* 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, September 11, 2012

Judges 13-16: Samson, Bruce Banner, and Finding Where the Spiritual Rubber Hits the Road

It's one thing to speak in the abstract about spirituality and divinity -- to have an academic or philosophical conversation about God and belief and the biblical narrative.  It is sometimes more challenging to recognize where belief impacts how we live.  While we may not always realize it, our actual beliefs are more clearly expressed in our actions than we ever consciously state in an abstract conversation.  Whether a person claims to believe in a loving god who saves people from harm, a vengeful god who punishes the wicked, or something else altogether, those claims don't really have a lot of meaning until they impact daily life.

One can draw all sorts of clever lessons from the story of Samson.  The bottom line is that Samson is a man who gets very violent when he gets angry.  In today's terms, he has an anger management problem.  Of course, because he's an Israelite from the tribe of Dan and the people he kills are Philistines, Samson is a hero.  Today, when someone from one culture commits suicide while killing thousands of people from another culture, we have a different name for that.  Whatever we call him, Samson was obviously a powerful man who was reviled by people because he demonstrated his power in uncontrolled fits of violence.  Conveniently, the writers of Judges attribute Samson's strength to God.  I would submit that the divine character is not the source of rage, vengeance, and hatred.

Several years ago, a close friend of mine in a large church endured horrific treatment by a coworker for a series of months.  Instead of handling the problem professionally, senior staff treated my friend as if he were culpable for the abuse he endured.  Eventually, things came to a head and my friend was essentially asked to resign.  Although it was a traumatic experience for months, it was the best thing that could have happened to him.  The environment wasn't going to change.  The only thing that could change was his role in the system.  In the end, he won by getting out of the abusive situation.

No doubt, people at the church thought they had won as well: The abuser got to keep his position, the pastor didn't have to handle the messy issue, and other people could go about their business without getting caught up in the drama of the conflict.  It's easy to think of ourselves as winners when we get what we want.  But what we think will make us happy in the short term is not always what will satisfy us in the long term.  The things we want in the moment are not always the things that connect us more deeply with ourselves and other people.  Sometimes we want it easy, but we don't grow much through easy situations.  We grow when we recognize the decisions that are in greatest alignment with the core of who we are, and choose to do those things even when they are challenging.

From the outside, it was very easy for me to side with my friend.  I know him better than I knew anyone else in the situation, and I care about his well being.  It was easy for me to value him over the anonymous people that had "made his life miserable."  And yet, I have this belief (at least I claim to) that every human being has value, that every person holds within them a divine self -- a deep core of truth, beauty, and creativity.  How do I reconcile that belief with a person or a group of people who seem to have a very different character?  This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of spiritual belief.  What do we do with situations that challenge the way we want to see the world?

In the midst of an abusive situation, a person might feel justified in feeling hatred, seeking vengeance, and looking for ways to bring the building down around his enemies, even if he gets hurt in the process.  When we start thinking and acting based on what we fear, we lose our sense of who we are.  Feeling threatened can lead us to sever our connection to our values.  We even have the Samson story telling us that God approves of rage and vengeance if it's directed toward the right people.  But does that ring true with what you honestly believe?  It doesn't ring true for me.  I know that rage and vengeance and hatred are the exact opposite of what I want to express to other people, and those uncontrolled and unquestioned emotions separate me from who I most want to be in the world.

Rage, vengeance, and hatred all stem from fear.  In Samson's situation, it might be seen as fear that the Israelites would always be subjected to Philistine authority.  In my friend's situation, there were plenty of things for him to fear, too: that more people might get hurt if he didn't do something, that he might not find another job, that he might be embarrassed, that his relationships would suffer... a lot of understandable fears.  The other people in the system may have had some fears as well: The abuser in the situation may have had some legitimate anger issues that he feared would never be controllable.  The pastor may have feared the ramifications of some difficult and unpleasant decisions.  Other people in the system may have feared for their jobs if they don't cooperate.  Everyone may have feared instability in relationships that mattered to them.  And fear leads us to do some pretty inhuman things sometimes.

We don't have to take that path, though.  When we see fear for what it is and recognize how easily it escalates into irrationality, we can stop our legitimate anger from building into uncontrolled rage or hatred.  Anger is useful.  It helps us to see what we want to change in our lives.  When we use it to determine how we want to control or manipulate other people, we've missed the gift in the anger.  Samson hurt a lot of Philistines, but did his actions really accomplish anything for his family or his people?  Our fear separates us from our truest, most noble selves and we can easily slip into hostile reactivity when we don't manage that fear.

Seeing our fear for what it is and disarming it can also help us see how other people's actions are based on fear and not their truest, most noble selves.  We can have compassion for people who are caught up in hostile reactivity, because we know what it's like.  We know how easy it is to let fear rule our thoughts and actions.  We can't change those people, but we can be willing to see them more fully -- their humanity and their divinity, even in times when they don't see it in themselves.  Everyone has value, even people whose behavior we find deplorable.  The behavior is not the person.  The fear that fuels the behavior is not the person.  The person we are tempted to hate is honestly just like us: a beautiful and creative being who sometimes lets fear get in the way of deep connection to themselves and other people.  

Within us all is the character of the divine, even in the times when we lose sight of it.  We can always reclaim it and reconnect to it when we are willing.  If there is anything of value in the Samson story, it is that possibility of reconnection to the divine.  It is through that connection that we have a chance of seeing our way past irrational fear and into honest hope.  It is through that connection that we have a chance of personal responsibility and meaningful awareness of ourselves and other people and the world we share.  It is through that connection that our deepest truths can be made manifest in the way we live moment to moment, where the rubber hits the road. 

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