* 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, December 4, 2012

1 Kings 3-11: Wisdom, Slavery, and Human Dignity

Solomon was reputed to be the wisest man in the world; he was certainly legendary among the Israelites for his wisdom. Of course, some of the tales of his wisdom seem remarkably similar to other tales about other people in other cultures, but such is the way of folklore: why tell a good story about some other people when you can tell it about your own people? Solomon's record doesn't hold up well in the long run, however. As the last king over a united Israelite kingdom, he set the stage for a division that would not be resolved before foreign powers conquered the whole of Israel and Judah. Solomon's deeds are recorded in 1 Kings, and also in 2 Chronicles, the latter author often lifting passages directly from the earlier account.

Building the temple in Jerusalem was Solomon's real claim to fame in Israelite culture. The extravagant worship and sacrifice center was intended to be a unifying feature of religion and community, cementing the culture and the people. As it is described in biblical passages, it does indeed seem like an impressive structure, and Solomon, as he is portrayed in the text, says all of the appropriate pious things. We even know that Yahweh approves, because the ark of the covenant makes it to the temple without anyone dying, a spooky cloud inhabits the temple when it's finished, and Yahweh blatantly tells Solomon that he's put his stamp of approval on the place. He also issues an eerily predictive warning about what will happen if the Israelites are unfaithful. 

One of Solomon's problems is how much he likes the ladies. Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines worth of ladies, if the author of Kings is to be believed. (The author of Chronicles leaves this embarrassingly indulgent menagerie out of Solomon's biography.) These women, many of them foreigners with their own cultures and their own gods, influenced Solomon to such an extent that he built other places of worship in his kingdom, where people could go and worship other gods other than the Israelite's Yahweh. This undermined his pious image at the very least, and it also triggered the warning Yahweh had pronounced (partially explaining for the Israelites who were taken into exile why their temple was destroyed from a theological perspective).

The real misstep, however, was Solomon's labor force for building the extravagant temple. First, the account in Kings reveals that Solomon "conscripted laborers from all over Israel" and it explicitly refers to "forced labor" (1 Ki. 5:13-14). Later on (1 Ki. 9:20-23) there is an attempt to clarify that only non-Israelite people were made into slaves; this is the passage that 2 Chronicles chooses to include, incidentally. When Solomon's son Rehoboam gains the throne, the hard labor endured under Solomon's reign is enough of an issue for people that the kingdom undergoes a division that would only be reconciled through destruction and exile. Even if the Israelites were not technically slaves, their labor was unbearable enough to spark a revolution against Rehoboam. Allegedly the wisest of men, Solomon was somehow blind to the fact that people will only tolerate oppressive subjugation for so long, even though the story of his own culture is based on this reality.

According to their cultural origin story, the Israelites themselves were once slaves in Egypt, and even though their conditions were not reported to be extraordinarily harsh, they rose up and fled en masse, looting the Egyptians as they went. Somehow, despite this powerful folk history, Solomon concludes that slavery is appropriate when the Israelites are in charge. According to the reports of his wealth, he had abundant resources to pay for the labor that went into building his temples and palaces; he simply chose not to. Slave labor is certainly better from a purely financial standpoint. But Israel's success as a united nation ended with Solomon; his crowning achievement was reduced to rubble. One can blame Rehoboam for being pigheaded, but the unrest stemmed directly from Solomon's policies. Perhaps Solomon didn't really care what happened to his people once he was dead. He certainly lived an insulated life of luxury, along with his thousand-woman harem.

If there was a real historical Solomon, he may have been a wise leader. The Solomon of the Bible was short-sighted, self-indulgent, and tyrannical. People intrinsically know that slavery is morally and ethically wrong; even people who oppress others know that it's wrong. Otherwise, their actions would be completely out in the open and matter-of-fact. People would not revolt against slavery or try to escape their oppressive circumstances if it was natural and just. But human beings will naturally reject the conditions of oppressions and slavery, sometimes even when that oppression is only a perception. Those who would oppress or enslave have to go to great lengths to keep people from revolting or finding a way to freedom. This is a big clue that there is something out of balance.

The problem is that we can fail to hold ourselves as equal to the people we would control. When we concentrate on how the Other is different, it is a short step in our minds to deciding that the Other is inferior--and that we are superior. It somehow seems justifiable to subject an Inferior Other to what we would violently reject in our own lives. It seems justifiable, but it never actually seems right or moral.

It creates dissonance within us at some level when we fail to honor basic human dignity, and we may go to great lengths to overpower that dissonance with extravagant behavior. Some people become extravagantly angry; some people become extravagant in their drunkenness; some are extravagant in their isolationism; some are extravagant in the size of their harems. We distract ourselves from addressing the behaviors that do not make sense to us at a very deep level. Perhaps a part of us fears what our actions reflect about our true character. What can be said about a person who is willing to abuse and oppress other human beings? And if we peel back our empty justifications and recognize the sameness of all people, what does it say about us? What does it mean that we have the same human dignity as the people we would abuse, oppress, or control?

Truthfully, we cannot rob people of their worth. We cannot even rob ourselves of our own worth. We can ignore and deny all we want, but just being human grants us a measure of value. When we enslave or oppress other people, it is always an indication of our own fears. "I can't afford to pay other people for their work and still be as wealthy as I want. I'm afraid of being poor, so I'll force them to work for free." Or "I'm afraid that no one will ever sincerely love me, so I'll force someone to simulate the kind of relationship I want." Or "We're afraid that our beliefs and mores are fading away, so we'll force other people to behave the way we think they should." Or any number of other manifestations. Our fears make it seem alright for us to hold other people as inferior and treat them in a way that we know to be morally and ethically wrong. In all honesty, we are capable of accomplishing the things we want or creating the relationships we want without resorting to controlling other people. It just may take a bit of effort and dedication on our part. Recognizing the irrationality of our fear, admitting our own capability and abundance, and acknowledging that we are not intrinsically superior to other human beings, dismantles the justification for oppression.

We want to have our way. This is understandable. It's even understandable that we want to have our way with a minimum of sacrifice on our part. When we determine that it's alright to take advantage of another human being in order to have our way, however, we entertain the idea that we are superior to, better than, more valuable than. We might even find reasons to justify that lie, but in our heart of hearts we know that it is a lie. People have inherent worth and dignity. We each have inherent worth and dignity. When we find reasons to oppress or enslave others to our own wants, we deny that inherent worth and dignity--for them and for ourselves. That denial lacks wisdom, integrity, and honesty, and it will most likely prompt a reaction we won't enjoy. Better to begin from the assertion of human value and find a way to what we want from that starting point. It is not only possible, but in the grand scheme of things, it is necessary. 

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