* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

1 Kings 20-22: Bad People and the Prophets Who Harrass Them

Based on the stories we have about Ahab, this king was apparently not well-liked by the Israelites. These three Ahab stories reflect a common human desire to see bad things happen to bad people. First, Ahab forms a treaty with a foreign king after a victory (which had been proclaimed to him ahead of time by a prophet), but God had wanted Ahab to kill the enemy king (although the prophet never said as much). This unnamed prophet then enacts what is meant to be a clever message to Ahab, that God would claim Ahab's life because he set the enemy free. It isn't clear how prophets are once more running about freely, or why it is acceptable for a prophet to call up lions to kill people who refuse to strike them, but this is not the sort of story where such things are expected to be questioned. 

The second story is reminiscent of the tale of David and Bathsheba. Ahab lusts after Naboth's property. Jezebel reminds Ahab that he is king and can do more than pout about not getting what he wants. Ahab has Naboth killed and claims the vineyard. Suddenly, Elijah shows up in a melodramatic scene, proclaiming vivid and humiliating destruction on Ahab's family.

Finally, Ahab's final story depicts him requesting aid from Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to go to war with Ramoth Gilead. Ahab consults all of his prophets, who are all Yes Men without any real power. Jehoshaphat insists that a prophet of Yahweh is consulted, and this prophet Micaiah (with whom Ahab apparently has had dealings in the past) predicts Ahab's death. Despite a clever ruse on Ahab's part to get the forces of Ramoth Gilead to target Jehoshaphat, by the end of the day, Ahab is dead. Because of Jehoshaphat's involvement, this tale also appears in 2 Chronicles with only slight differences. (Recall that the Chronicler is not really interested in Israel, but focuses instead on Judah.) 

These stories make a great deal of sense to us. Perhaps not every cultural detail is clearly understood, but the sentiments are certainly familiar. We still want bad things to happen to bad people, possibly more than we want good things to happen to good people. Even the ancient Israelites realized that there was a disconnection between this desire for harsh justice and the realities of life, however. Their wisdom literature reflects it, and even the later gospel writers address it through the character of Jesus when they write of the sun rising on evil and good alike and the rain falling equally on the righteous and the unrighteous. This is a challenge to our sense of how a fair and just world ought to look.

Categorizing people comes easily to us. We see a little bit of a person, and we might believe we are justified in making generalizations about whether they are a good person or an evil person. The more we know about a person, the more difficult this becomes. Most people are not two-dimensional caricatures. Aside from a small percentage of people who have a chemical imbalance, everyone is capable of love; everyone is capable of doing some good in the world. We don't necessarily want to look favorably upon those who have more power than we have, though. If we humanize them too much, we might not find it as easy to blame them for the things we don't like about our lives.

There is an alternative, if you're looking for one. We can decide to see people as capable, creative, and inherently good. This means that when a person does something that seems evil or unjust or "sinful," we have to look to something other than a person's inherent nature to explain such actions. If people cannot be inherently evil or broken, then why do people act the way they so often do? You probably already know what I think, but I hope you will consider it anew:

Fear. Unmanaged, irrational fear is the underlying cause of those actions we quickly judge as wicked or evil or unjust. You might prefer the term anxiety. We succumb to fear or anxiety ourselves. We know what that feels like, and we know that when we do, we often wind up apologizing for something later, once we have our anxiety or fear under control again. People are inherently worthy and powerfully capable and incredibly creative, but we are rarely adequately equipped to manage our fear gracefully. Fear catapults us out of the realms of authenticity and integrity. When we are in the midst of our anxiety, our actions fail to represent our deepest beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. Fear leads us to betray ourselves in a desperate attempt to protect ourselves -- usually from something for which we don't need protection.

What can we possibly do with this perspective? How can we confront the Ahabs of our day any more effectively? How does this better equip us to deal with the big injustices we see in the world? As admirable as such questions may be, I believe our impact must begin in our own lives. Even as I write this, I am mindful of how easily I slip from authentically expressing my beliefs into "defending myself" when I allow fear about a perceived (and unreal) threat to govern my actions. What we do in our own lives has an impact on the people around us. Managing our own irrational fear is where change begins, and this requires us to boldly tell the truth to ourselves. When we feel threatened, it behooves us to examine that feeling. Is there actually a threat, or are we letting our imaginations create something out of our anxiety? Brutal honesty in the face of our defensiveness is crucial. When we choose to manage our anxiety, we maintain a more honest perspective and we create a different environment for the people around us.

There will still be people who do not manage their fears, who hurt themselves and other people, who wallow in the role of victim. If we are willing to believe that people are inherently worthy and capable, our questions might be: What is this person afraid of? What is the perceived threat? What am I doing to feed that fear? When we take personal responsibility for our own irrational fear, we create new possibilities for how we interact with other people. This may not mean that we single-handedly transform large-scale injustices, but it certainly means that we have a better chance of making a meaningful impact where we are able. The reality is that we will never fully grasp the extent of our impact on the world. We influence people who influence people who influence other people we don't even know, and we can control none of that. What we can control is our own direct contribution to the world we inhabit. We can control whether we will offer fear or hope, anxiety or peace.

Ahab did some things that led the writer(s) of Kings to have a pretty dim view of him. We can relate to that in our own world. But regardless of our beliefs and actions, rain will fall on all of us, the sun will rise for everyone, and at the end of our lives we will all die. It makes no sense for us to spend our precious time and energy deciding who is deserving of a horrible fate and who is worthy of honor. Even if you believe in an afterlife, surely you do not get to determine eternity for anyone but yourself. Yet we are all prophets. We cannot call lions out of the brush to eat people when we are angry (thankfully!), but we are prophets none the less. Rather than pronouncing doom and destruction (which would say more about our own anxiety than anything else really), we truly do have the potential to spread a message of good news. The good news we can proclaim is that our lives need not be governed by anxiety and fear, and we proclaim it first and foremost to ourselves.

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