* 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, July 28, 2014

Isaiah 33: Selective Well-Being Is Not Genuine Well-Being

People make enemies. Usually, people make enemies by their reactivity, when fear drives the bus and prompts people to act in ways that don't align with their deepest values. The leaders of Judah made enemies through political decisions intended to preserve power and protect resources. Unfortunately, their adversaries were operating under an equally false impression of power and well-being. The tyranny of emperors has never been sustainable in human culture, but that still doesn't stop tyrannical people from thinking that they will be the exception to the rule. Tyranny is based on fear, just as Judah's defiance of the Assyrian Empire was based on fear. Of course, when we talk about "Judah's defiance," it isn't as if an entire country rebelled with a common sense of purpose. The entire country suffered, but it was the decision of a single leader (informed by his counselors) that determined the fate of the people he governed. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Judah was in agreement about international relations, primarily because most people didn't know that much about the specifics of politics.

Many people are satisfied with not suffering. They don't necessarily care what is going on politically, and especially in other parts of the world, as long as they are not personally suffering. We concoct excuses why other people are suffering while we are not, and we practice behaviors designed to protect what we have and preserve the power we have over our lives and possessions. If we get too attached to having more power than some other people, more wealth than some other people, or (bluntly) more well-being than some other people, we run the risk of making enemies. Being comfortable with a status quo in which some people have greater well-being than other people is not far from being comfortable with the idea that some people are worth more than other people. This is not a path to mutual respect or peace.

Isaiah 33 issues a promise of deliverance from enemies. As many of the promises in the prophetic books, this one is empty. It is an empty promise because it relies on an external supernatural to take care of human problems. This is rather like a child expecting that a parent will clean up any messes and whisk away any consequences that result from the child's behavior. In other words, it is devoid of personal responsibility. The problems that human beings create must be addressed by human beings, and they must be addressed more responsibly than just waiting for a supernatural to decide that it's time to fix things. A supernatural is not going to be your salvation in time of trouble. If we have any salvation, it is in human beings and our capacity to make better decisions than what we have made in the past.

If we take the definition of divinity as something that is within every person -- an inherently human characteristic -- then we might create a workable interpretation of Isaiah 33. Without any attempt to retain the poetic nature of the original text,
People who seek to destroy or betray others in order to preserve an imbalance of power create only the illusion of well-being for themselves. They have to live in perpetual fear of reprisals and spend so much time protecting what they have that they never learn to use it wisely.
Our deepest, most noble selves influence us in a different direction and reveal the values that will lead to more authentic well-being. We cannot lose the voice of our deepest, most noble self; there is no way for us to blot out our truest selves completely. This voice of truth, beauty, and creativity within us shows us the path to mutual well-being, equity, and justice. The counsel of our deepest, most noble selves offers stability in our lives and in our relationships, boundless integrity with ourselves and reconciliation with others, and sustainable insights toward lives free of irrational fear.
People will lose all of the things they try to hold on to out of fearful self-interest. There is no strategy born of anxiety that will pay meaningful dividends. Peace, justice, and genuine well-being come from other sources.
If we heed the voice of our deepest, most noble self, it will be impossible for others not to notice. Our lives will look so different from the lives of those who live by fear that it cannot leave the world unchanged. 
Here are some specifics: our actions would have obvious integrity with our values and our words would be impeccably honest, we would find ways to have what we need without supporting the oppression of other people, we would seek what creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people rather than what provides immediate gratification in our own lives, we would not accept violence as an acceptable solution to human problems, and we would not justify abusive behavior by the ends it is intended to achieve. When we do what we know to be right, by the testimony of our deepest, most noble selves, we will create well-being in every dimension of our lives, and we will promote multi-dimensional well-being in the lives of the people around us. 
The world cannot be sustained by fear. There is no hope in the priority of preserving power and control of resources among an elite few. We don't have to learn what justice and well-being would look like. We already know these things. Yet, there is no point in resentment against those who have lived out of fear. The way forward creates a better world for everybody, where everyone has enough and no one has reason to be afraid.
None of this is to say that it is easy to live with integrity, or even to know what our deepest values are if we have never really thought about it. It takes time and practice to allow our deepest, most noble selves to have greater influence in our lives than the irrational fear and anxiety by which we are accustomed to living. Our greatest strength is that we already know what justice and well-being would look like. We just operate under the impression that it would be impossible to have true justice and well-being for everyone. Maybe we have to start small -- in our own lives and in our own neighborhoods -- so that we can develop greater hope for more people. We know what justice and well-being look like. We just have to commit ourselves to creating that to whatever extent we can.

Thus, it is not the case that power and wealth and well-being are bad things. When our goal becomes preserving our own power and protecting what we have, then we go off the rails and cease to have integrity with our guiding principles. However, it is possible for us to recognize the resources at our disposal and allow our deepest values to determine what we do with those resources. The reality is that some people have more power than other people. Some people have more money than other people. Some people have more intelligence than other people. Some people have advantages in some facet of well-being that others do not have. The point is not to reject what we have haphazardly, but to use the resources at our disposal to create something better than current reality. Rather than trying to preserve and protect what we have (or gain more to hoard for ourselves -- another fear-based reaction), we could be using what we have in ways that align with our deepest values.

Nor is this an entirely selfless position. The underlying message of Isaiah 33 is that what some people think of as security and well-being is just an illusion. Piling up wealth and power for oneself isn't going to create lasting meaningful benefits. True well-being for ourselves requires the well-being of the people around us. When we share our resources with our own neighborhoods, we create better environments for our own lives. When we share our resources with other parts of the world, we create a better future to live into. Our deepest, most noble selves do not encourage us to sacrifice our own well-being for the benefit of others, but to sacrifice our false sense of scarcity and our irrational fears about other people and ourselves, so that we might have genuine well-being in our own lives.

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