* 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, August 20, 2013

2 Kings 17: Creating Our Reality

The kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the Israelites were removed from the land and resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire. 2 Kings 17 suggests a political reason and a spiritual reason for the event. Politically, King Hoshea thought he could extract himself from his role as vassal to the Assyrian emperor if he pledged loyalty to a king of Egypt. There's no way of knowing why he thought that would be better. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because Shalmaneser found out about the betrayal and responded with military action. He removed the Israelites from their land and moved in exiles from other places within the empire. This separation of people from their attachment to geographic sites was intended to preserve peace and limit the potential for uprisings within the empire.

Shalmaneser's actions make considerable sense. People today often behave the same way, whether it is people in certain positions of political power or people in positions of economic power. From a certain angle, multinational corporations bear some striking similarities to the empires of the Ancient Near East. The logic of the emperor's attempt to preserve power and docile compliance within his domain is enough to explain the circumstances without adding any supernatural reasons into the mix.

The Bible being a document of a superstitious time and people, however, places more emphasis on why the Israelites themselves were to blame, namely because of their spiritual infidelity. It is striking to look back at the development of their theology, from a mythology around a deity who made repeated unconditional promises to Abram about the land his descendants would occupy, to a religious construct that included unfulfilled (albeit vague) blessings for good behavior and death penalty curses for bad behavior, to a social commentary about why bad things happen to a people who are supposedly chosen and beloved by an omnipotent deity. Anything bad that happens can thus be blamed on human behavior, which as it turns out is pretty close to the truth when it's put in such general terms. There may be some disagreement about exactly which bad behavior brought about the undesirable consequences, but at least there is a bit of honesty in recognizing that the results people experience in their lives are largely consequences of their own actions.

Yet, much of what happened to the people of Israel was not so much a consequence of their actions as it was a consequence of their leader's actions. Their king did something that caused the entire country to be overthrown and displaced. It doesn't seem fair that one person's poor decision making skills wind up costing so many people so much, but that's what happens in systems of government, whether they are democracies or monarchies. We cannot control a lot of things about our circumstances, but we can control who we are in the midst of those circumstances.

What can we draw from this spiritual justification of a nation's failure, then? How can we translate this idea that we face a decision between serving a benevolent and righteous supernatural or committing destructive acts of spiritual infidelity or idolatry? With a bit of translation, it actually makes for some very useful observations. The historians of Kings are partially right when they suggest that the people of Israel created their own reality of destruction and exile. That's a truth worth exploring.

Even for the authors of this biased history, it was obvious that the people who resettled the lands of the exiled Israelites were creating their own gods. It just wasn't as easy for them to look at their own god as a human invention. We create idols, too, and more often than not those idols originate from our fears, our insecurities, the lies we believe about ourselves, other people, and reality. We look outside of ourselves for a sense of purpose and well-being, idolizing money or titles or power or significance. We create destructive habits because we fail to recognize that so many of the things we think we value are actually valueless. We spend so much time seeking after some external means of alleviating our irrational fears that forget to examine our own selves, our own deep and abiding values, our own ideals and principles that got buried beneath piles of vows about what we must and must not do, assumptions about what is possible or impossible, and lies about how we are either not enough or better than.

If we want to encounter divinity, we might want to spend some honest moments looking within ourselves. Chances are, we already know what we want our lives to be about. We already know what we actually value. Those things are sometimes challenging; they might take a lot of work and we might have to dismantle a lot of fears and false beliefs to really engage them. But when we dig into real meaningful values that engage our sense of connection with people, that tap into our true capabilities and passions, that inspire us to envision a better life and a better world characterized by justice and compassion, we are tapping into something more powerful than any idols we can set up in our lives.

We cannot honestly improve our lives, the lives of other people, or the world around us by being preoccupied with judgments about ourselves or other people, fears about scarcity or insignificance, or lies about our own brokenness or weakness. Human beings may be well practiced at escalating anxiety and reactivity, but there are other options for how we connect with our deepest, most noble, visionary selves. We have the opportunity to bring forth something inspiring by the way we live and the choices we make. We can honor a deeper truth than where our fears and assumptions lead us. We are creative by nature, and thus we are creators by nature. We choose what we create.

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