* 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, September 17, 2012

Judges 17-21: A Glimpse at a People without Respect

The final chapters of Judges relate tales of the days when "Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit."  It isn't a pretty picture.  There is no hero in these tales, just Israelites behaving badly.  People make idols out of silver, they ask God questions by basically rolling dice, they mistreat strangers who visit their town, they send provocative messages by carving up people, they solve moral conflicts through war, and they kidnap women so that the immoral might have wives.  The Israelites in this series of tales have somehow lost a sense of their humanity. 

Some readers may take this as evidence of the need for God, seeing this deplorable behavior as a sign that the Israelites had fallen away.  Some of the Israelites seek guidance from God, though, even though their faith practices are shallow.  The message may be that people need a strong spiritual leader to keep them from falling back into barbarism.  This is like blaming all of a country's problems on the president.  One person cannot bear the burden of moral responsibility that rightfully belongs with each individual.  A possible lesson from this bizarre series of folktales is that a healthy society is built upon personal responsibility and the practice of accountability.

We have already discussed many times that people are worthy of respect, that every individual holds within the divine characteristics of truth, beauty, and creativity.  There is no one requiring us to treat ourselves or other people according to this perspective, though.  It is up to us to maintain this way of seeing ourselves and the world around us.  We choose in every moment whether we will see the divinity in another person or not.  We decide whether we will hold ourselves as more or less valuable than the people around us instead of seeing people eye to eye.  No leader or deity can force us to treat ourselves or other people with respect.  That's on us as individuals.

But what happens when we fall short of that ideal?  Are we to assume that we will always be completely honest with ourselves and that we will be fully willing to address the fears that lead us to occasionally miss the mark?  Sometimes we might be blind to our own behavior, not to mention the hidden reasons we might decide to act in a way that runs contrary to what we believe.  For the Israelite community in these final chapters of Judges, the real problem is that unhealthy behaviors have gone on for so long that no one can really say, "There's something wrong with this picture."  In our own lives, we don't need to wait until a proverbial body part shows up on our doorstep to be open to the message that something is amiss.

None of us lives as an island, perfectly aware of all that we do and all of the reasons for it, our beliefs and our actions impeccably synchronized.  From time to time, we all think and do things that are off the mark from what we strive for as individuals.  In addition to a practice of self-reflection, we also need the mirror of other people's perceptions to direct us toward aspects of ourselves we might overlook -- the blind spots we have about ourselves.  Of course, we can't always take everything other people say about us at face value.  Other people are dealing with their own dramas and fears, and the judgments that come out of someone's mouth may actually be more about them than about us.  It's easier to hear feedback from people we trust, people who can speak the truth in love, people who understand what we are aiming for in our lives.

So, the personal responsibility is once more on us to gather around us people who will hold us accountable to the things we claim about ourselves.  With self-examination and the feedback of trusted mirrors, we stand a much better chance of treating ourselves and other people like worthwhile human beings.  The answer is not in making sacrifices to something we make from melted down silver, and we aren't going to get meaningful answers from casting lots or dice or a Magic 8-Ball.  These things are just excuses we use to blame something external for the decisions we've already made in our minds.  Perhaps if the Israelites had created a culture in which personal responsibility and accountability were expected, they wouldn't have gone so far off the rails into the realms of indulgence, permissiveness, and impulsiveness.

Ultimately, we already know what we need to know.  It's just a matter of putting it into practice more and more often.  We know whether or not we are treating ourselves with respect.  We know whether we are willing to see the divine when we look at another human being.  When we are honest with ourselves, we know how we really want to live.  Listening to meaningful feedback from people we trust is one tool that can help us create that life.

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