* 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.

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