* 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, 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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Isaiah 2-4: Embracing Human Responsibility

The book of Isaiah was composed in stages by different authors, and even the passages that were written earliest show signs of later editing. Still, the first portion of the book seems to directly address the Assyrian crisis, specifically indicating a spiritual reason for political and military threats. Isaiah 2-4 indicates some of the problems the prophet sees in the society of Judah as well as his vision of what Yahweh wants the world to be.

He begins by envisioning the Temple as a place of spiritual learning, where all people learn to manage their conflicts without war, essentially relying on the wisdom of Yahweh to guide their decisions. As it is, he sees pride as a major error of people everywhere. A coming judgment will clearly show how misplaced that pride is. According to the prophet, society will be turned on its head. All supernatural provision will be withheld, and insolent children will be in charge of a place where everyone seeks to profit from the suffering of neighbors. There is a karmic sense of justice in that whatever the wicked will experience the same suffering they have wrought upon others.

No one will be able to argue effectively against this judgment from God, because the evidence is in their lives: they are caught red-handed with the spoils gained from oppressing the poor, and their very posture and gait is incriminating. Even though their leaders are leading them astray, the people are responsible for their actions. The judgment will strip them of adornment and reveal their shameful and unmerited pride. Once this spiritual cleansing transpires, Yahweh will create an atmosphere of comfort and refuge. The judgment is not intended to wipe people out, but to eradicate any justifications for pride and oppressions so that the people, faced with the bare honesty of their inappropriate attitudes and actions, have no option but to change. It is as if people are incapable of change unless a higher power gives them no alternative.

However, the kind of pride the author of Isaiah is criticizing should not be mistaken for genuine acknowledgment of one's ability and accomplishments. It's healthy to be honest about one's abilities and strengths, and it's healthy to fully embrace what one can accomplish in the world. Destructive pride is the belief that you are intrinsically worth more than other people -- that you deserve wealth, comfort, and respect that other people do not deserve. When one's sense of Self become over-inflated, then it becomes easier to justify profiting from other people's suffering. An unbalanced sense of pride dismisses the inherent worth and dignity of other people and makes equitable, just relationships impossible. Isaiah challenges that kind of pride and envisions a world in which people are honest about their own value, and everyone else's value, too. The author also envisions a world in which Yahweh is active in the lives of people and is acknowledged as every nation's god.

It's nice to dream about what the world could be. It's perhaps even more pleasant to dream about what someone else is going to do to make the world better. Of course, when there are hostile armies at your doorstep, a believer must do something with beliefs about a deity. Either that deity is not as powerful as the hostile forces, or the deity is completely in charge of what's going on. If a deity is completely in charge of things, and there is an enemy army threatening to take over one's home, then the deity must be sending a very powerful message. That deity's worshipers had better shape up, or else.

This kind of situation was an ongoing struggle for ancient Judah. One of the biggest problems is that misidentifying the causes of the effects one experiences still leaves no reasonable means of improving one's situation. If you assume that bill collectors are harassing you because God is trying to teach you a lesson, you won't necessarily determine that you need to manage your finances more responsibly. Even more to the point, if one is waiting for God to cleanse the wickedness from people and establish less prideful, more peaceful, just relationships between human beings, one is going to wait a long time. Addressing human pride and oppression and violence is not the job of some extra-human authority; human relationships are the responsibility of human beings. Envisioning what an external divine being is going to do is just one way to maintain an attitude that human beings are incapable of being more just and equitable and compassionate -- and if the responsibility for a just, equitable, compassionate world is shifted to God, the people don't have to be capable.

As challenging as this may be to accept, there is no supernatural being who is just waiting for the right moment to sweep in and change the world. It's understandable if we would prefer to sit back and wait for a superhuman someone, bigger and more capable than us, to transform reality, because waiting doesn't require a whole lot of effort. If we have any real desire to see change in the world -- to see justice, or real equality, or authentic human relationships that aren't based on how much one person can take advantage of another -- creating that world is on us. It's up to us to set aside unhealthy pride that convinces us that we have more inherent value than other people, and it's up to us to maintain an honest assessment of our capability and worth. It's up to us to build just relationships with other people and to be willing to make some sacrifices when we realize that we are profiting from someone else's suffering. It's up to us to be authentic in our power and not adorn ourselves with clothing or lifestyles or honorifics that conceal who we really are behind a smoke screen of what we want people to think of us.

God is not going to change the world or punish the world. Our experiences in life are the results of human decisions. If an army attacks, we might justifiably blame that on our leaders. In our own personal lives, though, what we experience is ours to manage. If we don't like our reality, we have the power to learn from it and create something better. That kind of creation isn't always easy, but it at least has a chance of building the kind of world we want to live in. Waiting for someone else to solve our problems for us will get us nowhere. So, if you choose to pray, pray for courage. Prayer cannot in and of itself create justice or peace or equality, but human action can. We are capable of creating a better reality, if we are courageous and intentional in our actions. That creation starts with the relationships that already matter to us. That creation starts with greater awareness about the decisions that we make every day about how we treat other people (and ourselves). In other words, we engage in creating a better world by first engaging in creating and re-creating ourselves.