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Self-assertion Started It

“Genesis… contains two major parts: the primeval history… which tells how human self-assertion brought the world to the brink of destruction; and the history of Israel’s ancestors” (The Oxford Study Bible, page 11).

Human self-assertion.

That is an interesting way to put it – and by far the most non-judgmental way I think I’ve ever heard to frame these first stories. Human self-assertion. To assert oneself isn’t inherently evil or wrong, and yet to do it in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons… the way we’ve been dealing with the environment for the last seventy-five years, and with natural resources since the whole colonial era, comes to mind.

Self-assertion. Sometimes it’s necessary, beautiful, hard and redeeming work, especially for people facing a power imbalance – a socio-economic minority, a victim of domestic abuse, an adult missionary kid who suffered horrors in boarding school only to see their parents (their guardians) sweep it under the rug. Where people’s sovereignty is trampled, their boundaries violated, their rights disregarded, self-assertion is one extremely satisfying “f*#% you.” Not to devalue it by being crass, but there’s a roar of truth and rage and triumph which billows up when justice is done – when a previously wronged person finds the power to do themselves justice.

In the narrative of the Fall, human self-assertion has a different color. It’s more like Icarus than Beowulf.

The embedded implications are yinnish. You are not God, you were never meant to possess God’s bright-white knowledge; you are lowly, so be lowly and beautiful – but if you try to be exalted, you will be lowly and base instead.

As I think of this story I’m aware of the way in which it’s been used to prove the danger and proper (secondary) place of woman. Both through the centuries and in today’s Christian bookstores, the role that Eve played in asserting herself – bucking her ordained lowliness and striving for more – has been used to argue that man, not woman, should be in charge, and that woman left to her own devices will pretty much ruin everything. I’m not exaggerating; it’s not hard to find that in print.

Obviously I’m not keen on the misogyny of that particular hermeneutic, but my reservations go beyond that, too. To make self-assertion the culprit of the Fall is to suggest that self-assertion is the wrong idea, that Christlike meekness, for example, is the better way.

Disclaimer: I know the power of meekness, and the wisdom of understanding your limitations, your rights, and staying within the scope that’s yours.

But these days I more often see situations where people should assert themselves more, not less. Not everyone, obviously. Some people could benefit from exerting a little more deference. But a lot of the people I interact with, go shoulder-to-shoulder with in their struggles and concerns, could stand to trust themselves more, believe in themselves, speak more boldly, apologize less, act out more.

As an overarching religious value, I’m deeply concerned that the edict, “Don’t self-assert,” will be practiced by exactly the wrong people. Those who should actually be asserting themselves more will hear these words and think, “Yes, yes, I need to yield; even when it hurts me I should yield,” and out of the courage and sacrificial nature of their hearts, they will do so, at their own expense, and at the expense of the good. Meanwhile, those for whom the instruction was meant – those who really should be giving up their will and yielding themselves to the Way – will simply feel the power vacuum and grow the larger… at the expense of the meek, at the expense of the good.

So, while there is definitely good to be gained in following this edict rightly, I fear the actual result of making this a comprehensive Christian instruction will only equip the already-powerful to take advantage of those they control.

Blessed are the meek and all, but there’s a difference between “meek” and “powerless.” Jesus was in full possession of his power. Today’s under-asserted people, those being trampled on by the controlling and the entitled, aren’t being Christlike. They’re being abused.

On a totally different tack, it’s interesting to look at this self-assertion thing from an evolutionary angle, and trace the strange world we have today back to the idea that once upon a time, some odd monkeys decided to assert themselves.

“Decided” is wrong, clearly, if you’re talking evolution; changes on the evolutionary scale are so small and long-term, there can be no “deciding” when it comes to a primate turning into a human.

And yet, of all the animals, we sure are the weirdest, most self-asserting of them all. No animal transforms its environment so dramatically as do we. Look around, what do you see? Cars, roads, parking lots, power plants, coffee tables, telephone poles, Mickey Dee’s. All of it ours. No beaver can say so much. That’s what I mean when I say we’re weird. We’re unbelievably weird. And to me it’s really interesting, if you’re working from the idea that “we were animals, too, once” that self-assertion – eating the fruit of the tree – was the thing that began it all.

I don’t know if I buy the idea that we were once literally monkeys. I feel that’s about as hard to buy as the idea that once, God literally spent a week creating the world. Ultimate beginnings are the realm of myth, and as myth, I think both stories have some good things going for them.

In either case, to chalk it all up to primeval self-assertion sure is a fascinating idea.

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