* 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, March 12, 2013

2 Kings 1-4: Being Vessels of Judgment or Vessels of Grace

The stories of Elijah and Elisha are delightful bits of folklore. These two characters have much in common with magicians or sorcerers from the legends of other cultures. Even though Israelite religion forbade witchcraft and the like, simple recontextualization places the actual power in the hands of Yahweh while the men themselves are mere subservient vessels. In 2 Kings 1-4, Elijah predicts the death of an Israelite king, kills 102 soldiers, and passes on his mantle of authentic power to Elisha before catching a ride up to Heaven in a flaming chariot. Elisha sets to work purifying water, summoning bears to eat unruly children, and performing miracles large and small. He increases apparent amounts of olive oil and bread, makes stew safe to eat, and brings a boy back from the dead -- a fairly impressive resume. One significant event is the battle between the king of Moab and the united forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom, in which Elisha proclaims that Yahweh will fill in the gaps in the planning of these three kings in order to give them victory over Moab.

These stories fall into two larger categories: stories of judgment and stories of grace. The judgment stories are obvious, but the origin of the judgment isn't always clear. Ahaziah is obviously being punished by Yahweh, but in the folktale, he doesn't die until Elijah is standing there in front of him. In the meantime, Elijah is justified in calling down fire to consume dozens of soldiers, presumably because they were in the service of a wicked king. Elisha's judgment of the jeering boys is even more clearly the prophet's own decision. The boys say something he doesn't like, so the prophet curses them (in the name of Yahweh), and bears come out of the woods and eat the boys!

Life does not work like this. Even though there are people who commit what we might consider wicked acts, we cannot expect that they will be judged and removed from the world as a result. People die. Sometimes death is a result of personal decisions, but sometimes people die for reasons completely unrelated to how they lived their lives. No matter what a person does in life, death is an eventuality, not divine punishment. Even when we choose to kill someone as a society through capital punishment or military action, these are human decisions carried out by people. While we might like to curse certain people from time to time, our curses do not actually have any power over reality, even if we curse people in the name of our favorite deity.

And let's consider that for just a moment. Elisha curses these boys in the name of his god, and as a result, bears come out of the woods and eat the boys. This is slightly different from the folktale about Elijah taming the wolf, but it still suggests that these folk heroes had influence over nature. More accurately, it suggests that the prophets had influence over Yahweh, who had power over nature. What kind of deity is this, though? When I say, "Those boys are making fun of me, God! Send some bears to eat them!" I would not expect a wise and loving deity to respond, "You got it. Two hungry bears, coming up." I would expect a wise and loving deity to respond with something more like, "They're kids. It's what they do. They'll grow into responsible members of society if you teach them to be wise instead of enforcing a brutal 'one-strike' policy. And you are getting a bit thin on top, baldy."

Obviously the ancient Israelites thought about things differently, but just because they wrote their beliefs down over two millenia ago doesn't mean that their version of divinity was in any way accurate or useful. God does not punish the wicked. The wicked punish themselves. God does not respond to curses, even if the curses are pronounced "in his name," as ridiculous as that seems. This is once again witchcraft by a different name. Even if you believe in a supreme being who watches over human beings and actively responds to prayers, there has to be some limit to your god's willingness to harm people in order for you to have meaningful participation in the world. If there existed a god who was responsive and willing to go along with our momentary emotional reactivity, humanity would no longer exist; we would have cursed one another into early graves a long time ago.

No, even if there is an external divine being trying to guide human activity, the message of our reality is that we must learn the hard lesson of seeing one another more clearly as human beings worthy of respect. Our acts of greed, violence, and oppression (and fear in all its forms) only lead to more problems. We enact our own curses on one another and ourselves by failing to manage our own fearfulness and irrational beliefs. We can lift those curses, too. It just takes commitment to doing things better. Calling down a curse is a quick solution that doesn't require any real investment of our own time and energy. Dismantling our false beliefs about ourselves and other people takes a bit more work, but the end result could be far more impressive than getting a couple of hungry bears to show up and eat our problems.

Every story in these chapters wasn't about divine retribution, though. Some of them were about divine grace. A town has bad water, and the prophet makes it potable (through magic). A widow is in danger of losing her home, and the prophet works a bit of magic and makes her olive oil jar incredibly prodigious for a short time. The prophet makes a woman conceive (we won't ask how), and when the boy dies prematurely, the prophet brings him back to life. The prophet makes poisoned food safe to eat and feeds a hundred people with a little bit of bread. He also brings prediction of God's impressive provenance for a trio of armies that rode out to battle so ill prepared that they ran out of water on the way. This was a little more tricky, and it was obviously done on God's initiative in the story, even though most of the predictions were carried out by people.

We like the idea of grace. If one cannot pay one's bills, unexpected money seems like a miracle from on high. When we think we have a scarcity and reality shows us our abundance, grace makes a lot of sense. In fact, whenever we are expecting bad things to happen and our expectations are shown to be overly pessimistic, it can seem that something outside of ourselves has intervened on our behalf. Grace is the opposite of a curse. But things we don't like still happen. Tragic and devastating things even. We are sometimes woefully unprepared for the challenges we face. Sometimes it's our own irresponsibility that does us it, and sometimes events are so unexpected that we are simply caught off guard. Children (and other people we love) die, often before we are really ready to let them go. This is sad, and it is reality. Medical professionals can sometimes pull off what seems like a miracle (although it's actually human skill), but sooner or later we have to face the death of  someone we care about. It's comforting perhaps to think that there is a god who has the power to intervene and restore a dead person to life, like the Shunammite woman's son or Lazarus coming out of the grave. Yet, can we accept those stories without wondering why no one in our lives has ever been the recipient of such grace?

Despite the rabbit trails of "miraculous" stories that people may tell, the facts are clear on the matter, and my purpose here is not to refute miracles. In fact, judgment and grace are very real. They just aren't in the hands of a supreme being outside of ourselves. Judgment and grace are human endeavors, and we carry them out every day. We know how to punish people, sometimes subtly and sometimes very directly. It may not be fire from the sky or hungry bears, but we all have our ways of letting people know that they've done something wrong and we aren't going to let them get away with it. Curses. Divine retribution. Our international conflicts are no different; they are just symptoms of the same kind of thinking on a larger scale. We can be vessels for our own violent gods of vengeance, and we often are.

We also know about grace. We know how to forgive. We know the benefits of letting go of grudges. We know how to forget about a debt owed to us. We know how to show empathy and compassion, even when we aren't getting what we want from somebody. We know how to show grace. The question is: Do we? We cannot bring back anyone from the dead, but we can have compassion for people who grieve. We cannot stop conflict in the world or decide who will "win" any given battle, but we can put a stop to conflict in our own lives. Grace. Divine blessing. We can do these things just as easily as we curse. Spewing curses just may be more our habit. We can be vessels for our own gods of peace and compassion.

The thing is, whatever you happen to believe, our true beliefs show up in our actions. Whatever we may claim to think about the real nature of humanity and divinity, our behavior tells the truth about our beliefs -- especially when we aren't being particularly intentional. If one were to suggest that every moment is an act of worship, then one would have to admit that people are often idolatrous. We want to claim belief in one thing, but our lives reflect a completely different view of reality. Whether we assert the existence of any sort of god, life makes more sense when our actions line up with what we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. We choose whether we want to be vessels of retribution and punishment or vessels of peace and compassion. I would like to suggest that grace is the preferable option.

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