* 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, August 27, 2012

Judges 9: Healthy Ambition and the Senseless Fear that Is Selfishness

So far, the book of Judges has been mostly about people who accomplished military victories for the Israelites.  After Joshua led a fairly straightforward invasion of the land to which the Israelites felt themselves entitled, it's no small wonder that they had a few enemies.  According to the writers of Judges, the oppression the Israelites experienced in the ongoing contest for power in the region is attributed to their disobedience to their god.  When the Israelites behave themselves, their god protects them.  When the Israelites are bad, their god lets them get overrun by other people who worship other gods.  Then, someone comes along and drives back the infidels -- often through some kind of subterfuge -- leading the Israelites into a period of prosperity which inevitably cycles back to their faithlessness, abandonment, and misery.

Abimilek is a bit of a detour from that formula.  Here we have a ruthless murderer who worms his way into leadership from within a tribe of Israel's own ranks -- a wicked ruler chosen by a wicked people.  He's killed by a nameless woman who drops a millstone on his head and a nameless armor-bearer who mercifully grants him an honorable death.  The writer of this tale is clear that God is the one who created the strife that led to Abimilek's downfall, but it seems like unnecessary effort on God's part.  A person who is willing to kill dozens of his own relatives just to solidify a tenuous position of political power is likely to rub a few people the wrong way.

The people under Abimilek's rule worshiped a god named or titled "Baal-Berith" (or "lord of the covenant").  It's difficult to say what sort of deity Baal-Berith was.  There simply isn't enough factual information about this particular god to know how he was different from the Israelites' other gods.  What's clear from the narrative is that the people who put Abimilek in power were motivated by selfish goals.  Not all that different from twenty-first century politics.  Their own motivations ultimately worked against them.  They focused their attention on things that ultimately had no value, and they suffered as a result.

It isn't difficult to look back through history and find people who acted out of selfish ambition, caring nothing for how much harm they did to others in order to get money or power.  Some of them passed on a legacy to their progeny that we can still see at work in the world today.  Many of them ultimately brought about their own destruction.  There are also wealthy, powerful people who act out of a deep desire to have a positive impact on the world.  The difference isn't in the value of their bank accounts or the reach of their power.  The difference is in how they attained what they have and how they make use of it.

Most of us will not be Abimileks.  Most people don't have the capacity to kill seventy siblings and lay claim to a throne.  We also aren't likely to be Ghandis or Mandelas.  Still, all of us face choices about whether we will act out of selfish ambition or act out of a deeper sense of truth.  Let's be clear: Selfishness is just another word for fear.  We become selfish when we are afraid that we won't get what we want, that we will be overlooked, that someone will take advantage of us somehow.  We believe in the scarcity of whatever it is that we want, and we set our minds so fervently toward a goal that we lost sight of what is important and true about ourselves and other people.  We get selfish about things we don't need -- about things that actually may do more harm than good to us and to the people around us.  Fear convinces us otherwise.

Here it is, as redundant as it may seem by this point: There is enough.  Whatever it is, there is enough.  We don't always see clearly how to distribute it wisely and healthily, but there is enough.  Enough land, enough water, enough fuel, enough food, enough love, enough power, enough respect, enough time.  We live in abundance when we are willing to recognize it.

This isn't to say that ambition is bad, just that the target of our ambition is often misguided.  Let us be ambitious and creative in how we can provide clean drinking water to the world, or in how we can ensure justice for all people, or any number of noble goals.  There is a place for ambition, and it can power our creativity to have a profound impact on the world.  It's the potential selfishness of our goals that warrants examination.   When our ambition justifies hurting other people for the sake of our own personal gain, we have stepped out of alignment with our deepest selves.  That's the part that is based on some kind of self-deception.

In reality, it's safe for us to acknowledge the value of other people, for us to listen to ideas that came from other people's minds, for us to respect beliefs that are different from our own.  It's safe for us to peel back the armor of fear and recognize our worth as human beings is exactly equal to everyone else's.  Our value is not based on political title or bank account or education or square footage or how much blood we have shed or what kind of car we drive.  We all possess a deep awareness of this truth that surpasses petty fears.  We all possess divine beauty and creativity.  We all have the capacity to inspire and be inspired.  We are all capable of listening and we are all capable of accepting other people's beliefs without feeling somehow threatened.

It may seem that we have a long way to go before we create a world that embraces the value of every person, but the process of creating that world has already begun.  It is up to each of us to choose how we will be in our own lives.  We don't have to be heroic.  We just have to determine how we will dismantle our own fears and create our own meaningful lives.  When we act in accord with the truth, beauty, and creativity within us, we cannot act out of selfish ambition.  When we choose to acknowledge the value of every person, we will find ways within our means to express that truth.  As Ghandi said, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  ... We need not wait to see what others do."

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