* 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, April 16, 2013

2 Kings 8-10: Locating Moral Authority (and Considering the Concept that Everything Happens for a Reason)

It is a difficult day to write about moral authority when a part of me wants to write about mourning in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. In sticking with the next portion of the Book of Kings, however, I am hopeful that there is some pertinent value that can outlast grief, or at least stand alongside it. Here is the story from 2 Kings, in a nutshell: First, the prophet Elisha provokes Hazael to murder the king of Aram and take the throne. Then, after a short series of successions, Elisha sends an unnamed prophet to anoint Jehu, a commander in the Israelite army, as king of Israel. So, this is essentially the story of a military coup. Jehu murdered Ahaziah (the king of Judah), Joram (the king of Israel), Jezebel, 70 descendants of Ahab in Samaria, 42 relatives of Ahaziah, and an untold number of priests of Baal, whom he lured into a temple through deception. The Chronicler tells an abridged version of the story, focusing as one would expect on events in Judah.

There are a number of ways to approach this kind of story. Some would like to assume that earlier prophecies about Ahab and Jezebel were fated to come true, but it is much more likely that the entire story, prophecies included, was written long after the events transpired. We cannot even be sure if the actual historical events are accurately represented by the biblical narrative. Even if we assume that divine prophecy foretold these events, what does that suggest about the biblical God? How can it be that one of the Ten Commandments forbids killing, and yet so much killing receives God's stamp of approval? If divine commandments are that malleable, then they are essentially worthless. If murder has its exceptions, we can assume that there are times when God may actually want us to disobey other commandments as well. Since there seems not to be any clear agreement among believers as to what God wants, the whole premise of using the Bible as a moral authority falls apart. Of course, if all of the capital punishment clauses in the Hebrew Scriptures were taken literally, there wouldn't be any believers left, since just about everyone has done something that merits execution by the literal standards of the ancient Israelites.

We could approach the tale with the assumption that the actions were not approved by God (although the biblical narrative suggests otherwise), but that an omniscient deity knew what would happen, and that his prophets would potentially be privy to some of this foreknowledge. This assumption that God knows about everything that will happen, but chooses not to intervene creates a rather impotent version of the divine that is a far cry from the personal deity that most modern-day believers espouse. What use would it be to petition a deity in prayer if that deity already knows all there is to know and allows things to carry on without his influence? Moreover, what would be the use of sending a prophet to anoint a king, if a murder or military coup is predestined? It is obvious at the very least that the ancient Israelite storyteller believed that it was in God's nature to intervene and influence human behavior.

Perhaps we would like to believe instead that God understands more than people understand, and that there is a larger purpose at work than we can perceive. Believing that everything happens for a reason is at least more comforting than just thinking that God knows what will happen and chooses to sit back and watch. Thus, we could see it as acceptable that Jehu led a military coup that resulted in the murder of a large number of people, because God had a larger purpose in mind. Once again, we have the same problem that murder and deception become acceptable moral options in the right circumstances. Other biblical texts do not support this idea, but there are some for whom this is not an issue. It is only a problem if one wishes to assert that the Bible is a moral authority. If God always has a larger purpose in mind, then no actions can truly be judged by human beings. Perhaps this is a good thing at some level, since we spend far too much time and energy judging other people. It ultimately means that we cannot have a valid sense of morality for ourselves, however. Nothing can truly be deemed wrong or sinful if God condones it (or just allows it to happen) because of a larger purpose that we simply cannot grasp.

Here is another possibility for the biblical story: People behaved as people behaved for their own reasons, and someone came along after the fact and tried to make sense of it all within the context of a culture's religion. There is no need to assume that a deity was responsible for any of the events that took place in ancient Israel any more than there is a need to assume that a deity is orchestrating events today. Human beings naturally look at the events transpiring around them and try to make some sense of those events. In so doing, we often draw some conclusions that have no basis in data. Where we lack data, we do our best to fill in the gaps, and we use our beliefs about people and reality to do so. This is not a moral issue; this is just how we interact with the world around us. Morality comes from within us, not from a temperamental or inscrutable deity.

It is a comfort for some people to believe that there is a reason for everything. However, it turns out that the reason for an awful lot of things is human beings acting on fear. When we lack personal responsibility and have poorly developed means of dismantling false beliefs, we are prone to react. And when we react, we are often not reacting to reality; we react to our beliefs about reality. Our limitless creativity can work against us in this regard, inventing all sorts of possibilities that have no foundation in fact. Our morality depends on our ability and willingness to be personal responsible for honestly assessing reality, and this means being personally responsible for managing our own fear.

Everything doesn't happen for a reason. I suppose one could say that hurricanes happen because of weather systems. Fine, that does constitute a "reason" by definition. Perhaps it is better to say that there is not a larger purpose behind everything that happens. Often, the only meaning to be found in a set of circumstances is the meaning that we create. We have the capacity to respond to our experiences in a way that propels us forward and nurtures us toward greater maturity. We also have the capacity to respond to our experiences in a way that feeds into our fears and false beliefs. Either way, we are the ones that create meaning.

When an individual initiates a military coup and incites other people to murder, that individual is acting on his own fears and playing upon the fears of other people. Fear takes many forms: Greed is often based on fear that we do not (or will not) have enough. Hatred is often based on fear that other people will somehow harm us. We act on fears that we will not be understood, accepted, or respected. We act on fears that life will not go the way we want it to. All of this is understandable but unnecessary. Fear by its very nature is immoral. We cannot make wise, responsible decisions that take anyone else's well-being into consideration when we are reacting to irrational fears. We are capable of doing things differently, as individuals and as a collective.

When things do happen for a reason, people are the reason. Acts of violence happen because of people. Acts of peace happen because of people, too. Fear is easy. Fear is natural. Dismantling fear and facing difficult truths can be hard work. But if we are willing, we can be the reason that something incredibly hopeful happens. We can be the reason that something powerfully graceful happens. We can't control other people, and we don't control the weather. We can be responsible for ourselves, though. What if we were to determine that everything we do will happen for a reason? What will your reason be?

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