Essay number 1 of 4
A tribe in West Africa has an interesting protocol for a woman about to give birth. The elders sequester her, put her in a hypnotic trance and then ask the baby-in-utero two questions. The baby, they believe, will use the mother’s voice to respond. The two questions are, “What is your name?” and “What is your mission?” During the labor, the women of the village dance around the mother-to-be, chanting the baby’s name and reminding it of its mission.
Years later, if the child – now a young man – engages in significant anti-social behavior, once more the villagers encircle him, chanting his name and reminding him of his mission. Inevitably the youth breaks down, throws himself to the ground in a fetal position and is re-birthed by the village in greater alignment with his name and his mission.
A tribe in North America has an interesting protocol for a woman about to give birth. The elders insist that she leave her home daily and go to work as usual; and if she misses a day or is late, they ask her two questions, “Why were you late this morning?” and “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” During the labor, masked strangers surround her, grab her newborn and separate it from the mother.
Years later, if the child – now a young man – engages in significant anti-social behavior, once more a group of strangers gathers round him chanting his prison number and locks him away from society. They are interested in neither his name nor his mission but merely in his sentence.
(A) Some Definitions
I need to tell you how I use key words, before I begin my thesis. Firstly, Karma is not a punitive mechanism whereby one is punished in later stages of life (or in a subsequent incarnation) for sins committed in a previous stage (or life) but, rather, an opportunity to learn and grow from past experiences, both positive and negative. Karma means coming awake to the realization that the hand life dealt you is precisely the hand you planned before you incarnated. Fate is the hand itself and destiny is the result of how you play that hand. Neither fate nor destiny means a predetermined, unavoidable outcome. Both are utterly malleable.
Judgment is the ascribing of ontological value to a person or an event e.g., “he is a bad man” or “that was an unfortunate happening.” As many avatars, including Shakespeare averred, “there is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Another of the avatars, Jesus, cautioned, “Do not judge and you will not be judged.” Are we then to approach life with a blank, bland mind? No. Whereas judging is not helpful, evaluating is vital.
Evaluation is determining the appropriate response to a person or event. It is creative and life promoting, whereas judgment is stifling and shuts down the possibilities for growth.
Justice is not merely the application of logic to a human legal code, whether it be that of Hammurabi in 1776 BCE, the Brehon Laws of the Celts or the Constitution of the USA. Justice is not about judging human behavior but about nudging human behavior into alignment with love.
(B) The Stages of Culpability
I’ve traced for myself over the years what I consider to be the development of the notion of culpability throughout the Judeo/Christian scriptures. I see it evolving in seven great stages. The first stage is what I call, “passing the apple.” It is Adam and Eve sinning and neither of them taking responsibility. Adam, when he’s caught blames his wife. His wife blames the serpent. The serpent blames God for creating him. So, nobody is taking responsibility. That’s stage one in the evolution of a notion of culpability.
Stage two is that God then punishes everybody. Augustine will articulate this as follows: “Because of that first sin, our will is weakened, our intellect is darkened and our bodies are subjected to sickness and ultimately to death.” So, for this one sin, God is going to punish everybody.
Stage three is the notion of the scapegoat. When the people of Israel were in exile in the desert, once a year all of the people would come individually to Aaron, who was the high priest, and confess their individual sins. Then Aaron would take a goat from the herd and impose hands upon it while passing the sins of the entire group on to the goat. Then he would hunt it off into the desert. Hence the origin of the word scapegoat.
Stage four was when God repented of the vastness and viciousness of his vengeance and decided to scale it back some. Henceforth, he was only going to punish the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation. What a benign and compassionate God! He was only going to punish the great-grandchildren not the great-great-grandchildren.
Stage five came about 600 years before Jesus with two great Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel who were practically contemporaries of each other. They quoted an old Hebrew proverb that said: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Both prophets now declared: “No longer will this proverb be true. No longer will the children’s teeth be set on edge because the parents had eaten sour grapes. Henceforth, everybody is responsible for his own sin.” It may feel that that was the culmination and that it couldn’t get any better. But there are two stages beyond that and they are articulated by Jesus – the first one in his teaching and the second one in his life.
So here is stage six: Jesus pointed out to the religious, self-righteous of his time, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees; you bind heavy loads and place them on people’s shoulders, but you won’t lift a single finger to help them!” Therefore, authorities who make burdensome, unjust or unnecessary laws are partially responsible for ordinary people’s inability to keep them.
The final stage was not so much what Jesus had to say about things as what he did about things. Here was a man without personal sin, and lived his life in total alignment with God, but made a vow to dedicate himself to being responsible to, not responsible for, but being responsible to the sins of the world. He would take every situation he encountered and respond to it with love. That’s as moral, as compassionate and as courageous as it gets.
See you next week!