* 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

Monday, July 23, 2012

Joshua 9-21: The Truth about Your Superiority Complex and the Fear that Fuels It

As we've mentioned, the book of Joshua was probably written by a collection of different authors at a much later time in Israel's history than the events described in the book.  As a part of the "Deuteronomistic history," this book (and the books that follow in the biblical structure) were most likely created to justify a shift toward monotheism and more prominent leadership role of the priesthood under King Josiah late in the 7th century BCE, with the book possibly being completed as much as a century later.  It's evident that the story being told in Joshua is that the Israelites, empowered by their faith, conquered a large swath of the area around the Jordan River, taking livestock, property, and riches from the cities and killing every man, woman, and child of nearly every kingdom they conquered.  In the parlance of our time, we call this genocide, but in the minds of the Israelites, this was simply claiming what God had promised them.  God was in fact instigator and accomplice in their violence, according to the book of Joshua.

Many of the stories that pepper the chapters on the distribution of land, as well as the tales of conquest, end with statements like, "And there they remain to this day."  This suggests that many of the stories were intended to explain a situation, like why a particular group of Israelites were granted access to a particular well, or why a certain group of foreigners/infidels/heathens became slave labor for the Israelites instead of being slaughtered outright.  The stories are not intended to question the status quo, but rather to justify it in a way that put any questions or objections to rest, much like a parental, "because I said so."  Since we are looking back from a different vantage point, we have the opportunity to see some things about the Israelites' self-identity that they may have been unable to see, on account of their immersion in the culture.  Perhaps we can even use such observations to gain a little perspective about our own worldviews.

There's no question that the Israelites thought of themselves as better than everyone else.  On the surface at least.  Their god was better than anyone else's god.  Their entitlement to property and buildings and livestock was more legitimate than anyone else's.  Even their lives were worth more than other people's lives.  Perhaps there was some kind of collective narcissism at work, much like what happens in today's world when extreme nationalism shoves aside any thought of treating other people humanely.  If we accept the narrative of the Bible as how the Israelites saw themselves, perhaps the vehement superiority was actually a defense mechanism for what they feared about themselves, that they were, at their core, slaves.

When we fear something about ourselves, we can go to great lengths to disprove that fear.  If we fear that we are worthless, we might do everything in our power to demonstrate to everyone how valuable we are.  If we fear that we are unlovable, we might do all manner of self-destructive things just to devour illusions of love from other people.  And if we believe that we are no better than slaves, powerless, worth less than "real" people?  We might go to great length just to show everyone just how powerful we can be.  And how worthless they are.  "It doesn't matter if we were slaves in Egypt.  We're so powerful we can take your cities and all of your stuff and kill every last one of you!  We're not weak and powerless.  You're the weak and powerless ones!"

Either way, the lie wins.  If we roll over and accept the lie, we live like we are worthless or unlovable or powerless or selfish or whatever our own personal lies may be, and we never work up the courage to look at the truth about who we are.  And if we defend ourselves against the lie, we go one step further and create a different lie about who we are.  We live like we are more than everyone else.  We miss the truth about who we are and the truth about the other people around us.  All because of fear.  People don't lay waste to a city and slaughter everyone inside unless they are afraid of something.  And in our lives, we don't dehumanize other people or ignore our own value and capability unless we have given in to fear.

Maybe it doesn't manifest as a superiority complex in your life, but for the Israelites, fear told them that they had to prove how powerful and right they were, and they overlooked the atrocities they committed because they marched under the banner of a righteous and perfect god who approved of their actions.  There was no group of people that the Israelites could accept as equals -- at least not in the book of Joshua.  Those they didn't slaughter, they made into slaves.  That's right.  The people whose cultural identity revolved around escaping slavery in Egypt accepted other people only under terms of forced labor.  The irony seems to have been lost on the writers of Joshua, but hopefully our ability to recognize it will alert us to similar ironies in our own lives.

So, the Israelites failed to see their own authentic value as human beings, failed to see other people's authentic value as human beings, committed genocide, stole property, and engaged in slavery, and they thought of all of this as being righteous because of a myopic religion, all the while failing to recognize that their behavior was fueled by fear.  They bolstered their cultural identity with some admirable traits as well.  When they made a promise, even if that promise was made because of a deception, they kept their word.  The Israelites placed great value on the vows they made.  (Just hang on to this little tidbit, since it will become much more important in the book of Judges.)  The writers of Joshua go to great lengths to detail how fairly the land was distributed.  And whether it was because of a fear that God (or someone representing God) would punish them or whether it was out of respect for one another, the Israelites seemed to treat each other like people of equal value, even if they were from different tribes.  We cannot stomach being "all bad" even when we justify a great amount of ugly behavior.  Somewhere inside of us there is a glimmer of our true selves that insists on being expressed.

The fear tells us that if we examine ourselves and really look deep into the core of who we are, that we will see something less than human.  That the lie will turn out to be true.  That we will really turn out to be vacuous, weak, unlovable, selfish, ugly.  But the lie only has power as long as we are afraid of it.  Confront the lie for what it is, and the fear can no longer govern our behavior.  The Israelites didn't have to be conquerors, murderers, looters, destroyers, or slavers, just as they didn't have to be weak, worthless, or enslaved.  But they believed that their only choices were very clear extremes.  That's what fear will do.

What fear are you ignoring?  What lies are you avoiding about your true nature?  Are you afraid that you are weak?  Stupid?  Worthless?  Unlovable?  What are you doing with those lies?  Giving in and living like you're something less than human?  Or fighting against it to prove the lie wrong?  Are you hurting other people just to show how powerful you are?  Are you hurting yourself just to show how lovable you are?  What is it that keeps you from embracing your identity as a beautiful, creative, capable, valuable, worthy human being?  Whatever it is, it's a lie. 

Here's a little secret: When you want to, you can look at any other person, no matter how much or how little you know about them, regardless of how they're behaving, and you can see the divine within them -- you can see a deep and undeniable value, beauty, and creativity that no amount of lies can destroy.  You can also just see the lies about who they think they are.  Or who you think they are.  What you see is your choice.  The same goes for yourself.  If you look for the truth within you, you will find a deep and undeniable worthiness, beauty, and creativity.  Or you can stop short and just see the lies.  What you see is your choice.  And what you do with what you see is your choice too.   

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