Saturday, October 8, 2011

A is for Abraham

Abraham is esteemed a Great Hero by three faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He stands tall as the man willing to sacrifice his own flesh and blood.

Abraham’s son Isaac, an innocent child, had done nothing wrong and posed no threat to anyone. Totally obedient, Abraham is ready, knife in hand, to kill Isaac Only the last moment, split second intervention by an angel saves the boy from his father’s knife thrust.

Imagine you and your child falling into the clutches of a sadistic killer armed with a gun. You are handed a knife and told to slit your child’s throat. What should you do under these circumstances? Refuse! What’s the worst that might happen? The angry killer might kill you. Or he could murder your child while you stood by helplessly and then murder you. But by refusing you escape the horror of taking the life of your own flesh and blood.

Abraham’s defenders argue that when God does the demanding everything changes. It’s an entirely different situation—after all, God is not a sadistic killer. But what sort of  God goes around making such outrageous, terrible demands, playing with people’s lives? Isn’t that very much like a cat playing with a mouse? But suppose God decides to act like our sadistic killer, and confronts you with the Abraham/Isaac demand? Then what? You must still refuse! There are at least two excellent reasons for doing so. For the religiously inclined, The Voice from the Heavens could be Satan imitating God. For others it could be an especially vivid hallucination or bad dream.

But suppose you have some mystical way of verifying that The Voice really comes from God? Suppose Let’s grant that Abraham knew for a fact it really was God’s voice commanding him. Then what? Abraham must still refuse to kill Isaac! Killing an innocent is always wrong. The fact that God demands it cannot make it right. If God wants Isaac dead, let Him do it Himself! And if an angry God punishes Abraham for disobedience, isn’t that preferable to Abraham’s murdering Isaac? A righteous Abraham must answer God defiantly: “No! Take me not him!” Now, that would have been heroic. And that would have been admirable.

Putting an innocent stranger in Isaac’s place makes the case far more difficult because the will to self-preservation takes over and makes cowards of most of us. When confronted by the demand to kill a random innocent person we know there can be only one truly courageous answer: No! Take me instead! If only we humans had such courage: There would have been no Spanish Inquisition, no Auschwitz, no Gulag, no Killing Fields, no ethnic cleanising These are all part of the demented heritage of Abraham’s moral weakness—Blind Obedience to the voice of Murderous Authority.

When God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, He was testing Abraham to discover whether he was an independent-thinking, ethical human being, or, whether he was simply blindly and totally obedient, capable of the most outrageous actions imaginable in the name of faith. The moment Abraham prepared to kill Isaac, he had already failed God’s test. God blesses Abraham when it’s all over, but it is the blessing of a disappointed teacher who knows his pupil has failed abjectly and feels sorry for him. God must have been thinking: “My dear, faithful, morally stunted Abraham, you’ll do whatever I ask no matter how awful it is. What am I to do with you?”

Any morally autonomous, independent-minded person facing Abraham’s choice would ignore God’s outrageous command to kill Isaac—perhaps dismissing it as a hallucination or a bad dream—and risk whatever personal consequences that might follow. Even if God repeats the demand, one must always answer: “Take me instead.” And if the demand is made a third time, one must reply: “You must be the Devil, because a Just God would never demand such a thing!”

When three venerable faiths, with billions of adherents, over many centuries, mistake Abraham for a Hero what are they telling us? They seem to be saying that any crime committed in the name of God is okay. Suicide Bombers take note!

When Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield in 1881 he claimed that God ordered him to do it. Over a century later, after a Texas mother drowned her five children in the bathtub she made the same claim. In both cases, juries rightly rejected the “Abraham Defense” and convicted the killer.

Why should Abraham be judged by a different standard?

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