* 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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mark 12: Vineyards and Cornerstones

In the next chapter of the gospel of Mark, after the business with the fig tree and Jesus' refusal to credential himself, the author includes several teachings that supposedly originated with Jesus during his time in Jerusalem. The author portrays some of the religious leaders of the day as scandalized by most of these teachings, presumably because they interpreted some criticism in Jesus' words. The first of these teachings is in the form of a story, or parable, and it is copied from the gospel of Mark with some slight variation in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke. Many Bibles call this the parable of the wicked tenants, although such titles are much later conventions than the oldest extant copies of the text.

In this story, a man hires some people to run his business (a vineyard) while he is away. They decide that they can keep all the profits for themselves, so they abuse (or kill) every person the landowner sends to collect, including the landowner's son, thinking that they will be able to keep the place for themselves. According to this teaching, there will be dire consequences when the landowner shows up himself. The author of Mark follows the story with a quote from Psalm 118, but the connection is never explained directly. There is only the general sense that the chief priests, scribes, and elders ("they" here referring all the way back to the end of Mark 11) suspected that Jesus had said something derogatory about them.

The interpretation of this parable in the gospel of Matthew is more explicit. In this variation of events, Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees that they are like the wicked tenants in the parable. The author also suggests what the connection with Psalm 118 is, although many ancient copies of the text don't have the verse that clarifies this connection. It was quite possibly copied from the version of the parable in the gospel of Luke, in an editorial attempt to make the different variations match up more closely.

In Luke, the basic parable is the same, but the Psalm 118 quote is shorter. There is no explicit unpacking of the teaching itself, but the author makes a direct connection of the story to the line about "the stone that the builders rejected." Some translators use the word cornerstone and others use keystone to describe how that rejected stone actually functions. In one sense, that stone is a foundational support, and in the other, it is the center stone of an archway that holds everything together. Either symbol is useful, with more or less equivalent interpretation into life application. Still, although it's obviously a reference to the consequences of the wicked tenant's actions, the identity of the symbolic stone is still vague. Even in the original psalm, the bit about the cornerstone is not specific. It is a general poetic statement that what some experts believed to be an unsuitable foundation for action has been demonstrated to be an ideal foundation for action. The credit for that revelation is attributed to God, of course, since that was part and parcel to the culture.

The main point of the parable seems to be that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (Mt 21:43). In other words, the very thing that the tenants were aiming for will become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. The very thing that the religious leaders were aiming for will likewise become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. This is not a prediction of future events, but a warning to people who are trying to reach a destination with a faulty set of directions.

You can't build something truly impressive with rotten materials. You can't build loving relationships with fear. You can't build a lasting, admirable reputation on lies. You can't build the kingdom of God on political power and social coercion. There is more that we can say about this, but there are some terms here that may need to be clarified a bit. What is the "kingdom of God," that it could be taken away from people who claim to be believers? What are the "fruits of the kingdom" for that matter? And what is the foundational stone that has been rejected by the people who claim to be expert builders?

Many of these questions likely had specific answers for the original author of the quoted psalm, and for the original authors of the gospels. Such terms have been subject to interpretation for centuries, and there is little agreement among biblical scholars, although many assume that the stone referred to here is Jesus, because some epistles interpret it this way. For early biblical authors, the kingdom of God was not a synonym for Heaven, as is clear even from some of the words put into Jesus' mouth by the gospel writers. "Kingdom of God" is a tough term for us today, when we don't think very highly of monarchies and when scientific discovery has increasingly eliminated the need for belief in supernaturals. Instead of such a loaded term, we can think of this as the kind of world that everyone really wants to live in, if all of our irrational fears were dismantled and we were honest about what we actually value. The kingdom of God is simply a better world than what we experience right now--a world that is characterized by equity, justice, and compassion. These qualities are the "fruit" (outcome or result) of living like that better world is a possibility.

What would prevent the tenants in the parable and the religious leaders of the first century from practicing equity, justice, and compassion? One might say greed. Certainly that seems to be the motivating drive of the tenants. Greed is just another word for fear, though. Greed is fear of scarcity. The religious leaders may have reacted out of fear of scarcity, too. Possibly, they feared insignificance or powerlessness. Their fear overrode their capacity to find peaceful solutions to problems. Fear prevented them from dreaming big with regard to what their people and their world could become. They were more interested in control--conserving what power and wealth they could among a small number of people. This fear-driven conservatism has never resulted in long-term sustainability for any people. Not only were they not creating as much equity, justice, and compassion as they could have in the world around them, they were also preventing the very thing they claimed to want. The tenants in the story had lost the vineyard, and the religious leaders had lost the kingdom of God.

All of this is still a warning cry to the representatives of the church in the twenty-first century. While a great hue and cry often goes up against the non-believers or "unsaved" or "infidels," many of the most visible representatives of religion still build on a foundation of fear rather than equity, justice, and compassion. According to this parable, the people who will actually experience a better world ("the kingdom of God") are not just the people who claim to believe certain things or even people who claim to have a personal relationship with the spirit of a centuries-dead Palestinian. The people who will experience a better world are the ones who create that better world through displaying its evidence--people who actually practice equity, justice, and compassion. Many believers and religious leaders seem not to know that their gospel narratives make this assertion.

What is the proper foundation, then? What is the identity of a cornerstone that promotes equity, justice, and compassion. One interpretation of that stone that some have offered is hope, specifically hope in supernatural guidance and aid, and hope in a desirable afterlife. The problem with the brand of hope offered by many religious traditions, however, is that it's based on mythology and folklore. One doesn't claim sincere hope for leprechauns to make personal debt disappear, or hope for Aphrodite to actually intervene in one's romantic affairs. Genuine hope needs something a bit more solid.

Before you defend the legitimacy of religious hope too vigorously, consider the number of believers currently in prison because of fear-based actions, the number of believers who have been caught in sexual scandals, the number of believers who prefer to divorce rather than work on their relationships, and the number of believers who abuse their children and spouses. People who have legitimate hope in a supernatural who loves them and works all things for their good should presumably also have lives defined by less fear, violence, and harmful behavior than people who lack that kind of hope. The actual data suggests that believers have as difficult a time as everybody else--if not greater difficulty--behaving in a way that reflects equity, justice, and compassion, despite alleged supernatural guidance. So, I suggest that hope needs something a bit more solid underneath it.

If the stone is not a mythological savior, and the stone is not empty hope, what could possibly be an ideal that has been rejected as a worthwhile foundation by many people who strive to build a better world? Several candidates come to mind, actually. Reason is one fine foundation, for those who are capable and willing to employ it. Unfortunately, many people seem to lack the skill to reason well, and many people strangely prefer not to reason well. Self-awareness is another fine foundation. The more we understand ourselves, the more we can act intentionally in the world. This, too, may bump up against some limitations of personal ability, however. So, I'll propose a third identity for the foundation stone that has been rejected by nearly everyone: radical, unconditional love.

You may have just rejected that in your mind when you read it. You may have even rejected it out loud. We've grown accustomed to believing that love doesn't solve anything, possibly because of how we decide to define love. I'm thinking here of affectionate concern for the well-being of others. Not merely strong positive emotions toward someone, because emotions are not completely within our control. Not concern for the well-being of people such that we decide we have to manage their lives and decisions for them because they aren't capable of doing it for themselves. That's control, not love. Radical love is a conscious decision that incorporates all of humanity in that sphere of affectionate concern. Unconditional love means that we don't exclude anybody from our pursuit of equity, justice, and compassion. One advantage to calling radical, unconditional love a cornerstone is that it's exactly what the Jesus of the gospel narratives tells people, so it ought to be something with which any believer would agree.

Everyone's cornerstones don't necessarily need to be the same thing. It's important to recognize, though, that violence, oppression, shame, and dishonesty do not create the kind of lives we most want or the kind of world we most want to live in. There is no external supernatural. We are responsible for building a better world. To do that, we absolutely must learn to dismantle our irrational fears and we must strive toward emotional maturity. Beyond that, we can determine what guiding principles to build on. I believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that keystone holds the entire archway of my life together pretty well. Right now, I'm happy with identifying my cornerstones as science, reason, self-differentiation, and radical unconditional love.

What are your cornerstones? Having four corners makes sense to me. Maybe you have more cornerstones or fewer cornerstones. Maybe you just have one keystone that holds everything together. Whatever the case, your foundation is strongest when it actually makes sense to you. Base your life on things you can actually trust and verify. Don't claim things out of shame or obligation when your deepest, most noble self rejects them. Build on truth, not on fear. When you feel driven toward violence, or toward trying to control other people's lives, or toward pretending to be something that you aren't, you're not building on solid ground. You are the only person who can build the life you most want. All of us together can build a better world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Isaiah 11-12: Common Ideals (and the "law of attraction")

It's said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One reason for this is that sometimes when we know a little bit about something, we misconstrue that as expertise. We often think that we have a fuller picture than we actually have -- that our grasp of a concept is more complete than it actually is. This is one reason that some ancient passages like Isaiah 11-12 get interpreted to mean things they were never intended to mean. Of course, this stretch of Isaiah isn't unique in this regard; we are often contentedly ignorant of the larger context of our knowledge. We enjoy having a certain degree of ignorance, because then we can make things mean what we want them to mean. Although it can be a challenge, it benefits us to take a broader look before we draw conclusions.

In the midst of a discussion this week, a friend of mine made reference to using the scientific method to prove the "law of attraction." Essentially, the "law of attraction" suggests that positive or negative thinking can create positive or negative results, to the extent that what one finds in the day's mail can be determined by what one expects to find in the day's mail. The idea started in the early nineteenth century as part of the New Thought Movement and has been promoted by a mixture of well-intentioned believers who are adept at fooling themselves and outright charlatans who are adept at fooling others. Recently, the idea of the "law of attraction" was promoted in the film The Secret and a variety of books that promise to show people how to think themselves into health, wealth, and happiness. They claim that the concept is based on scientific principles, but unfortunately, it's nonsense.

Why do people believe such things? Why do we latch on to an appealing idea and then seek to make it true in our lives, when we know that it doesn't quite make sense? If we were to actually employ the scientific method, we would take this "attraction" hypothesis and develop genuine experiments to disprove it. We would consider other possibilities that would better explain the results we experienced. We would honestly recognize all of the times when our thinking had not produced the reality we most desired, as well as all of the times when our thinking had effectively formed reality. Of course, we would need a controlled way to determine whether our thinking had effectively formed reality. We would not be able to take any actions toward creating what we wanted if we were genuinely testing the theory. We would have to limit our engagement to the realm of thinking positive thoughts and honestly examining the results in our lives. This would possibly be a scientific evaluation of the theory. I encourage you to test it out if the "law of attraction" seems compelling to you, but test it honestly.

There are a number of things we should take into consideration when we draw conclusions. One is that we are susceptible to confirmation bias; we know what we want the answer to be, and we orchestrate our experiments or our results to "prove" what we already want to believe. Another is selection bias; we ignore evidence contrary to what we want to believe and concentrate our attention only on those pieces of evidence that support what we want to believe. We might also consider what our conclusions mean in a broader context. For instance, the "law of attraction" sounds great when it's about getting rich and being healthy, but what happens when you get a diagnosis of cancer or get into a traffic collision? If the "law of attraction" is taken seriously, you thought those realities into being; your negative thinking caused your cancer and your collision.

Our beliefs have consequences because our beliefs inform our actions. Most likely, positive thinking plays a role in success, but not because of any "law of attraction." Positive thinking may encourage people to exert more effort toward their goal, to keep pressing toward a desired result even when the path is difficult. Our belief in our ability to accomplish what we have set out to do fuels our actions, and our actions create results.

So, what does any of this have to do with Isaiah 11-12? For one thing, people often read the Bible or other scripture and assume that what they read there is unique, that their own sacred text is superior to every other source of truth. Our assertions about where truth can be found are often susceptible to confirmation bias, selection bias, and lack of thorough examination. We often choose to believe that we have access to some special knowledge, when honestly, what we see is just one thread of a much larger tapestry.

Nearly every Ancient Near East culture expressed an ideal ruler in language similar to Isaiah 11. Many cultures connected kings with divinity, often in terms very much like Isaiah 11:2, in which the divine grants authority and capability to the ruler. Every Ancient Near East culture praised their deities for victories and successes. Many cultures had a concept of a "peaceable kingdom" in which the threat of dangerous animals was removed, and thus fear had no place. Some of these cultures foresaw a removal of the animals themselves, but Egypt's version matches Isaiah very closely: The animals remain, but their ferocity is removed. The ideals expressed in Isaiah (with the exception of a reunited Israel and Judah) are common to all of the peoples living in that area at that time. Rather than assume that Isaiah is somehow superior, it may be more informative to consider why those ideals resonated with these different cultures.

Even for people who engaged in a lot of bloody warfare, the ideal was for there to be a ruler who was wise enough to value peace. The ideal ruler is less concerned with personal gain and pride and more concerned with doing what is just and right. Justice, equity, and compassion will be valued more than wealth, power, and prestige. Peace and partnership shall gain priority over conquest and claims of superiority. Isaiah envisions this future idealized partnership between Judah and Israel as crushing their enemy nations to the point that they are no longer a threat. None of these nations ever realized these ideals, however, perhaps in part because they only envisioned justice and righteousness for themselves. Just thinking those ideals had value didn't bring them into reality.

Isaiah sees this idealized ruler as emerging from "the stump of Jesse," Jesse being David's father. From Isaiah's perspective, things had really gone awry for Israel. Although there was a perceived agreement between Yahweh and David, Isaiah was hoping for something even more than the fulfillment of that agreement. Isaiah is suggesting that there will be a new David, even better than the first -- a divinely ordained ruler emerging from what seemed like a spiritually dead line. His interest in a restored and united Israel (meaning both Judah and Israel, which he distinguishes here euphemistically as Ephraim) distinguishes Isaiah from other Ancient Near East writers, but the ideals are not exclusive to Isaiah or Israel.

Some people still hold these same ideals, or at least claim to. Some of us still recognize that peace is better than violence, although we keep finding excuses to solve our problems with violence rather than through peaceful means. Some of us still hold justice, equity, and compassion as ideals in human relationships, although we keep finding reasons to be absorbed by our fears around wealth, power, and prestige. Here's the real secret: just thinking that peace is better will not make us more peaceful. Just thinking that we value justice, equity, and compassion will not create a more just, equitable, or compassionate reality. If we really value these ideals, we have to act in accord with them. If we recognize that violence is not the best solution to our problems, and that struggling to gain or preserve wealth and power cannot create the kind of world we really hold as an ideal, it is our responsibility to do something different.

We can't change the world by just thinking of a better world. We can't even change our lives by just thinking of better lives. We can take our ideals seriously, however, and we can act like we actually value the things we claim to value. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by living more peaceful lives. If we want a more just, equitable, and compassionate world, we start by living more just, equitable, and compassionate lives. Our beliefs and our values matter, because our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions contribute toward creating the reality we most want.

What do you really believe in? What do you really value?
Are you willing to act accordingly?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mark 11: (Don't) Let Them Eat Figs -- Problematic Lessons on Prayer

Surrounding the story of Jesus causing a ruckus in the temple in the gospel of Mark is a problematic lesson about faith and prayer which begins when Jesus curses a fig tree. The gospel of Matthew includes this fig tree episode, but places it just after the cleansing of the temple. For whatever reason the author(s) of Matthew include the end of the fig tree lesson earlier, after an exorcism story. The gospel of Luke doesn't say anything about the fig tree, or draw the same conclusions about faith and prayer (although the Gospel of Thomas twice proclaims that people can move mountains, not by faith, but by being at peace and in unity with one another). The final passage from Mark 11, dealing with the source of authority for Jesus' actions and teachings, appears in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, more or less just as the gospel of Mark conveys it. In Matthew, this passage follows just after the fig tree episode, just as it is in Mark. In Luke, this passage about authority occurs immediately after the cleansing of the temple.

We should also ask a question about a source of authority, but first, let's examine what happens with this fig tree. It's not the season for the fig tree to bear fruit, but since Jesus is hungry, he curses the fig tree. The next time the disciples see the tree, it has withered and died, and they assume that this is because Jesus pronounced a curse on it. Jesus goes on to tell them that if they have enough faith, they will be able to pray for anything and receive it, even if what they want defies natural law. He also says that people should forgive others when they pray.

Forgiving people is generally a good idea. Yet, this lesson leaves some gaping questions. If Jesus could ask for anything he wanted, including having a mountain go for a walk, why didn't he ask for the fig tree to bear fruit out of season? After all, what he actually wanted was food, right? Or did he really, deeply just want to make a tree wither? What is accomplished by this that would not have been accomplished by causing fruit to appear on the tree? He could have satisfied his hunger and made a very potent illustration about the power of faith. The lesson actually seems to be, "when you are bitter about not getting what you want, you can punish even nature for displeasing you, if you have enough faith." What an immature (not to mention utterly false) idea!

There are some things we know about the way the world behaves. Sure, there are plenty of things that we still have to learn, but the hypothesis that people's thoughts and wishes alone can change natural law has been tested and disproved. "Natural law" means that consistent observations made over a long period of time, by a variety of observers, has yielded predictable patterns. Trees don't wither because you curse them. Mountains don't move because you pray for them to. Don't believe me? You don't have to. Try it out.

Believe in yourself, or believe in whatever supernatural you like, and curse a tree that's in full bloom. Don't take any other actions to harm the tree; just curse it. Preferably gather some impartial observers, too. If your curse fails to affect the tree, is it really because you don't believe strongly enough? Or is it because curses don't really do anything?

Perhaps the idea of cursing something is too harsh. Try another experiment then. Pray for your lemon tree to bloom with roses. Or for your oak tree to sprout pomegranates. Pray for it. Really believe that it will happen. As the gospel of Mark says, believe that you have already received it. When your experiment is concluded, will you decide that your faith is weak? Or will you recognize that lemon trees don't produce roses and oak trees don't produce pomegranates? And don't excuse a failed experiment by quoting the line about not testing God. The same Jesus that is purported to have quoted that line to the devil is the one telling his disciples they can make mountains dance if they really want to.

Here's a better idea. Figure out what you really want, and do something to create it. If what you really want in your heart of hearts is to kill a fig tree, you can figure out a way to do it. We can even literally move big chunks of earth around with the right machinery. Even when we really, deeply want something, it isn't made available to us just because we want it, or wish for it, or pray for it -- even if we wish with every ounce of our being, and even if we pray with impeccable confidence. Some things are not within our control, even if we want them very badly. We can't wish people back to life; we can't pray disease away. Our wishes or prayers can't eliminate our debt, or make people like or respect us, or land us a job, or allow us to pass a test with no preparation. The studies have been done; the research is conclusive. Wishing and praying don't alter reality. Some things we are better off accepting.

We do have some influence over some things, though. When we are sharp about what we really want, beyond the fears and entitlements and vows that often impede our connection with ourselves, we have some capability to effect change. If we want better health, we have some control over our behavior and environment. If we want better relationships, we have some control over our willingness to listen, to be vulnerable, to love. If we want a more just world, we have some control over how we express compassion and speak out for justice. The things we really want in our lives and in the world are not about withering trees and moving mountains. More often than not, the things we really want are about growing within ourselves and influencing other people in a positive way. We don't do that by wishing or praying; we grow and influence by taking meaningful action.

When the question of authority comes up for Jesus in the gospel narrative, the authors aren't clear whether the priests and scribes are genuinely curious or are just trying to catch Jesus in some scandalous admission. What so many of us fail to realize is that we do not need authorization to create the lives -- the world -- we most want. Understanding that we can't revise natural law with wishes and prayers, and that we can't control other people, we can still accomplish a great deal in our lives and in the world. Of course, we have to dismantle our fears and our inappropriate shame in order to connect with our deepest, most noble selves and understand what we really want. When we understand that, though, we have permission to act in accord with our deepest, most noble selves. When we are ready to act, not out of fear or shame or entitlement, but out of our deep love for ourselves and for one another, we can be self-authorizing.

Often, we authorize ourselves to act anyway. Many times, though, this means we are authorizing ourselves to take or protect what we think we're entitled, or to fight or defend against what we fear. That level of authorization doesn't come from a place of emotional maturity; it's like cursing a fig tree out of season. If we really want a thriving fig tree that produces delicious fruit, we have to take some responsibility for the care of that tree. Our lives are like that. We can take some responsibility for the things we really want, and we can get better at distinguishing between our fears and our deep passions. Prayer won't change reality. We won't ever move mountains with just a thought. Yet, we can change reality -- for ourselves and for others -- if we are willing to create the lives and the world we most want.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Isaiah 9-10: Vessels of Justice

Isaiah's words to Ahaz, king of Judah, as he was preparing to be overwhelmed by foreign armies were words of encouragement. He said that the enemies that seemed so fearsome at the time would be no threat at all by the time Hezekiah -- the son of Ahaz who was about to be born -- was eating solid food. Ahaz didn't listen to Isaiah, not completely at least. He gave in to his fear and voluntarily became a vassal of Assyria. Isaiah criticized that fear and stopped advising Ahaz; he saw hope in the future king.

In Isaiah 9, the prophet (or someone writing in his name) waxes poetic about how great Hezekiah is going to be. He will be a king who is pious and wise; a king who will rule a land that is no longer oppressed by foreign powers; a king who leads with justice and righteousness. Then, the chapter becomes a rebuke of Judah's previous sister kingdom, Israel. The prophet accuses Israel (or its rulers and prophets at least) of pride and wickedness. He sees the destruction of the kingdom as the consequence of the utter depravity of the people, who wrote oppressive laws that benefited the wealthy and trampled the poor. The people of Assyria will also be punished for the pride of their king. Isaiah says that the king was intended as a tool for Yahweh, but thought himself more important than the god who wielded him. Yet, there will be some from Israel who are spared. Isaiah sees these as the ones who turned sincerely to Yahweh in their time of desperation.

We've discussed many times that decisions have consequences. Whether someone is ruler of a nation or barely ruler of a household, human decisions have consequences. This explains a fair bit of suffering (and "evil") in the world, and it certainly explains a considerable amount of what the people of Israel and Judah experienced at the hands of the empires around them. Some suffering is not the consequence of human decisions, though. Earthquakes, storms, disease, and the like cause a great deal of suffering, but their cause is natural. Maybe human behavior causes suffering in deciding to live in a place frequented by hurricanes, but every locale has its natural threats. In any case, natural causes of suffering don't occur because of human behavior. 

People like explanations, though. Belief in some higher power that orchestrates reality suggests for some people that all the suffering that people experience is ordained, whether that suffering comes from natural events or from human decisions. God is behind the earthquakes and typhoons, and God is the commander of invading armies. This is the perspective of the Hebrew scriptures, but it's not a viable way to live. It would be one thing if every person who lived as a devout believer survived unharmed when missiles or tornadoes struck, but they don't. Plenty of devout people suffer right alongside "wicked" people. The prophets' idea that the righteous are spared while the wicked suffer is based on a flawed perception of reality.

We like to be able to point fingers at something, though. When Israelites got raped, enslaved, or killed by the Assyrians, it was easy for the people of Judah to point and say, "Those Israelites must have been wicked to the core, every last one of them. That's why God made this happen to them." Certainly, that sort of belief might encourage some people to straighten up and fly right, for awhile at least. It's not reality, though. The reason people suffered was, in part, because their leaders made some bad decisions. Their suffering wasn't even necessarily the consequence of decisions those individuals made, but it was the consequence of human decision. Instead of pointing fingers and deciding that people who suffer must deserve it for some reason, the people of Judah could have had some compassion.

Isaiah does have some compassion when he writes that the people are going to suffer because of their oppressive decrees; he understands that poor people don't inherently deserve to be poor. If society was doing its job, he suggests, there would be an end to oppression; there would be light where they had been darkness. This isn't what a supernatural is supposed to do. A supernatural didn't invent their unjust laws; people did. So a supernatural isn't responsible for creating justice and equity; people are. When we understand suffering as either a natural occurrence or the consequence of human decisions, we can begin to take responsibility for the kind of world we live in. As long as we claim that a supernatural is in control, we may create the illusion that we can estimate the worthiness of people by the degree of suffering they experience, and we may fail to recognize how often our experience is the direct result of our own decisions and actions.

If people are responsible for creating what many people call Isaiah's "peaceable kingdom" (in the next chapter), then we have a guide for our day-to-day behavior. If people are capable of behaving with justice, equity, and compassion as priorities, we have the power -- and the responsibility -- to build a better world. We can vote with issues of justice, equity, and compassion in mind rather than a fear of losing power or a sense of entitlement. We can use our personal resources in a way that reflects our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion rather than fear of scarcity or an implied commitment only to our own comfort. We can speak out (in love) when we have the opportunity to address issues of justice, equity, and compassion, rather than staying silent out of fear of reprisals or a sense that someone else's suffering is none of our business. The idea that something is "none of our business" often means only that we think it inconvenient.

Isaiah put his hope in Hezekiah's rule and in the faithfulness of his god. We know now that one person cannot create a better world; we can all have a role in building a better world. We can bring the light of justice, equity, and compassion into dark places. We don't have to be messiahs or kings or any more than ourselves. There will be more to say about the peaceable kingdom and about how we connect with the "divinity" within us -- our deepest, most noble selves. For now, it is enough to read the words of Isaiah and recognize our capability -- our responsibility -- to be vessels of justice, equity, and compassion, to contribute to a better world by our intentional acts of integrity, and to engage with others in a spirit of hope and celebration.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark 11: Cleansing our temples

After another healing story, in which a man's faith is reported to be what cures his blindness, the gospel of Mark moves into the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, often called the "triumphal entry." The other gospels echo and elaborate on the entry into Jerusalem as depicted in Mark, and this scene leads into the passion narrative, which culminates in the crucifixion scene (or the resurrection scene). While some have elevated the passion story above other teachings of Jesus as conveyed in the canonical gospels, these pseudo-historical events do not actually instruct anyone as to how people should live. They are largely constructed after the fact (at least 35 years after the fact) with the agenda of imposing Hebrew prophecies about a messiah (some of which weren't originally intended as prophecies about a messiah) onto the Jesus figure, in order to "prove" him as the Messiah. As such, the passion narratives serve primarily to bolster the faith of people who already believe in the divinity of Jesus and to portray what we already know about the power of fear.

The author of Mark has Jesus do a bit of teaching amidst the scenes of the passion narrative, however, and these teachings are of more potential use to those among us who are willing to recognize "divinity" as a human characteristic and those among us who see human beings as having inherent worth and dignity rather than seeing people as broken and in need of saving. Indeed, if Jesus' actions as stated in the passion stories really took care of "sin" once and for all, then there is nothing more for people to worry about on that front. We can all focus on the important work of building better relationships with one another, rather than judging ourselves and everyone around us and trying to determine eternal matters that no one can prove or know anything about anyway.

In Mark 11, Jesus does three things when he first enters the city of Jerusalem. First, he curses a fig tree for not having any figs, even though it isn't the season for figs. Petty, perhaps, but there it is. Next, he causes a scene at the temple by disrupting trade. This is worth a closer look. Then, he refuses to establish any outside authorization for his actions or teachings. This, as it turns out, is related to the incident with the fig tree. For now, we'll keep ourselves to the "cleansing" of the temple, a rare story in that all four gospels have a version of it. The version of this scene in the gospel of Luke is almost identical to the version in Mark. The gospel of Matthew expands it to indicate that people who had been prevented from access to the temple (people who were blind or lame) were able to approach Jesus there for healing. Placing this scene much earlier in the narrative, removed from the passion story, the gospel of John includes a prediction about Jesus' resurrection in the temple cleansing.

One must assume from the accusation against the people driven out of the temple that they were making a profit off of people coming to offer the sacrifices required of their faith. In changing coins from Roman currency (which depicted the emperor) to currency that had no hint of idolatry, it must be assumed that the moneychangers were charging a fee of some kind. In selling the sacrificial animals for people to offer in the required Jewish rites, merchants were essentially taking advantage of people's faith, making money because of the devout practices of others. The original idea behind the Jewish sacrificial system was that people would offer the best of what they had to Yahweh, but it was not intended to keep anyone from accessing Yahweh's grace and mercy. Jerusalem's temple had been turned into something even worse than a profit-making enterprise. People who were indigent or infirm were essentially unable to participate in Jewish ceremonies to the same extent as everyone else. Worship had become something for those who could afford it; God had become a commodity.

There are many who will proclaim how much good religion has done in the world, but one thing that religion seems to do very well is delineate who is in and who is out -- who belongs and who doesn't. It usually has nothing to do with any sort of god; it's more about who we're comfortable with and who makes us uncomfortable. At the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had developed a system that helped to invite acceptable people into God's presence while keeping the unacceptable people on the fringes. The author of Mark, and perhaps a historical Jesus, had a serious problem with that system. Everybody in Jewish society was meant to have equal access to God. In fact, one of the main culminating points of the passion narrative is that the old priesthood is obsolete -- the old way of managing human access to God was eradicated. Which is a fine message, except that the church continued to find new ways to regulate access to God for centuries. In many ways, it still does.

I believe that the cleansing of the temple suggests that all people matter -- that just because someone is poor or sick or inconvenient or unsightly or annoying or somehow not like me, it doesn't mean that they are worth any less than I am. Without any belief in an actual god, I assert that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and I am challenged by that when I encounter people who are in circumstances I wouldn't want to be in. We set up barriers within ourselves, protections that we thought necessary during times of vulnerability, and those protective barriers sometimes prevent us from recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us. When we have trouble connecting with our authentic selves, we have trouble connecting meaningfully with other people. The temple cleansing may represent the kind of housecleaning we all need to do within ourselves to dismantle the barriers we've created around our deepest, most noble selves in some misguided attempt to protect ourselves.

I also believe that people will always be drawn to help those who are less fortunate because human beings are compassionate. I don't suggest that everyone is equally willing to respond to the compassion they feel, but I do believe that there is some part of every person that cares about people who are sick, injured, poor, malnourished, abused, or oppressed. Sometimes our fears get the best of us and override that compassion, but that doesn't mean that our feelings of compassion aren't there. I believe that we, as a species, are inherently compassionate toward those who have their homes destroyed in natural disasters or who lose loved ones to violence. We don't necessarily like feeling that tug of compassion, because there isn't always something obvious that we can do. We don't like feeling helpless.

Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might decide that some people are in the circumstances they're in because of some divine proclamation. "God is in control, so whatever happened to those people is his will." We are absolved from feeling inconvenient or uncomfortable compassion when we concoct a scenario by which things are the way they're "supposed" to be. Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might also develop systems by which we can outsource our compassion, which means that -- to a certain extent -- we can more or less ignore our feelings of both compassion and helplessness and move on. Whether we are religious or not, we have a tendency to invent systems to welcome desirable people into our lives and keep undesirable people at bay.

Sometimes, though, religion helps us outsource our compassion. We can pray for people without ever having to come into uncomfortable contact with them. We can write a check or hand over some cash to a non-profit organization, and while this actually sources a lot of good for people, our monetary contributions don't necessarily address our unwillingness to be with people we see as poor, sick, hungry, abused, oppressed, or inconvenient -- to look those people in the eye and say, "You matter." Religion sometimes serves as a buffer for us, but it doesn't have to. It's possible to contribute some money to a worthwhile organization, offer some prayers, and look people in the eye and say, "You are a human being, like me."

Even better, I think, would be to scrap the whole idea that a supernatural has any control over what people experience in life. Human beings created the problems that we experience in the world, and human beings can create solutions to those problems. If we abdicate responsibility by assuming that some higher power is in control, though, we won't necessarily feel any sense of personal attachment to the kind of world that we create. Compassion is a feature of being human. It isn't something to try to dismiss or protect ourselves from. Compassion isn't weakness. We feel helpless sometimes because the real work that needs to be done is on the level of systems and structures that go way beyond what any individual can control. 

Our sense of helplessness can feed into old lies we hold about ourselves and other people, vows that we have made about what we must be or do, and fears about being taken advantage of or being worthless -- our feelings of helplessness bump up against whatever barriers keep us from being the people we most want to be in the world. Like Jesus taking radical action in turning over tables, letting loose caged animals, and whipping the perpetrators of injustice, we sometimes have to take radical action within ourselves. We have to be more conscious of what keeps us from being honest about who we are. We have to be more conscious of what we do that keeps other people at arm's length. We have to be more conscious of how we respond to feelings of compassion. We have the capability to do something different, if we choose to. 

When we recognize the importance of living by the principle that every human being matters, we can start creating something better. When we refuse to outsource our compassion, even as we continue to fund organizations that are doing meaningful work in the world, that emotional fuel can ignite our creativity. When we accept that we need one another in order to build a better world, we can forge stronger relationships and find ways to confront the issues that keep people poor, sick, hungry, abused, and oppressed. Tough circumstances can prevent people from recognizing their own inherent worth and dignity. At the very least, we have the opportunity to help people see that circumstances do not define a person's value. If we commit to the work of breaking through some barricades within ourselves, we influence more lives than just our own. As we continually dismantle whatever fears make our compassion seem uncomfortable, people may stop seeming inconvenient, and might just start seeming like people. Like us.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Isaiah 7-8: Calm Down, Trust Yourself, and Act with Integrity

Recalling the historical narrative of Judah from 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, Ahaz was king of Judah when Israel and Aram joined forces and set out to conquer Jerusalem. Isaiah acted as adviser to Ahaz during this time, offering him reassurance, encouraging him to stand firm, and illustrating his advice with the imminent birth of a son to the young wife of Ahaz. This use of children as images of hope is augmented by Isaiah's two children in this passage as well.

Like the symbolic names of Hosea's children, which proclaimed judgment on an unjust and unfaithful society, Isaiah names his children "A remnant shall return" and "The spoil speeds, the prey hastens." The name of the first son is in reference to Isaiah's confidence that the people of Judah will not be utterly destroyed, and the name of the second son is an indication that Judah's enemies will be utterly destroyed. Although Ahaz names his child Hezekiah, while Ahaz's wife is still pregnant, Isaiah refers to the child by the symbolic name "God is with us," which may indicate that this portion of Isaiah was written after the conflict with Israel and Aram was resolved and after it was clear what kind of leader Hezekiah would be.

Christians have appropriated this name, "Immanu-el," and this word of reassurance by Isaiah to Ahaz, as a reference to Jesus, but this makes little sense. Isaiah is obviously offering some near-future hope for Ahaz, indicating that the immediate enemies of Judah would be no threat at all by the time a child about to be born was eating solid food. As it happens, Hezekiah was a young boy when Israel fell to Assyria, and his leadership as king was a time of hope for Judah, as he ushered in a wave of internal religious and political reforms. As we shall see, Isaiah was an adviser to Hezekiah, too. In a case of the apple falling not far from the tree, both Ahaz and Hezekiah ignored Isaiah's advice; Ahaz voluntarily made Judah subject to Assyrian rule, and Hezekiah made a dangerous alliance with Egypt against Assyria.

There's no real need to go into whether El was really the same deity as Yahweh. There are plenty of other people making hypotheses about that sort of thing, and we can't really know for sure what the author of Isaiah was thinking. Our task here is to discover if there is something of value for us in this report of advice given to a king over 2500 years ago. Believers might claim the promise that their version of God is with them and has their best interest in mind if they only trust and wait (what Ahaz was instructed to do). This is somewhat flawed theology on a couple of levels. First, the words of Isaiah 8 are clearly to a particular individual about a particular situation, and to other people in different situations, different prophetic advice is given. Second, it's easy to overlook in our assertions that our supernatural will hear our prayers that other people may be praying for the exact opposite thing -- or at least something that is incompatible with what we're praying. Third, if the only point of human existence is to trust a supernatural and wait for everything to just be worked out for us, then we have no real purpose and human life is rather meaningless.

If we consider that there is no external deity orchestrating things on our behalf, but that whatever we call divinity is something within us -- something that is a human characteristic that all people have within them -- we can look at Isaiah's words a bit differently. It's true that circumstances do change, and it's true that patience often serves us better than reactivity. Isaiah's words might be taken here to mean that we should not become anxious at every apparent obstacle or threat in our lives, but that we should respond to our circumstances out of a deep connection with our innermost being. We should not work so hard to defend ourselves; we should instead confidently be ourselves. Rather than try to convince other people of our perspective, we might get more traction out of simply living out our deepest, most noble selves.

Permit me a personal story, if you will. I once worked for a company that had a number of anxious people. A systematic reinforcement of poor communication skills combined with a pervasive sense of entitlement and a lack of clear shared vision resulted in what was, for me, a toxic environment. I had some ideas about how to improve things, not only for my own preferences, but for the sake of everyone connected to the company. I also have an unusually high tolerance for change, and at the time, I did not appreciate or respect that few people share my eagerness to change things, even if it is for the better. The more aggressive I was in promoting a different way of doing things, the more aggressive the resistance became on the other side. In some ways, my situation was like that of Ahaz.

Had I been a little more patient, the situation may have turned out differently. Personnel changed, and people who were more interested in purposeful improvement assumed leadership positions. By then, though, I was long gone. Being more patient, however, would not have meant doing nothing. Developing and maintaining a deep connection with oneself is work. Listening compassionately to other people's anxiety can be work, too. Managing one's own anxiety and dismantling one's own fears is work. Being patient with a set of circumstances doesn't at all mean that no work is being done. In all honesty, in my own Ahaz situation, I had not done the work I needed to do within myself to support the kinds of actions I was suggesting.

It's easy to react to what we perceive as threats. We want to fight back, or defend ourselves, or just roll over and make the anxiety go away through passivity. When we feel threatened, it's important to be realistic about that anxiety. Sometimes, there is some action that we can take, and sometimes there isn't as much of a threat as we might think. Even if there is something we can do, though, it's important for us to act with integrity to who we most want to be in the world, rather than acting out of rabid defensiveness or overwhelming anxiety.

Isaiah was really suggesting three things to Ahaz, which I'm interpreting here into a non-religious context.

First, calm down. Whatever it is in your life that allows you to bring your own anxiety under control, be committed to doing that. If you don't know what brings your anxiety under control, be committed to discovering that. Knowing how to become less anxious (and actually doing it) is the most important thing you can do in your life, for your own well-being and for the well-being of everyone around you.

Second, trust yourself. Your deepest, most noble self is trustworthy. There may be lies that you have come to believe about yourself, other people, and reality, and there may be vows that you have made about what you must or must not do or be. Beneath those artificial protections, though, you are capable. You are trustworthy. You are enough. You are creative. You are beautiful. You are insightful. You have inherent worth and dignity. If you don't know and trust this about yourself, commit to discovering this truth about you. Develop a discipline of introspection. Engage in self-discovery activities. Work with a trusted friend or coach to learn how to be more connected to who you really are and what you really want. You cannot be who you most want to be in the world if you don't know who that is. This is important because you are important.

Third, act with integrity. I don't mean here "integrity" in the sense of keeping your word; sometimes promises need to be broken. I mean "integrity" in the sense that we say a bridge or a building has integrity. I mean allowing your words and actions to be congruent with your authentic self. Once you have managed your anxiety and honestly analyzed the threats, and once you have connected with yourself beyond the fears and lies we all carry around and recognized who you most want to be in the world, be that person. Act in accordance with who you are. This goes beyond horoscope-style adjectives; who you are engages the very things that nourish you, your passions, your convictions, your commitments, your dreams. Acting with integrity means creating the world we most want to live in.

That's what Isaiah was suggesting to Ahaz. It takes a bit of work. No wonder Ahaz had a hard time following through. It's possible, though. It's possible for you. Whether there are no apparent threats on your horizon, or whether you feel constantly under fire, you can calm down, trust yourself, and act with integrity to who you most want to be in the world. One big help is having people to journey with, people who embrace the same commitment in their own lives. We are bound to stumble a bit; we are bound to get anxious or act out of line with who we most want to be. When we journey together with others, it seems a lot easier to be graceful with ourselves and get back on track.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mark 10: Inappropriate Shame

Following some difficult words on wealth, Mark 10 contains a third prediction about Jesus' death, which can be taken as a literary device of either foreshadowing or framing the stories of Jesus' activity. We will consider the implications of these predictions at greater length when we come to the passion narrative. Then, there is a request by James and John to be given a place of honor in the kingdom they think Jesus is establishing. As the gospel of Matthew tells the story, it is their mother who makes the request on their behalf, and the gospel of Luke's version not only doesn't mention James and John by name, but also suggests a place of honor for all of the disciples, in contradiction of the message about being of service. Given that the author or editors of the gospel of Luke may well have been attempting to legitimize the authority of the leaders of the early Christian sect, it is perhaps more worthwhile to look at what these passages hold in common.

Incidentally, this same message is conveyed through Jesus' act of washing the disciples' feet portrayed only in the gospel of John. To wash one another's feet in the context of that time and culture was to perform the lowest duties of the most base servant, making the message in the gospel of John even more extreme than the more bland teaching of the gospel of Mark. What is it that the authors are suggesting through Jesus' words and actions? What value does that have for us?

In the first century, as now, prestige had value. One's position in society was an indication of one's worth and value -- a sign of one's merit. James and John are asking here for positions of authority in the new world order they believe Jesus will establish. These fishermen desire to be in positions of power. They seem to have missed the point of Jesus' teaching up to this point. Jesus corrects them by pointing out that things don't have value just because the world thinks it so. He is not establishing a way of being that looks just like the old way of being, just with different personnel. He is establishing a new way of being -- a new way of defining self and others and relationship. He is defining a way of being that does not revolve around having power over other people, but rather of recognizing one's own power to positively effect the lives of others. His disciples, like many believers today, seem to have thought that the rhetoric was just a nice way of expressing regime change and a domineering claim over society. Doublespeak. Spin.

One of the most devastating issues that humanity has yet to deal with effectively is the issue of shame. We use shame to control other people, and it's a very effective control. I think we use shame against others, though, because we don't know what to do with our own shame. Shaming others makes us feel superior, which alleviates our own sense of shame, however inappropriate or misguided any of that shame may be. James and John may have felt some shame at being fishermen and having no real power in their society. There's no real reason for this, except perhaps that they believed what their society said about some people being worth more than other people.

In our own society, we still use shaming others to make ourselves feel better. When one says to a panhandler, "Why don't you just go get a job instead of begging for money?" the panhandler is not often given the chance to respond, "Because I have a mental illness and no access to adequate medical care. I don't even have enough money to keep a roof over my head, and I don't know where my next meal is going to come from. I have no way to shower for a job interview and no clean clothes to change into, and I've developed an addiction because it's the only respite I have from this hopeless way of life."

We have become accustomed to shaming the homeless. We shame the uneducated. We shame the mentally ill. We shame the poor. We shame the unemployed. We shame people who need assistance to provide for themselves and their families. We shame addicts. We even try to find clever ways to shame people who look different from us, come from different cultures than us, speak a different language from us, or love different people than we do. We think of and treat those people as if they are worthless, or if not utterly worthless, at least worth less than we are. Therefore, we can feel proud of our jobs, our education, our homes, our mental health, our resources, our marriages, and our more socially acceptable addictions. We can ignore our own shame because there's someone we can point to who "should" feel more shame than we do. Sometimes our jobs, our education, our homes, and our resources are actually sources of shame for us, so we try extra hard to turn them into points of pride.

Some of our shame is appropriate. The shame that we feel when we have caused harm to another person is appropriate shame. It isn't pleasant, though. So, often we contrive a way to shame the victim in order to alleviate the shame of the culprit. Nowhere is this more blatantly apparent in our society than in the issue of rape. There is nothing that a person can do to warrant being sexually assaulted, and yet by shaming the victims for their behavior or clothing or naivete, the culprits somehow become satisfied that their actions were justifiable or permissible. In all honesty, those culprits most likely feel some degree of shame -- I have to believe that their humanity demands that they feel some degree of shame. Yet, we may not even recognize the feeling of shame if we've spent a lifetime blaming others for our own harmful behavior. We may even see ourselves as victims who deserve more power, authority, wealth, or respect, without ever considering how the pursuit of those things aligns (or fails to align) with our guiding principles or the world we most want to create.

We can't actually even know our guiding principles clearly if we are bound by shame. Even those of us who carry around inappropriate shame (which is probably all of us) have to figure out what to do with that shame. Most of the time, we choose one of two responses. We either give in to lies about ourselves or we combat them with every ounce of our being. Many of us buy into the inappropriate shame that someone put on us and believe that we are lazy, worthless, stupid, ugly, unlovable, incompetent, failures, or at the very least, less important than everybody else. We live out that identity in our decisions and our relationships, playing a role less than the reality of our authentic being. This does not truly serve anyone.

On the other hand, many of us do everything we can to convince ourselves and the world that we are not those things. We overwork ourselves to prove that we are not lazy. We earn as much as we can to prove that we are not worthless. We enter into and remain in shallow or abusive relationships to prove that we are lovable. The problem is that we can never do enough to eradicate the fear that the lies are true -- that deep down inside we are shameful beings. And despite what some people may tell you, no amount of positive affirmation will convince you of something that your mind just doesn't believe.

How do we address inappropriate shame, then? One way is to stop trying so hard to prove ourselves. We may discover some truths about ourselves just from being willing to look honestly at who we are and what matters to us. Dismantling lies that we have held onto since we were kids, though -- that can take some time. It's almost a lifestyle choice to look honestly at why you believe what you do about yourself and to decide who you want to be in the world. Self-examination is a discipline, and like many disciplines, it is often easier to practice in community with other people. Certainly, such a community must be a safe place, and finding that can sometimes be a challenge. If we are committed to releasing inappropriate shame from our lives, however, we absolutely must get to the heart of the lies we believe about ourselves and dismantle them.

How do we know what the lies are, though? Maybe we are honestly ugly or stupid or lazy, right? Well, first of all, the reality of who we are is probably not the same as our poorest, most critical image of ourselves. Secondly, we don't need to define ourselves only by superficial characteristics. For instance, why does our physical appearance matter so much? If it's a matter of wanting to be healthier somehow, there are probably some habits that we can change to improve our physical health. If we're worried about our physical appearance just because we think we need to fit with someone else's ideal of beauty, then that's a lie worth dismantling. Understanding why we believe the things we do about ourselves is hard work sometimes, but what we get out of that is the ability to be more authentic and whole in our lives.

This authentic wholeness is what the conversation in Mark 10 tends toward. Positions of power can't ever convince us that we are worthwhile individuals if we believe or fear that we are worthless. When the title can't convince us, we may try to extend our power or we may abuse our power to control other people's lives. Even then, there is never enough that we can do to prove our own worth if we are trapped in inappropriate shame because of some lie we've been told about our identity and value. When we stop trying to prove ourselves and inhabit our authentic selves more fully, we have the opportunity to see other people more authentically as well. When we recognize our own inherent worth and dignity, we can connect more meaningfully with others. The work of dismantling our lies about ourselves yields the opportunity for us to connect with our own deepest, most noble selves as well. We can create a purpose for our lives beyond trying to prove ourselves or trying to shift our shame to someone else. We can discover what is truly meaningful for us, and we can live that out more consistently, more joyfully, and more courageously.

Ultimately, we can hopefully recognize that we are enough as we are. We do not have to feel shame for not living up to someone else's expectations. We do not have to be anything more than or less than who we are. This is not a selfish declaration, although it is something that focuses on accepting who we are, honestly and authentically. Dealing with our inappropriate shame, dismantling the lies that we believe or fear about ourselves, serves the world too, because it allows us to engage more meaningfully and passionately in creating something better than what we know today. Let's stop carrying around inappropriate shame, and let's stop foisting shame on others. Instead, let's do what we can to find out what a world full of authentic, compassionate, courageous, creative people looks like.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Isaiah 6: Dull Ears, Blind Eyes, and Calloused Hearts

Well into the book of Isaiah, in chapter 6, we finally see a typical version of a prophetic calling story, which we have noted in books named after other prophets. Here, the author describes supernatural creatures with six wings who shake the temple with their song of praise to Yahweh. Moreover, the author claims to have seen Yahweh himself, before the temple is filled with smoke. Isaiah's purification (so that he can deliver his prophetic message) takes the form of a hot coal, with which a seraphim scorches his lips. This action is said to remove Isaiah's guilt and sin, which is remarkable in an ancient Israelite context in that no blood is spilt. Then, Isaiah receives his first message about the people of Israel.

Obviously, this credentialing of a prophet is either fabrication or is an internal experience of the messenger. At the time, such supernatural legitimization was respected -- indeed, expected -- as evidence that a message was from God. For us, the truth of a message can suffice to determine its worthiness. Isaiah may have been addressing the ancient Israelites specifically, in the time preceding the Babylonian captivity. His words may have value for twenty-first century readers as well.

He accuses his people of being willfully deaf, blind, and calloused. The truth is all around them, but they choose not to acknowledge it. So, Yahweh decides that they should stay that way -- that their blindness, deafness, and lack of understanding should be kept in place, so that they have no chance to turn and find healing for their society. Isaiah asks how long that will go on, and he is given a rather ominous answer: until everything but the barest stump is destroyed.

First of all, this presents Yahweh as a rather small-minded and vindictive deity. People have been disobedient, and so he chooses to eliminate the possibility that they might straighten up and fly right, at least until they have experienced the full measure of consequences. He actively forces the Israelites' heartlessness, spiritual blindness, and ethical deafness. Not very nice. Of course, Isaiah may well have been reporting on the condition of things, portraying God as being in control while still acknowledging the sad state of affairs. If God is all-powerful and people are behaving like heartless jackals, then God must have chosen for them to behave that way, right?

Second, though, the state of affairs in ancient Jewish society was not all that different from what we see at work in the world today. People typically only take in information from sources with which they already agree, so their worldview is rarely challenged. People often select theological positions based on what makes them most comfortable. Our sense of morality and ethics is often clear in the abstract and murky when it comes to specific decisions in our own lives. We sometimes choose to be blind to the injustices going on around us, if our involvement would be risky or inconvenient. We sometimes choose to be deaf to the data of scientific discovery, especially if dealing with certain issues would cost us a bit of money or require a change to our lifestyle. We sometimes harden our hearts against the people around us, and we call it "tough love" when we aren't outright critical or vindictive. We sometimes even say, "I wish I could do something," when we have no real interest in learning what we could actually do to make a difference.

Most likely, the people of Isaiah's day didn't really need any help from a supernatural to keep their willing blindness, deafness, and callousness in place. People seem to be pretty adept at turning a blind eye to the things they don't want to address in their lives and in the world. It's also likely that the Assyrians -- and later the Babylonians -- would have overrun Israel and Judah and taken people into exile, because those actions were based on the irresponsible decisions of a few leaders and not the behavior of an entire nation. So, there probably is no actual cause and effect relationship between the destruction that Judah and Israel experienced and their culture of willful blindness. That doesn't mean that being deaf, blind, and heartless is a good idea. It just means that we can be motivated by something other than wrathful destruction.

If we choose to, we can open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the people around us and to the world we all share. We can give a little bit (or a little bit more) to organizations that make changes in people's lives. We can vote for representatives that stand on the side of social justice rather than on the side of partisan power mongering. We can reach out to the people in our communities who are less fortunate and volunteer a bit of our time to teach them, feed them, clothe them, befriend them. Sometimes having open ears just means being willing to listen to someone tell their story. Sometimes having open eyes just means acknowledging another person with a smile and a kind word. Sometimes having an open heart just means giving up a fancy cup of coffee once a week so that the money we would have spent on caffeine can allow someone on the other side of the world to eat.

And sometimes having open eyes, ears, and hearts means a little more. Sometimes it caring enough not to mind being inconvenienced when your neighbor needs a little help. Sometimes it means listening to the same story you've heard a dozen times because your friend just hasn't gotten through this particular issue yet. Sometimes, it means broadening our concept of who we're willing to befriend -- who we're willing to treat like a human being of innate value.

We are busy and overburdened people, and some of that is not by our choice. There is no deity deciding one way or the other whether we will be blind or have our eyes wide open to the world; we are the only ones who can decide how much we are willing to see, hear, and feel. The world is an incredible place, though, and the people who share it with us are even more incredible. We need one another. None of us is utterly self-sufficient. So, let's open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts a bit. Let's model a way of being in the world that inspires others to have more open eyes, ears, and hearts. Whatever it costs us, we will reap in dividends of human connection and personal satisfaction. There is something deeply satisfying about caring, particularly when we are clear about the principles that guide our lives.

Open your eyes.
Open your ears.
Open your heart.
And let others know when you need them to open their eyes, ears, and heart to you a bit, too.
Sometimes we all need a little reminder.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mark 10: Wealth and the Kingdom of Heaven

After the teaching on divorce, the author of Mark records a story about a rich man seeking advice from Jesus about how to "inherit eternal life," or as Jesus rephrases the goal, "enter the kingdom of God." Incidentally, the author of Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" synonymously with "kingdom of God" when he copies this story, but the author of Luke kept most of the terminology identical to what is found in Mark. It's a challenging story, although some commentators suggest clever loopholes around the blatant message that wealth presents a challenge to spiritual and ethical integrity.

There are those who think that this message was just about one person's inappropriate greed or attachment to his possessions. This ignores the bit of the tale in which Jesus tells his disciples that anyone with wealth -- any rich person -- will have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven. It's clear that this passage is about wealth, not just one man's particular weakness. We'll come back to that.

Some scholars also wish to point out that a specific gate into the city was called the "Eye of the Needle," and that this gate was a particular challenge to camels. It doesn't matter. The author is clearly suggesting that wealthy people will have a very difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, ultimately using the word "impossible." Contextualizing the metaphors of the passage doesn't make its message any easier.

What exactly is the kingdom of God, though? In Mark, there are three statements about reward. First, Jesus claims that people who sacrifice everything for the sake of the "good news" will receive a hundredfold reward in this temporal life, and this is specified in terms of relationships, property, and the hardships that go along with them. Second, people who sacrifice everything for the sake of the "good news" will have eternal life in the "age to come." Third, there will be a hierarchical relationship in the kingdom of God which will turn the earthly order of power and respect on its head: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Not only does that not clear things up, but the bit about receiving a hundredfold houses, fields, siblings, mothers, and children simply does not ring true in real life experience of people who have made sacrifices for the "good news." Unless, one wants to specifically define what the "good news" actually is (which I will do in my own way), and follow that with the claim that no one has ever sacrificed enough for the "good news" in order to test this promise that they will receive a hundredfold reward, in which case there would have been no point in making the promise in the first place.

The gospel of Luke is more vague than Mark about the kingdom of God, simply saying that everyone who sacrifices for the kingdom of God will receive "much more" in this temporal life, and "in the age to come eternal life." The author of Matthew has a very specific idea of what that eternal life will be like, though. Jesus will be seated on a "throne of glory," and all the disciples will have thrones of their own, from which they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. By this count, Judas would need to be included in that enthronement, but we won't worry about that. This is obviously also before Jesus considered extending his mission beyond just the Jews, but we won't worry about that either. The point is that different people have different ideas about what the "kingdom of God" actually means.

I am less inclined to concern myself with claims about living forever or afterlife. There is no way to prove any claims about such things, and there seem to be an awful lot of competing versions of the "age to come" floating around, none with more merit than any other. When I think about the "kingdom of heaven" or the "kingdom of God," the first hitch for me is that bit about kingdom. I don't think of spirituality in monarchical or feudal terms; the metaphor just opens the way for a lot of assumptions that don't make any sense. I get what the gospels writers were going for, but the word kingdom isn't as useful now as it was two thousand years ago. The second hitch for me is the bit about "heaven" or "God," for obvious reasons. From my perspective, why would I sacrifice anything for the sake of the monarchical establishment of an imaginary being? And yet, there's something deeper to that term that I can sink my teeth into.

Often, when the gospel writers have Jesus speak about the kingdom of heaven, what he says is that it is "at hand," it is a present reality and not something that only becomes knowable or enter-able upon physical death. If the kingdom of heaven is at hand, then what evidence do we have of that? Some would point to miracle stories, but this is a dead-end. Most of the miracle stories in the Bible were most likely confabulations to begin with, and even if they weren't, no one is performing any miracles today to demonstrate the remaining present-tense reality of the kingdom of heaven. So, I prefer to look at the example set by Jesus in the gospel narratives (and some other people, come to think of it), in the way that people are treated in those stories. The Jesus of the gospels treats people as if they have value, regardless of their station in life or their material possessions. He speaks with people who are interested in what he has to say, whether they are respected religious leaders or outcasts. He tells parables that clearly reflect the priority of caring for fellow human beings, particularly those who can't care for themselves very well. This points to a definition of the kingdom of heaven that I can get behind (although I still want to call it something else).

There is a growing movement among some Christian churches, called the missional church movement, that strives to embody this kind of definition of the kingdom of heaven. The focus for these believers is less on church growth and membership numbers and more on being a meaningful presence in the neighborhood, caring for the people around them without regard for what those people believe about God or Jesus. I respect this. Some of these churches still want to get people saved and usher them into a personal relationship with Christ, which I respect a bit less, but I respect that they start by caring for people. Many people in the missional church movement see their work as partnership or participation with God in building his kingdom. Their actions have value and meaning in a larger faith context.

In this way, the kingdom of heaven becomes something of a replacement for the metaphor of Promised Land that the ancient Jews held. Promised Land or kingdom of heaven is that better world that is characterized by greater justice, greater equity, and greater compassion than what we experience and express today. The Promised Land/kingdom of heaven isn't something that we encounter upon death, and it isn't something that is going to happen to us -- it's something we create. While I don't believe that there is any sort of supernatural aid in that creative action, I do believe that we must be connected to our deep, most noble selves in order to consistently engage in that sort of intentional living. I don't have a better metaphor than Promised Land or kingdom of heaven, but I think of that action as building a better world.

And building a better world does require sacrifice, and we don't have any guarantees that we're going to get anything we sacrifice back, in this life or in some future life. What we often wind up sacrificing to build a better world, though, are things that don't really do us a lot of good to begin with. We don't need to sacrifice deep, meaningful relationships, but we often need to give up our sense of obligation and entitlement in those relationships. We could stand to give up our fear of scarcity, or our over-protectiveness. We could stand to sacrifice the lies we hold about ourselves: that we are not enough, that we are failures, that we are worthless. We can't easily build a better world of justice, equity, and compassion if we are battling those kinds of fears and lies on a regular basis.

We can't really know what the author of Mark (and those who cribbed his writing) thought wealthy people had stacked against them. It does seem in our current reality that people who have more often live as though they have more to lose. It isn't just a matter of bank account totals; there are issues of prestige, influence, lifestyle, relationships... There aren't a whole lot of people who willingly choose to give up that identity. It's easier to just do a little bit toward creating a better world -- just enough to feel proud of the contribution -- and trust other people to do their little bit, too.

We sometimes forget a couple of things, though. We sometimes forget how creative we can be when in comes to inventing justifications and excuses. If we aren't careful, we might actually start believing something that isn't true, just because it seems like something we would like to be true. We also forget that not everyone is equally positioned to build a better world. The reason we would even think about building a better world in the first place is that there are people who are suffering from the injustices and inequities we have come to accept as normal. Some of those people simply can't do as much to affect their circumstances as we would like to think. Even some of those people who want to do something to make the world a better place are hard-pressed to contribute much and still exercise personal responsibility for their own lives. Money is not the only thing that goes into building a better world, but money and all its trappings can sometimes separate people from others. It can separate people from awareness of the reasons why anyone would want to build a better world.

Which is where the "good news" comes in. For many Christians, good news has a very specific definition which has to do with Jesus' (mythologized) death and resurrection and the supernatural results in terms of individual sins. I think that there is even better news than that. You have inherent worth and dignity. All people do. Whatever lies you have come to believe about how unworthy you are or how unlovable you are, or how insignificant you are -- those lies are not you. You are a creative, capable, worthy being. No matter what happens to you or around you, nothing can change your inherent worth and dignity. That is good news if ever I have heard good news.

Recognizing our own inherent value, and recognizing the inherent value of all people, allows us to live out opportunities to build a better world, doing what we able to do, as we are able to do it. We don't have to sacrifice everything we have -- but we might want to give up some things we don't need. We might want to give up some ideas that aren't useful to us anymore. We might want to give up irrational fear and false beliefs about ourselves and other people. When we make those kinds of sacrifices, we lighten our own lives, and we create space for participating in building a better world in a way that is authentic to us. It doesn't have to become all-consuming. It's more of a way of being, a way of relating to other people, that is more possible when we aren't wrapped up in ourselves. Plus, it never hurts to be really honest with ourselves about what we have, what we actually need, and how much we can realistically offer of our personal resources toward creating a better world for everyone.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Isaiah 5: We Are Capable of Justice

Using the metaphor of a vineyard, Isaiah 5 denounces injustice in the kingdom of Judah, pronounces the judgment of Yahweh upon the unjust, and connects the military threat from Assyria with the behavior of the people of Judah. Yahweh will either allow or compel the foreign army to overrun Judah because he is displeased with the behavior of the people. There are some problems with this theology, but there is also a message about justice that is still important for us to hear.

First, a horticultural clarification: the vineyard metaphor claims that the owner of the vineyard expected grapes but got wild grapes. Some translations express the owner's disappointment by calling the expected grapes "good grapes" and calling the grapes that grew instead "bad grapes." Wild grapes, especially in the world of the Ancient Near East, were more acidic and bitter or sour than cultivated grapes. All sorts of animals feed on wild grapes, but they aren't of a high enough quality that they would be considered for wine production or put on a dinner table. The presence of wild grapes is very natural, but they aren't the high quality produce that one would expect after investing time and energy in process of cultivation.

So it is with people. We have natural ways of behaving without putting too much effort into it, and much of that is comprised of reactions based on irrational fears, judgments, and beliefs about ourselves and other people. When we invest in personal work -- recognizing more about how to be emotionally mature people, practicing more honesty about ourselves and others, and connecting more with people so that we learn not to fear vulnerability -- we can expect to have higher quality lives. The problem is that we sometimes expect that if we invest time and effort in other people's lives, they will be higher caliber people. Deeper satisfaction with our lives cannot be gained by other people's efforts, though, and we can't do anything ourselves to ensure that other people will dismantle their own fears, connect with their deepest, most noble selves, and engage in life with greater emotional maturity. Each person has to do this cultivation on a personal level in order for transformation to occur.

The vineyard metaphor only gets us so far, then. We can expect certain results from our efforts in a garden, but we cannot expect results from cultivating growth in other people. Our responsibility first and foremost must be how we represent our authentic selves. We can be an influence on other people, to be sure, but we can't predict such results and shouldn't be terribly upset when our influence is less than we'd like. The vineyard owner (God) decided to let the whole place go. If he didn't see the results he wanted in the people he had tried to cultivate, he was going to let the place become a wasteland until such time as those people saw fit to be high-quality produce.

One major problem is that the population of Judah included both the people who were being unjust and the people who were the victims of injustice. In casting aside the entire country to the ravages of a foreign army, Yahweh was pronouncing a universal punishment that did nothing to achieve justice for the oppressed -- in fact, those with less resources fared worse in times of military conflict. In trying to make sense of Judah's vulnerability to Assyria, Isaiah looks for a cause in the society of Judah, and he finds the rampant injustice to be worthy of reprimand. Or perhaps, the prophet saw the injustice and considered the threat from a foreign army to be something that would catch everyone's attention. Either way, the theology of a deity that punishes the oppressed just to teach the wicked a lesson does nothing for Yahweh's public image.

Of course, one may say that Yahweh knew the hearts of everyone in Judah, and thus his judgment was just. In this case, one might also inquire as to who was being treated unjustly in the first place if everybody in Judah was wicked. Trying to exonerate God's behavior is a bit silly, though. The reality  was that Assyria was a political and military threat to Israel and Judah, and whatever the kings of Israel and Judah did to provoke the leaders of Assyria, it had little to do with injustice in Israelite society. It's understandable that a people would look around and try to figure out what they had done wrong to deserve being overwhelmed by foreign forces, but military actions are rarely about the actions of a civilian population. While the encroaching Assyrians were certainly a credible threat, the injustice within Israelite society was a relatively unrelated matter.

Since injustice and threat of war are separate issues in Isaiah 5, then, we can consider the two issues separately in our own search for meaning. Most of us have no control over military decisions, so it does us little good to try to control them. We can seek to have peaceful relationships in our own lives, and we can hope to influence others toward peaceful, thoughtful, respectful interaction. We don't control other people though, least of all people in government. The issue of justice is something that we are in a better position to address.

What kind of injustice is Isaiah 5 denouncing? Justice and righteousness are paired here, and the middle of the chapter details exactly what the problems are in ancient Judah:
Some people are accumulating more and more property, beyond what they need or what is equitable, so they can have people renting and working on their property with no hope of ownership, and thus no hope of wealth or security. This is unjust.
Some people are living only for their own appetites, enjoying their lives as much as they can while at the same time numbing themselves to the work that remains to be done in the world. Ignoring the hungry or the under-served will not make the problems go away; celebrating as if there is nothing more to be done to improve people's lives is unjust.
Some people are arrogant, believing that they are entitled to property and privileges that others are not, thinking of themselves as deserving of special treatment because of their station or wealth. When people think they are worth more and others are worth less, this attitude is unjust and it leads to unjust behavior.
Some people are doing things they know to be wrong, and they are justifying it through lies. They absolve their own greed by claiming that gaining personal wealth is a positive thing, and they consider people who aren't greedy to be foolish and irresponsible. They defend expressing hatred toward others as clear-headed discernment, and berate non-judgmental people as being spineless. They indulge their own appetites, betray trust, and relish opportunities to get away with deception, and then they explain it away with a worldview that ignores the effects of their actions in other people's lives and rationalizes away remorse.
How unfortunate that our own society is devoid of such behavior, so that we are left only to imagine what a duplicitous and treacherous place ancient Judah must have been!

In truth, we have built a society on countenancing injustice. With abundant resources, we create and accept policies that concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Sometimes those few do good, humanitarian things with their wealth, but this does not equate with a just distribution of resources. As long as there are people anywhere in the world who are sick and without the money to pay for medicine, who are hungry or thirsty and without the means to provide for their own sustenance, or who are denied adequate legal representation because they cannot pay enough to be seen as worthy of respect, our global system of distribution is unjust. Yet, we are so protective of what we have that our politicians argue like children about whether it is reasonable to provide healthcare for all the citizens of a country. We are so entrapped by our fear of scarcity that we fail to notice that there are others with even less, through no fault of their own. We are as clever in our justification as the ancient Israelites.

We extol the virtues of greed, we reward people who take unconscionable risks, we wake up in the morning thinking about what television we will numb ourselves with in the evening -- or even, as the wicked people in Isaiah 5, seeking after strong drink, wine, and music. We don't practice hospitality. We don't seek to understand people who are not like us. We practice playing the victim and demanding that our rights be respected while ignoring or even trampling on the rights of others. This is indoctrinated societal injustice and unrighteousness, but there is still a part of us that resists calling light "darkness" and darkness "light."

Not everyone plays by these rules of engagement. Some people seek a deeper connection with themselves, the people around them, and the world we all share. Some people stand up for the rights of others, even when they have nothing to gain by doing so. Some people reach out in compassion without worrying about the sacrifice of time and resources. Some people are willing to be vulnerable. Some people are unafraid.

We will not meet with any large scale punishment for our injustice. We will not face a conquering army sent by divine fiat to punish our unrighteousness. Our prejudice and protectiveness will most likely go unchallenged by any outside force. Even if there is a God, and even if she should decide to bring down wrath upon us all for our wickedness, why should we ever think that would change us? The behavior of the ancient Israelites never really changed after repeated disciplinary actions by Yahweh, or so the story goes. We are on our own with this matter of injustice. No one will come along and correct our behavior for us or cultivate us into pleasing, succulent grapes of justice against our will.

This is not to say that there are no consequences to injustice. The oppressed have, throughout history, risen up to overthrow their oppressors. Many of the bloody battles being fought today are the result of misguided attempts to possess property and control people -- lopsided values of an unjust system. Violence is sometimes the only response people can conceive to perceived oppression or threat. Moreover, our relationships suffer because of our willingness to condone injustice. Our own personal growth is stunted. Even the sustainability of our planet is threatened by the unjust levels of consumption that we have come to accept. The consequences are numerous and pervasive. There is a better way.

We are capable of more. We are capable of justice. We are capable of looking another person in the eyes and saying, "You are worthy." Even if that person has different skin coloration. Even if that person has a different gender or sexuality. Even if that person practices a different religion.

We are capable of justice. We are capable of recognizing our own personal responsibility for the decisions we make. We are capable of dismantling our fears of scarcity. We are capable of vulnerability. This is really the message of Isaiah 5: We are capable of justice, and because we are capable of justice, we must not be satisfied with injustice.

We are capable, and you are capable. You are capable of justice. In your workplace. In your family.
In your casual interactions with strangers. In the way you spend your time and resources.

You are capable of justice. In the lives of people that you stand up for. In the choices of practices that you stand up against. In the way that you vote. In the way that you live.

You are capable of justice.
How will you engage your capability a little more?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mark 10: Divorce and Personal Responsibility in Human Relationships

People get married for all sorts of reasons in the twenty-first century. Considerable research has gone into the views of marriage and women in the first century, and to some extent this research has helped to make some sense of words written centuries ago. In Mark 10, some specific and absolute instructions regarding divorce are expressed through words attributed to Jesus, and it is worth considering the spirit of those words in addition to how those instructions may be of use to us.

First, it is worth noting that the author of Mark is, to a certain extent, promoting greater justice for women. Jewish society and law favored men. Since wives were largely seen as the property of husbands, married women could be stoned to death for adultery, while married men were not necessarily subject to such severe punishment. A divorced woman also had fewer options in society, since the primary role of women at the time was that of wife and mother. With priority placed on virginity, it was challenging for a divorced woman to remarry; divorced men did not face such difficulties. In fact, it was legal at the time for a man to have multiple wives, but a woman could not have multiple husbands. While some interpretations of Jewish law allowed for a husband to divorce a wife for any reason, limiting the circumstances under which divorce was acceptable meant greater security for women.

Second, rather than inventing something that could be considered heresy, Jesus is portrayed as quoting from accepted scriptures. The Pharisees, according to the story, intended to test Jesus, perhaps expecting that he would side with either Hillel or Shammai, two competing houses of rabbinic thought. Hillel taught that a man was justified in divorcing a wife if he became in any way displeased with her, even over trivial matters. Shammai taught that divorce was only permissible for serious offenses. Jesus perplexed his inquisitors by quoting from the Torah and deriving an even stricter position on divorce than the strictest school of Jewish thought. When the author of Matthew copies the story from the gospel of Mark, he adds a point of clarification, however. According to the gospel of Matthew, not only does Jesus allow for divorce on the grounds of unchastity (adultery or other sexual immorality), but he also encourages men who are willing to do so to forgo marriage altogether.

The version of this teaching in the gospel of Matthew brings up that it is preferable to become a eunuch, and the most direct definition of this word suggests that Jesus advocated willing castration. There were different sorts of eunuchs in the ancient world, however, and only certain roles required eunuchs to be castrated, primarily working in a harem. Some people in the ancient world who lived as men were not born with male genitalia. These men were also called eunuchs; they are probably included in the group Jesus refers to as eunuchs from birth. We have more precise language now than what was available in the ancient world. There were also men who abstained from sexual relations with women (even though they were physically capable) for reasons of religious conviction. This is probably what the author of Matthew is actually endorsing. There were also men who had no interest in sexual relations with women, although they were physically capable and not prohibited from doing so by any sense of religious purity. These men could also be labeled eunuchs, or natural eunuchs (to differentiate them from mutilated eunuchs); natural eunuchs may round out Jesus' category of eunuchs from birth. This was common enough in society that Josephus suggested that some people with masculine physical bodies had feminine souls. All of this suggests that we can't always know what the biblical authors were really intending by their words. It's obvious that the author of Matthew expresses through Jesus a preferred alternative to traditional heterosexual marriage relationships, and that this is very different from what the author of Mark conveys.

What is the point of going through all of this? Just to demonstrate that we can't superimpose biblical morality verbatim over twenty-first century culture. Even the Bible itself doesn't agree on how this teaching on divorce should be interpreted. Humanity has not necessarily matured all that much from two thousand years ago, though. There are places in the world in which women are still treated as property; still stoned, burned, or shot for issues of familial honor; still subjected to the whimsical abuses of the men around them. Religion has not matured with technology and knowledge and economy. Religion has, in many ways, reinforced primitive behavior. In part, this is because our religions do not necessarily challenge us to interpret truth from ancient texts, but rather allow us to project our preferences onto whatever scriptures we revere. If we look closely at the implications of Mark 10, we might find that it is a call toward greater emotional maturity in our relationships.

Through Jesus, the author conveys an absolute message that divorce is simply not justified. We know that this is not true. People get married without recognizing the long-term consequences of their decision. Sometimes people get married to people whose character turns out to be very different than what was portrayed during a courtship. Some spouses are abusive or dangerous, and it isn't reasonable to expect a person to adhere to a commitment without regard for personal safety. Breaking a vow is sometimes necessary for our own well-being. We run the risk of treating that flippantly, however, interpreting our well-being the way Hillel might -- considering the slightest offense as grounds for throwing in the towel. There are relatively few relationships that are actually restrictive, abusive, or dangerous enough to require for matters of personal safety that we break a commitment. So, what we are usually talking about is divorce as a personal preference.

There is no longer much of a societal stigma against divorce in most of the Western world. Even people who self-identify as Christians (but who are not particularly active in a faith community) are as likely as non-believers to end a marriage. "Nominal Conservative Protestants" are actually more likely to divorce than the religiously disinterested. So, even among people who worship Jesus, his words on divorce are not necessarily taken very seriously. According to the gospel of Mark, divorce was only permitted in the first place because people are hard-hearted. If we aren't going to take the strong words about the severity of divorce seriously, perhaps we can at least recognize the condition of our own hearts.

What the author of Mark calls hard-heartedness, we might call a lot of other things: selfishness, stubbornness, emotional immaturity. In all of our relationships, marriage and otherwise, we often dig our heels in and demand that the other person change if the relationship is to continue. If we aren't happy, we look for someone to blame, and we either try to fix that person or we require that they fix themselves. When that doesn't work, we might feel justified in moving on, and we might feel a strange mixture of superiority and victimhood when we do. The truth is that we have a lot to do with the quality of our relationships. The people with whom we're in relationship have a part to play, of course, but it's dishonest to suggest that someone else is responsible for our own happiness. When we allow ourselves to make demands of everyone but ourselves and to write off relationships that don't meet our standards, we limit our own growth and development as human beings. We stunt ourselves emotionally. This is the actual problem Mark 10 addresses.

If we think we can dismiss a spouse for any miniscule slight, it creates a power dynamic that requires nothing from us and dooms the other person to failure. If we create relationships characterized by equality, respect, and genuine love, those relationships stand a much better chance of being satisfying. That kind of relationship requires something of us. We have to take responsibility for our own role in creating that kind of dynamic with another person. If our relationships are to be mature and deeply satisfying, we have to be emotionally mature ourselves. We have to learn what we want and learn how to communicate that clearly to another human being. We have to learn how to listen and how to allow our guiding principles to be lived out in the messiness of human relationships. We have to be intentional about our words and actions. We have to keep growing.

The end result of an honest, loving, authentic relationship may not look like what any other two people would create. The goal is not to create a marriage or friendship or partnership that matches up with an arbitrary list of characteristics or a mold that society has created out of majority practice. Acting out what a spouse or partner or friend is "supposed to" be or do is not the goal. Sincerity, vulnerability, personal integrity, and bold authenticity are the key characteristics worth evoking. The goal might be better framed as a relationship in which you are willing and able to be completely yourself and in which the other party is able to be completely authentic as well, with no expectation that one individual is worth more than the other. Chances are that the result of such an intentional goal will look nothing like what first century Jewish marriages looked like, and that's probably a good thing. The point is that the quality of our relationships is our responsibility.

Sometimes, we will find that other people are not willing to participate in sincere, trusting, authentic relationships. Some people are not yet capable of living with intentionality and integrity. Some people aren't sure what their guiding principles are, and they aren't even sure how to figure it out. If we find ourselves in relationships with such people, we have choices. It isn't a matter of what is permissible under the law; it's a matter of what's permissible to our own deep sense of well-being. We can hopefully approach such circumstances with a deeper sense of self than just our personal preferences; we can hopefully get beyond our shallow stubbornness, selfishness, and immaturity.

Relationships are systems, though, and individuals cannot carry systems by themselves. When we have done all that there is to do -- when we have dismantled our irrational fears; deepened our sense of who we want to be in the world; confronted our lies about ourselves, other people, and relationships in general -- and we still find a relationship wanting, we can choose appropriate endings. There is no shame in doing our best, even if the end result winds up being less than we had hoped. If the time should come, we are capable of ending relationships with integrity and authenticity, too.