* 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, June 9, 2014

Isaiah 24: Understanding Appropriate Responsibility

The topic seems to come up over and over again, but if the authors and assemblers of Isaiah kept beating this drum, perhaps there is a little more to learn from it. Isaiah 24 extends predictions of divine wrath (presented as "justice," but we'll examine that word) to the entire world. Everyone will be treated with equal harshness, regardless of their place in society or their role in creating justice or well-being. Some people will even be praising Yahweh, but they should be mourning. The entire landscape will be a wasteland, and the few people that are left after this punishment will have no reason to celebrate.

There are a few things to address here. First, there is a problem with considering this universal punishment as "justice." Second, there are natural consequences to human actions that do not need to be explained by supernatural will or action. Finally, there are differing degrees of human responsibility that should be taken into consideration; everyone on the planet does not have equal power.

Looking first at the term "justice," it is easy from this passage to see why some people observe that the Old Testament depicts an unjust god. The powerless and the powerful will be treated equally harshly by Yahweh. According to this passage, the earth will be uninhabitable, not because of the natural consequence of human behavior, but because a supernatural will make it so. Surely, there are some who would point out that no individual is completely innocent. At the same time, is the level of wrongdoing that could be committed by a typical slave worthy of the same consequence as the wrongdoing that could be committed by a typical master? Should the misdeed of naive or gullible worshipers be treated with the same harshness as the misdirection of the priest who led them astray? One could make the case that actions have consequences, but when an intelligent deity is orchestrating the consequences, that argument is insufficient. A deity cannot be just and also punish indiscriminately. So, either there is something off about the picture of Yahweh painted by Isaiah, or there is something wrong with the idea that Yahweh is just.

There's no reason to have a supernatural in the picture at all, however. This actually makes things easier for the believer and the non-believer alike. Human actions have consequences. If one country goes to war with its neighbors, a lot of people will suffer, and they will suffer without regard to their role in society or their role in the war. If human actions result in an uninhabitable landscape, then one's personal responsibility for that result doesn't determine one's experience. Everyone suffers equally because circumstances do not have any intelligent power to discriminate between people of different levels of power or responsibility. If an intelligent deity is not behind the consequences, we have no reason to expect "justice."

Thus, when human beings clear-cut a forest and the ecosystem is disrupted, this is not indication that God loves trees and hates those who cut them down. It is an indication that irresponsible behavior will have a negative impact on our world. When an individual commits a crime and is subsequently arrested, it is not an indication that God will enforce some kind of punishment for bad behavior or that he has some kind of plan for each person's life. There are human consequences to breaking a society's laws. When a natural disaster strikes a community, it isn't necessarily anyone's fault. Although scientists are exploring how human behavior influences typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, these things are part of the natural world, and they have been for a long, long time. There is no divine agency behind where a storm hits or how high flood waters rise.

In fact, if one wishes to suggest (as some Christians have) that storms are God's way of punishing a population of people, one must explain the repeated tornado "attacks" on Oklahoma City, a community that is more religious (more Christian, actually) than the national average. I'm sure you could make something up. After all, 156 tornadoes since 1890 certainly seems like a message that isn't getting received. Oklahoma City has been struck 26 times by multiple tornadoes in the same day. Certainly seems like a divine message, right? For more than a century, there hasn't been a period of more than six years in which Oklahoma City was not struck by a tornado. Does someone up there just hate Oklahoma City? No. It's weather. There is no will or intelligence behind it. It's just weather. When people move from Oklahoma City to Florence, Italy, and are still plagued by tornadoes, then we'll have something to talk about.

Weather is potentially influenced by human action, but it's hard to be very specific apart from, "Widespread destruction of the ecosystem has negative results." Some consequences are much easier to discern. If you commit an act of violence, people will typically want to react with violence toward you. If you drive irresponsibly, you are more likely to hurt yourself and others. If you are caught in a lie, people will probably trust you less. And if you habitually lie, you will eventually get caught in a lie. Thoughtful consideration can provide us with some likely outcomes to our behaviors, even if we sometimes want to think of ourselves as exceptions. We shouldn't be surprised that our actions have consequences. It would be more surprising if our actions had no effect on our relationships or the world around us.

There are different degrees of responsibility, however, because everyone does not have equal power. In Isaiah's day, the leaders of nations -- the kings and emperors -- were the ones who determined the fate of their countries. The decisions of a few powerful individuals had consequences for entire populations of people. We like to think that we are no longer in a feudal society, but capitalism has its own kind of feudalism. There are still a handful of individuals who are capable of making decisions that affect entire populations of people. We have just replaced territorial/political power with financial/political power, and we have figured out ways to make powerlessness more palatable. When the board of a multinational corporation makes a decision, there are consequences. Lots of people potentially benefit from wise decisions, and lots of people potentially suffer as a result of poor decisions. The responsibility for those consequences rests with the people who have the power to make the decisions. Just like the kings of Judah were responsible for the political decisions that got their people taken into exile, there are powerful people today who have a greater burden of responsibility because their decisions affect many people who don't have much choice in those decisions.

In our personal lives, however, there are also consequences for our decisions. This is the case no matter how much influence we wield in the larger society. In our own relationships, in our own communities, our actions have consequences. We have some responsibility over the things which we have power to influence. Even though our individual actions will probably not result in "the earth being utterly laid waste and despoiled," our world -- our personal lives -- blossom or wither in large part because of our personal decisions. When we act in ways that harm others, or attempt to gain something at someone else's expense, we are more likely to suffer in some way as a result. When we act in alignment to our deeper values, our lives and our relationships reflect those values. This is not divine punishment and reward. This is just how life works. Actions have consequences.

We may not see those consequences clearly. We may think that other people are to blame for our unhappiness. We may believe that we are too weak to do anything about our situations. The reality is that, while there are limits to what we control, we do have control over our decisions and our beliefs. We can assess the accuracy of what we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. We might benefit from exploring that with other people -- someone who isn't as invested in our way of seeing the world perhaps. Our journey toward emotional maturity requires us to break the habit of blaming other people or our circumstances and embrace our own personal responsibility for our actions.

Isaiah 24 suggests that every person is equally responsible for the state of the world. This simply isn't so. One person recycling does not save the ecosystem. One person treating people with respect without regard for their skin color does not end racism. One person paying employees equally does not end gender bias. What these things do, however, is set an example for others to follow. One person living with integrity can inspire other people to do the same. One person acting in alignment with deep guiding principles experiences the positive consequences of living intentionally. One person doesn't have responsibility for the whole world, but just taking responsibility for our own lives can have an incredible influence.

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