* 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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Joshua 2-6: When Divine Inspiration Gets Sidetracked by Fear

About half of the book of Joshua is folklore about how incredibly successful this man was as a military leader when the Israelites were slaughtering innocent people and taking their land, wealth, and communities.  It's difficult for rational people to look upon some of the content as factually viable, since the stories include things like the sun standing still for a day and such.  That being said, there is powerful allegorical value in these stories, particularly the first and most highly developed story about the fall of Jericho.  These Old Testament stories were written from the standpoint that the Israelites were better than everyone else because God said so, and all the other people who were living in the area around the Jordan River at the time were expendable because they weren't chosen by God.  It isn't a stretch from that perspective to draw "spiritual" lessons from the story about trusting God and overcoming enemies through faith.  But what if one approaches from a different set of assumptions?

If we start from the belief that all human life is valuable, that people are worthy of respect regardless of their beliefs, Joshua's acts seem deplorable.  The Israelites' actions dehumanize their enemies.  If we start from a belief in abundance rather than scarcity, it seems at the very least misguided to drive off or kill people just to claim their resources.  Yet we still haven't outgrown that behavior in some respects.  And if we start from a belief that houses the character of the divine within every human being, Joshua's actions are inspired, representative of the kind of creativity available to any of us if we are willing to tap into our internal resources and trust ourselves.  The problem is not with Joshua's outlandish tactics, it's with the fear he entertains regarding the people of Jericho.

One challenge in reading or hearing any sort of story as adults is that we typically have a set of beliefs in place before we determine what the story has to offer.  Our opinions of any new information are based on what we already believe about the world, other people, and ourselves.  It is nearly impossible for us to approach new information with a truly open mind, free from any beliefs about reality.  For many people who grew up in a Christian context, biblical stories were even used to help frame our beliefs about the world, other people, and ourselves, but we weren't really able to understand the nuances of the stories beyond what adults were telling us to believe.  As adults, we have the opportunity to reassess our beliefs and to re-contextualize the stories we know or encounter anew.

If it is true that all human beings hold within themselves the deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we associate with the character of the divine, then we are capable of doing incredible things when we push past the layers of fear that have accumulated over time and embrace that truth, beauty, and creativity within us.  With calm patience, we can collapse seemingly insurmountable obstacles that would hold firm in the face of the greatest display of force.  Our strength is not in our ability to be violent, but in our ability to be intentional.  What happens after the walls come down and we are granted access to new territory, though?

Once again, if it is true that all human beings hold within themselves the deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we associate with the character of the divine, then this truth should inform all of our dealings with other people.  When we seek to do harm to others, we are harming a system of which we ourselves are a part.  We cannot bring violence to other people without doing some harm to our own identities and well-being.  Honestly, our only reason for intending harm toward others is fear, and that fear is almost always irrational.  In Joshua's case, there were likely manifold fears that prevented him from seeing the divinity in the people he conquered.  He was afraid that his culture could be corrupted, that his people were too weak to hold to their beliefs in the face of alternative practices.  He was afraid of death at the hands of the defenders of the cities the Israelites were assaulting.  He was afraid of how his people would see him, whether they would hail him as a hero or reject his authority.  Understandable fears, but unnecessary fears.

Joshua is a character of fiction, a bit of folklore to build cultural identity for an ancient people.  But we experience fears that may seem insignificant by comparison to a leader of an entire society, and those fears still manage to derail our creativity and inspiration.  We fear what people will think of us, and we fear what people will do to us.  We fear things about ourselves as well, that we will be found out, revealed as imposters or weaklings.  We fear that we have to fight for survival, that we have to defend ourselves at every turn.  We learned to fear from a variety of sources, and we have practiced that fear until it frames our reality.  We have to look beyond that fear to see the truth and beauty and inspiration in the world around us, and we have to look beyond that fear to see the truth and beauty and creativity within ourselves.  The more ingrained the fear, the more dismantling we need to do to see what is true.

Dismantling fear is easier said than done.  Even the prospect of it brings up a whole new onslaught of fears.  Our entire society is addicted to fear, and the thought of disregarding fear is counter-cultural to say the least.  It will not happen all at once, but as we are willing to see our own beauty and creativity, and as we are willing to see the beauty and inspiration in others, we will build confidence in that truth.  We can bring the walls down with confidence and discover ways to make the world a better place rather than a more violent one.  We can create a life that serves our most noble intentions rather than our most fearful ones.

The message of Joshua is a cautionary tale.  We have within us immense power.  When we tap into that divine essence, we can find inspiration to do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of other people.  But when we unleash that power out of fear, we can destroy instead of create.  We court the power of judgment and death instead of bringing hope and life.  We are capable of either path.  The difference is that when we identify ourselves as destroyers, we act in defiance of our true nature.  The fear that convinces us that destruction is the only option will never bring us satisfaction, peace, happiness.  That fear will always be restless.  But we are not destroyers.  That is not our identity as human beings, no matter what we have been led to believe or what we have accepted as reality.  We are creators.  At our core we are capable, strong, life-affirming creators.  To deny that is to deny our humanity.

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