* 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

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.

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