* 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, November 26, 2012

1 Kings 1-2: Violence. Easy, Base, Fearful, Primal Violence (and hope for a wiser and more noble future)

One of the primary themes in The Godfather is the infectious spread of violence when a person is willing to kill another in order to make life a little easier. Once dishonorable man thinks, "Why should I negotiate with someone or make less of a profit from my shady dealings when I could just remove the obstacle altogether with a bit of murder?" From there, a cycle of vengeance costs many lives. In one scene, Michael Corleone is walking through an Italian village and asks, "Where are all the men?" His bodyguard responds, "They have all been killed in vendettas." When Michael's father dies and he gains the throne of the family, so to speak, his first act is to order the strategic deaths of his chief enemies. The story of Solomon's rise to power at the beginning of 1 Kings also reads like a gangster tale.

It is somewhat amusing that David admonishes Solomon to keep all of the laws that Moses gave them, and then encourages him to kill troublemakers. Perhaps in his old age he forgot that one of those Mosaic laws forbade murdering people. Or perhaps that law was moot given all of the laws that were punishable by the death penalty. Or perhaps David knew that when the king does it, it isn't illegal. In any case, Solomon is not thought of as evil in the least because of his violent actions; he is deemed wise.
Incidentally, by the time the writers of the Books of Chronicles recorded the story, they summarize in one sentence: When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel (1 Chr. 23:1). Adonijah is never mentioned as a pretender to the throne, and Solomon's violent rise to power is no longer an important part of the tale. Chronicles contains much more about the preparations for the temple, in which David is more intensely involved before his death than in the Samuel/Kings account. It's possible that this later document's less violent version of the story indicates a shift in the culture; perhaps the Jewish people in Babylonian exile learned to abhor violence. If that is the case, though, we have somehow managed to regress.

After three thousand years, we still haven't quite figured out how to solve problems without violence. Part of it has to do with power. When some people want to feel powerful, they think that violent actions toward another person will do the trick. And when people perceive themselves as powerless, they are more likely to do desperate things. At either end of the spectrum, it becomes challenging to see other people as valuable human beings. Maybe it becomes difficult to see oneself as a valuable human being as well. When a sense of human dignity is discarded, we are capable of justifying some rather shameful behavior. 

In some parts of the world at this very moment, there are groups of people living out the conviction that their survival depends on killing another group of people. Violence seems like the only reaction to their circumstances that makes any sense. And perhaps they are right. There are very few people getting wealthy from trying to end such conflicts. Peace just isn't a lucrative enterprise, it would seem. At least not in the short term. There is certainly money to be made from equipping violent people with implements of destruction, however. Desperation obviously makes for ideal consumers. 

It isn't necessarily wrong that violence is the only possible response for some groups of people whose survival is threatened. In their current circumstances, perhaps they would be quiet victims of genocide if they didn't take desperate and violent action. The real issue, perhaps, is why we are content to live in a world in which those circumstances are possible. We aren't necessarily talking about new dictators killing off the competition like Solomon. Some of the ongoing violence in the world is unnecessary if people were willing to see others as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. That would require certain people or groups to give up something, though, and we are wired to hold on to every bit of money or property that we get our hands on. Our survival depends on it, as far as our subconscious primal fears are concerned.

We have all of history to show us that violence begets violence when we are left to our automatic reactivity. We justify it with righteous indignation when we are the offenders, and we condemn it with vehement outrage when we are its victims -- or when there is some political value to affiliating ourselves with one side or the other. We want it to seem as though we have no choice, but there are always choices. There is a way that honors and respects people as fellow human beings -- that acknowledges the value, beauty, and dignity of all people. There is a way that calls upon our innate creativity rather than our primal reactivity. We can be more than animals if we choose to be.

Finding solutions without resorting to the easy path of violence will require some shifts in our perspective. Fears about survival will have to be confronted and dismantled. The desire for enough wealth and power to subjugate other people will have to be seen for what it is: a bestial response to fear. It will take work to see people differently and treat people with respect, especially since our fearful ways of seeing people are so well-rehearsed. There will be moments when we slip as a species, but we are more than the sum of our evolutionary subconscious reactions. We have some measure of control over our decisions, and the more we strive to make conscious decisions based on a deeper truth, beauty, and creativity, the easier those decisions will be.

Solomon was said to be wise, and yet he was the last ruler over a united Israelite kingdom. If even the wisest Israelite couldn't conceive of a better way than violent reactivity -- if even the wisest Israelite couldn't create a better society with longevity beyond his own lifespan -- what hope do we have? I'm sure at some point, this was the excuse of the Israelite people. It's a tempting excuse to be sure. "Better people than I have tried and failed, so what hope do I have?" Every hope in the world. The only reason we consider some people to be better than us is because they tried. Their level of achievement places no limitation on you.

If we do nothing to create the lives we most deeply want and the world we most want to live in, that is our choice (and not a terribly wise one at that). It has nothing to do with our capability and everything to do with our fear. Solomon was an imaginary figure. Even if he was based on a flesh and blood human being, what we know of him is a fantasy. His perceived limitations do not in any way define the limits of human potential. We are capable of more. We simply must decide to walk a different path. We must persistently determine to see more clearly the value of every person. It is not necessarily an easy path, but it is most assuredly a wise path.

Monday, November 19, 2012

2 Samuel 11-24: Pride and Gratitude (Infusing Our Thankfulness with Honesty and Recognizing the Extent of Our Abundance)

The rest of David's story as recorded in 2 Samuel is fraught with conflict befitting a soap opera, and not one you'd want to have on while the kids are in the room at that. The Chronicles version is somewhat cleaner, eliminating all of the indulgent behavior of David and his offspring and including in its place a riveting catalog of personnel. While this was likely an important account for ancient Israelite culture, such lists do not contain any more spiritual value for 21st century Westerners than any other extra-biblical lists of people. There is something realistic about the indulgent version of David in 2 Samuel, where he takes advantage of his position of authority, sleeps with another man's wife, conceives a child with her, and has her husband murdered. His household is a mess of incest, murder, revolution, and greed. In the midst of it all, there is a military adviser trying to hold things together politically and a spiritual adviser trying to hold David together morally.

As exciting as the story is, the spiritual message is somewhat odd. This immoral man is Yahweh's hope for the future of his people, despite his lack of capability when it comes to making the truly difficult decisions? Well, yes. No person can be perfect, so anyone chosen as leader will come with weaknesses and challenges. Somehow the Israelites who recorded the earlier version of their history understood that being in a position of power--even with the approval of the almighty--didn't make a person a better human being than anybody else. We might not sleep with another person's spouse and then conspire to have someone killed on a battlefield, but we are occasionally going to do things that are selfish and fail to value other people as much as we ought. We might not have children who try to usurp power and prove their superiority by sleeping with our harems in public, but from time to time we will be challenged by other people's behavior. And in spite of all of that, we have plenty of reasons to feel and express gratitude.

David expresses his gratitude in a song to Yahweh, whom he credits with victory in battle. David believes that his deity has protected him from human adversaries and has given him authority as king over foreigners. This is all well and good for a primitive society. Thousands of years later, however, we seem to still hear claims that God has protected us from harm and given us victory over adversity, even that God has made us prosperous or worked out circumstances for our benefit. In David's song, he comes close to claiming that he deserves God's blessing. The person who committed acts of adultery and murder just a couple of chapters back is claiming that:
"The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God.
All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees.
I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.
The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to my cleanness in his sight." (2 Sam. 22:21-25)
Really, David? What an interestingly blameless vision of yourself you seem to have cultivated. Perhaps you think that because you had a military victory or were otherwise fortunate that your previous behavior is unimportant to the point of being forgettable? Well, that's not an unfamiliar perspective to us, after all. When we dodge a bullet, slide in just under the wire, or avoid getting caught, it's tempting to think that what we did must not have been so wrong, because God protected us--he made sure we were safe and successful, so everything must be cool. A ludicrous claim, when you think about it. Gratitude is surely an attitude worth cultivating, but so is honesty.

Rather than a Davidic claim to superhuman holiness, it's worth recognizing that we Americans did nothing to earn the privilege of being born in one of the wealthiest places on the planet. We don't live blameless lives, not a one of us. We turn our backs on people, we give in to fear, we wrestle with moral and ethical issues, and we don't always come out smelling like a rose. None of us is perfect. None of us is truly worthy of a better life than anyone else. Many of us are lucky. Many of us are fortunate. Some would even say many of us are blessed. But what we have in our lives is not the result of our utter righteousness. And here I don't just mean the number after the dollar sign in our bank accounts, I mean clean water, abundant food, access to medical care, a level of safety that is unexpected in many parts of the world.

In this time of year when we think about gratitude a little bit more and acknowledge our undeserved privileges a little more easily, let's be honest as well as grateful. We haven't done anything to deserve our lives or our relationships. Whatever we have, it isn't because we did anything to be more worthy of it than anyone else. We have more to be grateful for than we ever take the time to realize. We aren't chosen, set apart for some greater purpose--we are simply fortunate. What we do with what we have is our responsibility. We can cultivate pride, or we can do all that we can to contribute to a better world. This is what gratitude enables us to choose. Honest gratitude allows us to recognize the worthlessness of our pride and to focus instead on our opportunities to practice generosity.

So, I invite you to take a moment--without needing to be clever or funny for an audience, without needing to impress anyone with your depth or insight, and without any reason to guard a sense of dignity or pride--just take a moment to be grateful for the many undeserved gifts of life. Through gratitude we have a chance to recognize our real abundance in life. That abundance doesn't mean that we should stop striving or growing. It simply puts that growth in a context: We don't need more, although we may want more. And when we have more, it means we have more to offer, not more to guard and protect. If we are honest, most of us will see that we truly have enough. Enough time. Enough money. Enough skill. Enough to be happy. Enough to share.

Monday, November 12, 2012

2 Samuel 6-10: Beliefs Are Worth Examining

The story of Yahweh's promise that David's throne would be established forever was nearly as important to the ancient Israelites as the legendary agreement made between Moses and Yahweh. After the kingdom of Israel split, the promise to David was understandably more important to Judah, the Israelite kingdom that kept the temple and the throne. Although David wanted to build a great temple to the Yahweh, it is his son Solomon who gets credit for that achievement in the book of Samuel. By the time the book of Chronicles was written, however, David was seen as having a much greater role in the temple planning. David's legendary status for the culture led the author(s) to leave out his human mistakes and failings that were recorded in Samuel. Incidentally, 1 Chronicles records the promise of Davidic rule in chapter 17 more or less identically to the version in 2 Samuel.

The challenge for the Israelites was the same as it is for many people today: Once you take a stand on a particular belief, you look at the world through that lens. If the belief and the world seem to be in conflict, we try to figure out why. Typically, we don't want to give up our belief (because then we would have to admit that we were wrong about something), and we can't change the world. So, we invent some reason that the conflict might exist. The ancient Israelites eventually had to invent reasons why their kingdom was overthrown and they were taken into exile. Some people decided that the promise to David was not unconditional, and that the nation's unfaithfulness toward their cultural religion had landed them in hot water. Others decided that the promise to David meant that restoration was imminent. Later, some people in the Christian sect would trace the lineage of Jesus back to David, thus establishing Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise of eternal rule.

History is a strange and liquid creature. We do not report every detail when we recount history; we concentrate on those events that seem to form a pattern. We look at events that seem significant, either because of their impact on the world or because of their place in a sequence of events. We learn about the inventors of significant machines or processes, but we do not learn about the inventor of the spring or specialized wing nut that allowed the larger machine to function. We remember the names of assassins or generals, the dates of battles and victories, and when we delve into the systems and subcultures to gain a clear understanding of what led up to significant events, we know what we're looking for. We seek to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that make sense of history. Some people recording the history of the ancient Israelites saw certain cause-and-effect chains, while other people had a different perspective. In the biblical narrative, both are preserved to a certain extent, but they are every bit a product of their culture.

Israelite historians -- at least the ones that wrote anything that wound up in the Bible -- always traced their cause-and-effect chains back to God. When God was pleased, he allowed their country to prosper. When God was angry, he allowed foreign powers to destroy their cities. We have the same kind of thinkers in our world today. "I'm wealthy, and therefore God must want me to be prosperous while others struggle." "I'm sick or injured, so God must want me to suffer for some reason." Hurricanes become messages from God rather than natural events. Elections are interpreted as punishment or blessing rather than democratic process. Our personal lives become mysterious chains of cause-and-effect that are beyond our control if God is seen as the one moving the pieces on the board, while we are left to figure out why. When we look back at history, whether it is our own personal history or the history of a larger community, are we honestly seeing rational chains of events? Or are we crediting supernatural forces with some intelligent purpose in the course of history that we can only observe?

In the biblical narrative, when David hears the promise from Yahweh for the first time, it is delivered by the prophet Nathan. There haven't been a lot of prophets in the narrative before this point, but they become more important in the generations that follow David. Prophets in the Bible speak for God. They call people to accountability, and they make predictions based on the signs of the times. Sometimes their prognostications are intended to tell people to shape up, and sometimes they offer messages of hope. Ancient peoples relied upon prophets because they didn't believe that just anyone could have direct access to the divine. Of course, people didn't always listen to the prophets' messages. It all depended on how much the prophet was challenging something the people believed.

Many people today have very adamant beliefs. Some of these are religious beliefs, but most people wind up with a whole catalog of beliefs about themselves, other people, life in general, the government, the economy, and on and on. Most people are not well practiced at examining those beliefs when something in reality doesn't line up with their beliefs, however. It's easier on some level to concoct another auxiliary belief to explain any discrepancies between our beliefs and reality. We might wind up with an enormous pile of beliefs all designed to support one thing about which we've decided to dig in our heels, never examining how reasonable or beneficial those beliefs are. Our entire view of reality -- including our view of ourselves -- may be clouded by a mass of beliefs we've never really examined.

The divine is somewhere underneath that pile of beliefs. If there is any guidance to be had from the divine, we have to clear away some of the irrationalities to which we've grown accustomed and make sure that our beliefs make sense. No prophet can come along and tell you what the divine wants from you. No one knows what the divine is doing in someone else's life. When anyone claims to know what God wants for somebody else's life, that person is lying, whether they realize it or not. The prophets in our lives might point us toward the divine within us. Our prophets can hold us accountable to the agreements we have made. But people can not know what the divine intends for anyone but themselves. Whenever someone claims to speak for God, all they are expressing is their own personal values and desires. They are speaking from within their own big pile of unexamined and unquestioned beliefs, describing their own clouded view of reality as if their perspective is the only possible way to see the world. It is an understandable perspective. After all, their view is honestly the only possible way for them to see the world in that moment.

Here is a view of reality for you to test against your own beliefs:
People matter.
What we do has an impact on other people, and since people matter, what we do matters.
And if what we do matters, then it's worth being conscious of what we are doing.
It's worth being conscious of what we are doing because the people we touch matter.

And if people matter, then we matter.
If we matter, then we are worth our own care and attention.
What we do is informed by what we believe,
so our beliefs are worth some care and attention as well.
If we take the time to examine what we believe and consider the impact of what we do,
we stand a better chance of living the kinds of lives we want to live,
because if people matter -- if we matter -- then it only makes sense to live like people matter.

If we insist on believing and doing things that devalue ourselves or other people,
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that people don't matter?
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that we don't matter?
Are we alright with that?
I believe that there is no intelligent supernatural being orchestrating events in history or making promises for the future. I believe that our stories as individuals and as a people are accounts of human success and failure, of intentional and unintentional human actions that have consequences. Our histories and our futures are stories about us, not merely stories that we witness from the sidelines. And since all of our stories are human stories about people, I must conclude that people matter. I cannot do otherwise. For me, this is truth. Against this truth, all of my beliefs can be weighed, all of my actions evaluated.

What is your truth? Really? Do your beliefs and actions reflect that truth? Are you happy with that? Does it lead you to the life you most want to live? To the world you most want to create?

Monday, November 5, 2012

2 Samuel 1-5: God Does Not Appoint Leaders, Send Hurricanes, or Determine the Outcomes of Wars

Back in chapter 16 of the First Book of Samuel, the biblical narrative suggests that God chose David to be the next king of Israel.  He had chosen Saul before, but he wound up regretting that decision, so apparently he was hoping for better luck with David.  When one reads the first five chapters of the Second Book of Samuel, it's apparent that not everyone agreed with God's decision.  David and his supporters apparently had to fight for acknowledgement from the rest of the Israelite people, at least in the account in Samuel.  The book of Chronicles doesn't mention all of the infighting among the Israelites, since this would presumably be poor form.  After the fact, it's easy to read some kind of intelligent plan at work, but the truth of the matter is that it was the actions of people that determined leadership, just as it is today.

In this election season, as with some previous elections, certain Christian leaders are suggesting that the outcome of the presidential elections will reflect either God's blessing on America or God's judgment.  To listen to some people speak, it is as if the elections have nothing to do with voters or the electoral college and everything to do with divine intervention.  While there is nothing inherently morally or ethically wrong about seeking comfort from a belief in a divine plan, the ramifications of that belief are potentially dangerous, especially when people stop thinking for themselves and allow other extremist views to abuse their belief in divine providence for personal gain.

It's healthily optimistic to say that good can come from any circumstance, or that there is something to be learned from every situation.  This kind of thinking prompts people to take some measure of responsibility for outcomes in their lives, and it encourages awareness of opportunities rather than restrictions.  When this thinking shifts to some external entity, however, it becomes more dangerous.  It blurs the clear lines between the things over which people have authentic power in their lives and the things that are beyond their control.  On the one hand, if it becomes God's responsibility to work everything out for good, then personal power is minimized.  People develop a perception of themselves as weak and incapable.  On the other hand, if people believe that God is going to work things out for their benefit (often at a cost to someone else) this can lead to a sense of superiority that is unwarranted and harmful.

To address the first scenario, people are simply not weak and incapable.  There are systems in place in various parts of the world that are oppressive, and there are natural limits to what an individual can control. In terms of how one is going to live in the midst of one's circumstances, however, people have power over their own choices and decisions.  Even in America, where most twenty-first century citizens know nothing of real oppression, if circumstances don't line up to our desires, we cry out as though our value as human beings was at stake.  Some people believe that they are oppressed when someone merely voices an opinion different from theirs.  Of course, some of this is for show.  Melodramatic righteous indignation can be convincing.  People are not really so weak that another person's opinion can harm them.  And yet, we often play the victim rather than create the lives we truly want.

There are places in the world in which dictators and tyrants take action against defenseless innocent people.  Some people would suggest that the United States military takes action against defenseless innocent people.  This certainly reflects an authentic powerlessness to control the behavior of those who are willing to abuse their authority at the expense of others.  Our power as human beings does not extend to the actions of others, but everyone everywhere has the personal capability to manage their own thoughts and behaviors if they choose to do so.  Sometimes this is admittedly a challenge.

Belief that God is in full control of all the world's activities often gives people a skewed sense of reality, though.  If God exerts such active control that he chooses leaders, then God is also responsible for all of the tyrants and malevolent dictators in various parts of the world.  If God sends hurricanes to punish a group of people, he is also responsible for every natural disaster that has made life more challenging for deeply religious people.  He is responsible for every earthquake, tsunami, and mudslide that profoundly impacted the very impoverished people the Bible says are worthy of compassion.  If God chooses sides in war and justifies the military actions of believers, then he is accountable for all of the "collateral damage" in terms of innocent lives and economic and political turmoil that results from those military actions.  Is he also responsible for traffic collisions?  Plant explosions?  Gang violence?  The housing bubble?  Where does his control over people's actions stop and personal responsibility begin?  

The ancient Israelites looked at their history and saw successes and failures, heroes and tyrants, and they determined that their god was responsible for their circumstances.  Other peoples in the ancient world had similar perspectives.  Various Roman emperors, ruling a thousand years after David, even believed that declines in Roman culture could be remedied by returning to more fervent worship of the Roman gods.  Due to the tenacity of their beliefs, the Israelites would eventually claim that their god was responsible for placing foreign oppressors in power, for allowing the Israelites to be taken into exile, for orchestrating the outcomes of wars of all the nations around them.  It is a perspective that ignores the capability and responsibility of individuals and communities and places control squarely in the hands of an imaginary figure that cannot be controlled.

Except that God can be controlled, in the minds of the ancient Israelites and in the minds of twenty-first century Christians.  For the ancient Israelites, God was susceptible to their behavior.  If they were faithful to the requirements of their cultural religion, then God would show them favor.  If they misbehaved, then God would exercise judgment and wrath.  The actions of the people controlled the actions of God.  Today, some people believe that they can pray circumstances into being, that fervent prayer will convince God to sway the election in their favor, will help the poor and oppressed in other parts of the world, will change laws about abortion and marriage rights.  Prayer is thought to keep people safe on the roads, when actual skill and awareness as a driver probably has more of an impact in that arena.  In the minds of some people, if enough people pray with enough faith, no other action is required.  As if God will take care of the details and work everything out to benefit us, often  at the expense of the less faithful -- or at least at the expense of the people who do not agree with us.  The twisted ramifications of this kind of belief are staggering.

We are responsible for our lives and our actions.  As individuals, we are responsible for our personal choices and decision, and as a collective we are responsible for the outcomes of our collective decisions.  God did not put David on the throne of Israel; a bunch of people with swords and the will to use them put David on the throne.  God does not send hurricanes to punish sinners; hurricanes and other disasters are just a natural part of the world we inhabit.  God does not determine the outcomes of wars, and belief in God does not justify any measure of violence against other human beings.  Violence in the world is fully the responsibility of the people who carry out the violence, whether they be gang members or decorated soldiers.  God is not a valid scapegoat for human atrocities. 

And God is not responsible for elections.  Whoever wins or loses, God is not trying to send any sort of message of approval or disappointment.  Elections are determined by people.  Perhaps there are problems worth addressing in the system by which leaders are elected, but those problems are within the sole purview of human beings, not an external divine agent.  If we want our lives to be better, it is our responsibility to make them so.  If we want other people's lives to be better, then we must do more than toss pennies into a wishing well.  If something within us is calling us to take action to connect with other people, then we are responsible for taking that action.  If we want our country to be a better place, then it is up to us to connect with other people in this enormous community -- to connect with them and listen to them, without being so self-assured of our superiority that we will accept no view but our own.

God did not appoint David to leadership, and God is not pulling strings today.  But the divine nature within us is constantly at work, calling us to act in ways that are congruent with our deepest selves, seeking connection with other people, challenging us to set aside fear and take responsibility for our impact in the world, for our impact on other people.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for people to set aside personal responsibility, it is time to examine that belief very critically.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for feeling superior, it is time to examine oneself very critically.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for hatred and violence, it is time to look in the mirror and ask, "What do I stand for?" 

When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, he used one word to summarize that ideal: love.  The ancient Israelites didn't get it.  Their histories are full of the evidence that they floundered to make sense of their cultural religion.  Their beliefs led them in many directions as a result.  If our belief leads us in any other direction than love, then our belief serves neither us nor the world.  Whether you believe in God, in the divine within each person, or in something else entirely, the only valid application of that belief is ultimately love.  How is that love being expressed in your life and speech and actions today?