Reflection on an early memory

I remember as a child, long before I could read, gazing at the pictures in an illustrated Bible that I think probably belonged to my grandparents. This is the first book I can remember. I used to carry it around with me and long before I could read the words in it I understood the stories conveyed through my imagining of the pictures.

There’s a name so very rich in associations from my childhood encounter with the illustrated Bible. Although, not knowing the story at the time, I still remember my horrid The_Death_of_Jezebelfascination at gazing at a black and white drawing of a woman being thrown out of a window to an awaiting crowd of men and excited-looking dogs. I must have asked someone, probably my grandmother, who was this woman being thrown from the upstairs window? I learned her name was Jezebel. To this day, the very mention of her name brings back with vivid accuracy this simple pen and ink drawing.

Early memories are the strongest. The vinyl disc is a great analogy for the way that early childhood impressions of the world form deep grooves in the earliest anatomical part of the brain connected with the function of memory. Here is the seat of instinctual responses alongside which our earliest sense and internal fantasy experiences of the world are etched. This heady cocktail of instinct and early sense experience etched in deep grooves of early memory, exercise often unconsciously, an influence over the rest of our lives.

A further reflection from childhood

The social and cultural world of my family was not one in which Churchgoing was a regular practice. Nevertheless, all the adults I knew assumed themselves to be Christian simply because they never imagined one could be anything else. This was a world of nominal Christianity, which while not shaped by actual belief or practice, was nevertheless peopled with Biblical character types. Jezebel was a popular Biblical character type frequently used to refer to any woman whose behavior raised a sense of moral indignation. To be called a Jezebel was an insult drawn from the cultural embedding of the story from 1 Kings 21. The utterance of the name is inseparable from associations and memories of it being used by both my grandmothers and to a lesser extent, my mother.

Reflection on the text

Ahab is a sorry excuse for a king. He is a very sorry excuse for a man. He is depicted as a man suffering from what we today recognize as narcissistic personality disorder, a condition that much afflicts those with a drive for power. Narcissism is an essential element for each of us in our emotional makeup. Personality disorder is a way of talking about someone with a severe character defect that impairs their capacity for mutuality – the give and take of relating that happens when two people give each other space to be themselves.

There are two main types of this condition, which I will refer to as dependent or aggressive. Both kinds of narcissistic disturbance make it difficult to tolerate the frustration of experiencing another’s separateness. The aggressive narcissist experiences other’s independence of mind and action as a deeply threatening personal affront or even attack. They respond viciously, going for the jugular. We recognize that this is often a characteristic of those who seek power because power blurs the distinction between self and others – others become simply extensions of our ability to impose our will. The other person is merely an extension or a pawn in the pursuit of one’s own desires. The character Frank Underwood from Netflix’s House of Cards demonstrates this personality type, well. There are others from real life politics that could also be mentioned here.

In this story from 1 Kings – Jezebel conveys an aggressive narcissist profile while Ahab seems to be of the more dependent type. Faced with Naboth’s refusal to sell his land to him, Ahab withdraws into depressed isolation. Ahab’s type needs the ruthless aggression of a Jezebel and in this instance, she does not disappoint him.

Naboth’s refusal to sell his patrimony reflects an understanding among Israelites that the land is only on lease from God, and that what we might call the freehold of land is vested in God’s ownership. God gave the Israelites their land in trust, to care and be responsible for. Part of that spirit of responsibility was neither to sell one’s own land nor confiscate unjustly, the land of another. Ahab is king in Israel, and as the king, he is simply God’s husbandman for just and good government. Alas, probably spurred on by his Sidonian (read non-Jewish) wife, Ahab seems to take his cue from the playbook of the Canaanite kings whose lands surround his. In short, he is weak and so needs his ruthless wife to do his dirty work for him.

Enter Elijah, the man of God. In the preceding chapters of 1 King’s Elijah is continually on the move in remote regions in an attempt to elude the long arm of the king and his wife. He has hidden in caves, sought temporary shelter and sustenance with an impoverished widow. He feels rejected, isolated and alone, exclaiming earlier in chapter 18 that he alone is the only one left as a prophet in Israel. Yet, God does not let him hide away. The word of 1280px-Jezabel-and-Ahab-Meeting-Elijah-in-Naboth-s-Vineyardthe Lord comes to him telling him to go down to meet King Ahab and say to him: Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood. Elijah suddenly appears on the road Ahab is taking from his winter place to Naboth’s vineyard. His appearance on the road surprises the king who exclaims: Have you found me, O my enemy? And Elijah simply replies: I have found you. He then proceeds to proclaim God’s judgment upon Ahab and his house. For in Elijah’s words, Ahab has: sold [himself] to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

Reflection from the here and now

In the parish, I encourage Lectio Divina as a group spiritual practice. In short, Lectio Divina is a way of reflecting on a passage of scripture in the belief that through it God is seeking to draw our attention to something we need to address in the present moment of time – say five to seven days. As I meditated on this passage from 1 Kings 21 the words sold yourself lept from the page, penetrating deep into my imagination. Sold yourself – I began to wonder what have I sold myself to do as a justification for an action or attitude? This is an uncomfortable question.

I continually find that the thing I sell myself to repeatedly is fear. Fear convinces me that:

  • Scarcity is the only reality, and so I become risk adverse to acts and attitudes of generosity and hospitality that lead me to an encounter with the reality of abundance.
  • That difference is an attack upon my personal integrity – my freedom of conscience, my own self-interest, and so I become intolerant and through intolerance, I collude with justifications for discrimination.
  • That no good deed goes unpunished and so I shrink back from concerned involvement and solidarity with those who need my help.
  • I sell myself to fear and I become timid and afraid and pull back from action and attitudes requiring courage and commitment to hope – a lack of faith in that which is still in the process of becoming known in the future.

I sell myself to a hundred and one different fears in every moment of my day and night. If this is true for me individually, then what does it mean when as a community, as a society, as a culture we sell ourselves to fear? This results in:

  • The degeneration of the quality and capacity for civic engagement.
  • The impossibility of informed debate.
  • The economic exploitation of ordinary people in the face of enormous wealth confiscation by the few.
  • The resurgence of racist, misogynist, and discriminatory phobias of many kinds, once again rising to stalk our streets and corridors of power.
  • The passive acceptance of disordered narcissism as a quality to be admired at best and tolerated at worst in our politicians, who pander to and stoke our fear, ensuring that our rage remains misdirected, aimed not at inequalities in work, housing, education, and healthcare, the legitimate sources of our rage, but at Latino’s, Muslims, foreigners, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Blacks, Women, Men, Gays and the Transgendered; all neatly stereotyped and scapegoated. 

Soon, only a few brave voices are left to cry out against the doing of what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

In ancient Israel, all sections of society were bound by a covenant with God. The social justice aspects of the covenant were spelled out clearly in terms of mutual responsibility. This was a world in which wealth and power could not be severed from responsibility. Attempts to do so brought God’s judgment articulated through the voice of the prophet. I am left wondering what his equivalent might be today?

We live in a more democratic age when it’s not the voice of an individual, but the consensus of the community that speaks truth to power -Elijah as the voice of community conscience. David Brooks wrote this last week:

The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.

Brooks argues for a reinjection of soul into our physical and social lives so that: 

We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.

That’s the nub of the rub between Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah. Brook’s conclusion is that we are more than utility-maximising individuals, we are love and connection seeking individuals who find in community the possibilities for loving and being loved.

A core task of communities is to arouse and educate the loves, to widen and deepen the opportunities for love and to appraise people by how well and what they love.

Jesus is our guide on what and how to love well. He loves and accepts the love of the woman – (a Jezebel, not in the personality disordered sense, but in the sense of the word as my grandmothers would have used it), who crashes the dinner party to express her unfettered love for him as told to us by Luke in the Gospel reading.

Long before I knew how to read the words in my illustrated Bible, I knew how to imagine the pictures. I wish I had seen the picture of the exchange between the woman and Jesus at the dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee reported in Luke in 7:36-8:3. If I had, maybe this too, alongside the imagining of Jezebel being thrown to her death would have given me, at this crucially formative stage, a more rounded picture of the world.

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