the hell of “ought”

ISIS savagely sweeps across Iraq and Syria. Boko Harem, a northeast Nigeria-based militant Islamist group, though drawing less attention than the Islamic State, is the equal in ferocity. Everywhere good-willed folk decry the violence, especially that involving children abducted as converts, displaced as refugees, or slaughtered as pawns of war. Some, in their denunciations, also condemn the aforementioned groups for what they deem as their unparalleled barbarity.

I think again of President Obama’s February 5 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast (February 6 blog post: grappling with history), particularly his words addressed to fellow Christians about religious intolerance: “Lest we get on our high horse…remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ…So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

Feeling convicted by our president’s admonition and refusing to climb astride a high moral horse to point a condemnatory finger at others, I reflect afresh on a sacred story, a part of the lore of my faith, that always has disturbed me. The sacrifice of Isaac.

“Take your only son, Isaac, whom you love…and offer him to me as a burnt offering.” God tests Abraham. A test, as the story unfolds, God never intends to complete. A test an obedient Abraham will pass.

I recall the traditional explanations of this shocking story. That it is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of human, specifically child sacrifice. That it, given God’s directive that Abraham kill his only son, foreshadows the Christ-event; the sacrifice of God’s only son to redeem the world.

Fair enough. However, these rationalizations do not alter the reality that sacrifice is sacrifice and violence is violence. Hence, from the story’s beginning to its end, I wrestle to comprehend how God could issue so vile a command: “Kill your child.”

In my struggle, I am called to reject as not of God (or at least the God of my understanding, my believing) any justification for human sacrifice, whether involving Abraham and Isaac on a mountain altar or God and Jesus on a hilltop cross. For if I do not reject this story as ungodly, then I fear that I risk following Abraham – in his willing, blind obedience; in the rightness, the sureness of his “oughtness” (that he, at all costs, ought to obey God) – into hell. For it is this kind of submission that can degenerate into fanaticism unconstrained by the limits of reason. A fanaticism that believes redemption must involve the spilling of blood. A fanaticism that sparked the Crusades, spurred the Inquisition, stoked the infernos of the Holocaust, sent planes into New York City skyscrapers, and, to this day, in many faces and by myriad hands, sows continuous destruction in countless different ways.

2 thoughts on “the hell of “ought”

  1. This is something I have also grappled with since I was first able to read and understand the scriptures. There is a difference, I believe, between prophecy which foreshadows events to come, and willing those events to happen. I might tell my child that he will shoot his eye out if he gets that new BB gun. That is a world away from taking that BB gun myself and shooting that eye out of his head, or requiring that he do it himself and then present it to me. Sometimes God does require extraordinary sacrifice from us. But I also cannot believe that God ever required human sacrifice. Even, or especially, on the cross.


  2. “Sometimes God does require extraordinary sacrifice from us, But I also cannot believe that God ever required human sacrifice…” Sandy, you have expressed in a few words what I sought to articulate in this blog post. Yes, I do believe that God calls us to sacrifice, yet not to the degree and extent that portends suffering and dying. Thank you, my dear sister, for your eloquence!


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