Seedling in cement

Self-assertion Started It

On page 11, The Oxford Study Bible summarized the book of Genesis this way:

“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.”

How human self-assertion brought the world to the brink of destruction.

What a remarkable way to put it. It’s also the most non-judgmental way I think I’ve ever heard this story framed. To describe the fall of humanity as sin or hubris or whatever would have made this statement so much less interesting.

And yet, it casts a bit of a smudge on the value of self-assertion

To assert oneself isn’t necessarily wrong, though I agree that to do it in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, can be disastrous. We’ve been asserting ourselves all over the environment since the Industrial Revolution. The whole colonial era also comes to mind.

But overall I see self-assertion as good. This can be hard and redeeming work, especially for those on the wrong side of a power imbalance: people living in poverty, racial minorities, survivors of domestic abuse. Where people’s sovereignty is trampled, boundaries violated, rights disregarded, self-assertion makes for some extremely satisfying revenge. There’s a roar of truth and rage that wells up when justice is done, when someone who’s been wronged finds power to do themselves justice.

In the narrative of the Fall, though, human self-assertion rings more like Icarus than Beowulf.

The implications are yinnish. You’re not God; you were never meant to possess God’s bright-white knowledge. You’re lowly, so be lowly and beautiful — but if you insist on being exalted, fine: you’ll be lowly and base instead.

Those ideas have long been used to argue for the proper (secondary) place of woman. Through the centuries and also in today’s Christian bookstores, the role that Eve played in asserting herself, bucking her ordained lowliness and striving for something higher, has been used to prove that man, not woman, should be in charge. That when left to her own devices, woman will pretty much ruin everything. I’m not exaggerating. It’s not hard to find things like that in print.

Obviously I’m not keen on the misogyny of that particular hermeneutic, but my hesitance to smear self-assertion goes further. To blame self-assertion for the Fall is to suggest that the original humans should have been meeker, that the rest of us by extension should be meek as well. That meekness is good. That it’s the only good.

Granted, there’s wisdom in knowing what’s not yours and staying within your own scope. There’s power too in choosing to lay down your rights for some larger purpose. This is the meekness of Christ.

But often, I see situations where I think people should assert themselves more, not less. Not everyone. Some people could benefit from being more deferential. But a lot of the people I go shoulder-to-shoulder with in their struggles and concerns would do well to trust themselves more, believe more in themselves, speak more boldly, apologize less.

I disagree that “don’t self-assert” should be an overarching religious value

Here’s the problem. It kind of is. Self-assertion isn’t easy in Christian culture. A lot of people feel guilty just for filling their own space, let alone defending it. To tell people like these to be meek is like telling water to work on being wet.

As a result, the meekness credo ends up getting practiced by exactly the wrong people. Those who should be asserting themselves more internalize the message of meekness and think, “Even when it hurts me, I should yield,” which they do at their own expense, and at the expense of the good. Meanwhile, those in the habit of taking more than they should, the ones who should be giving up their will and yielding themselves to the Way, feel the convenient power vacuum and get all the more assertive, at the expense of the meek, at the expense of the good.

So, while there is good to be gained in following this edict rightly, I’m concerned that by making it a comprehensive Christian instruction, we’ve only equipped the already-powerful to take advantage of those they already 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 different tack, it’s interesting to look at this from an evolutionary angle

Let’s trace the strange world we have today back to the idea that once upon a time, some weird monkeys decided to assert themselves. Of all the animals, we sure are the weirdest. No animal transforms its environment so dramatically as do we: 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.

Anyway, these monkeys decided to be animals that were also more than animals, to teach each other rhymes and try to fathom the universe. They began to walk upright, think thoughts and put them into words. They decided to become like God.

“Decided” isn’t a technical term, clearly. Changes on the evolutionary scale are so incremental, there’s no deciding when it comes to a primate turning into a human. And I know, the word is apes, not monkeys. I like to say monkeys anyway. It’s funnier.

Anyway, it’s interesting to me, to draw a line from the weirdness we are today to some primeval act of self-assertion. We ate the fruit of the tree and became what we are. That’s hard to imagine. I feel it’s about as hard to imagine as 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.