle of dragging his wife before a priest to have her tested.  On top of that, as you can see, the "test" is really little more than witchcraft.

On the topic of atonement, this chapter of Numbers commands that any Israelite who has wronged another person should confess and make restitution.  Some people today still expect that if someone has wronged them, that individual should take it upon themselves to apologize and seek to make amends, but that doesn't always happen.  To make matters more complicated for modern-day Christians, the New Testament solution for these sorts of problems is for the "victim" to forgive.  That's right, when someone has committed some hurtful act against you, Jesus doesn't say that they should offer a elaborate sacrifice.  When you suspect your spouse of being unfaithful, Jesus doesn't say you should drag her before a priest so he can perform some hocus-pocus.  His answer is, when people wrong you, forgive them.

This is one of those times when the simplest answer isn't necessarily the easiest answer, but there really is no reason to complicate things.  If you have done something which has brought harm to another person, admit it and make whatever amends you are able.  It's as simple as that.  If someone else has brought harm to you, don't dwell on it, just forgive them and move on.  There's no reason to be a doormat, but there's also no reason to bear a grudge.  You can learn something from the situation and exercise more wisdom in the future, but once a deed is done, it's done.  Forgive and put the matter to rest.  People may not even realize that you think they've done something wrong, so stewing and waiting around for them to apologize is pointless.  Even should you decide to inform people of their wrongdoing, they won't always respond the way you want.  Forgive them, learn your lesson, and get on with your life.

Of course, if you have a relationship with more longevity, like what one would hope for in a marriage, it helps to cultivate open and honest communication.  Forgiveness is still key, but it's also helpful to let the person with whom you're planning to spend the rest of your life know what you're thinking.  That sort of meaningful communication requires vulnerability, not a power trip.  It certainly doesn't require a priest to perform any special magical ceremonies.  Simply communicate with the people you care about.  If they don't accept what you reveal about yourself, it's better to know that truth than to live a lie.  It's more likely that they have their own fears about being vulnerable, and they may even be grateful that you make vulnerability seem safe.

If you want to hold on to grudges and spend entire relationships protecting yourself, no one can stop you.  Imagine for a moment what kind of life that would be.  How satisfying and enjoyable is a life without vulnerability?  How satisfying and enjoyable is a life spent demanding that other people apologize for what they've done to you?  However counter-intuitive it may seem, meaningful relationships result from apologizing when you legitimately have something to apologize for, practicing forgiveness instead of holding grudges, and embracing vulnerable, honest communication in the relationships you value.   That's not overtly Christian, it's just healthy human behavior.

It may be tempting to base decisions on how we think someone will react.  In fact, we can probably come up with plenty of excuses for why we shouldn't own up to our misdeeds or forgive people who have somehow wronged us.  Any excuse we come up with is ultimately going to boil down to one word: fear.  The truth of the matter is that being honest and forgiving actually makes our own lives better.  Fear saps us of energy.  Grudges rob us of opportunities.  Trying to hide from the truth about our own actions is exhausting.  Being honest in our communication and forgiving people frees us to focus on the things that are actually important in life.  Life doesn't have to be complicated.