* 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 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?

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