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.

grappling with history

Yesterday, President Obama addressed the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. He spoke of religious freedom and – in our time of global anxiety about what has been termed Islamic terrorism, the remarks that have garnered the most media attention – religious tolerance. Here, I think, the president stepped again into his sometime role as our national-scold (I recall his 2010 barely-one-year-in-office questioning of the parochial mythology of American exceptionalism). Denouncing using religion as a vindication for violence, the president said, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.” He reminded his fellow Christians to beware of considering themselves superior to others, for “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ (and in America) slavery and Jim Crow all too often (were) justified in the name of Christ.”

Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been mixed. Some, including myself, acknowledge the president’s historical referents and accept the validity of his Christian critique. Others condemn his words. As I read this morning’s The Washington Post, one criticism, and what I consider its hyperbolic, all inclusive sweep, fascinated me. Former Virginia governor James Gilmore (1998-2002) stated: “The president’s comments…are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

As a self-professed wordsmith, I relish the English language’s efficiency in conveying nuance, in part, as a fruit of its vast vocabulary. I also believe that all persons, each of individual origin, history, and experience, embody their own sets of understandings. Though using the same words, no two of us can mean precisely the same thing. Therefore, as a big believer in defining one’s terms, I oft use multiple adjectives to express with particularly what I mean when naming a nounal person, place, or thing.

Former Governor Gilmore’s statement, particularly the words “believing Christian”, strikes me as a bi-word in search of fuller description. I think I understand his inference. There is a Christianity of tradition, perhaps familial association or societal assimilation, and there is a believing Christianity of devoted practice. I also think I understand that when making a public comment or response in our savagely news-snippet, sound-bite world, one does not have the luxury of time (or the patience of the reporter) to delineate more deeply, artfully one’s intent or meaning.

Still, at the heart of my nearly instantaneously reactive critique of Gilmore’s critique of Obama’s remarks is this: My perception of a declaration of the true nature of Christianity, its beliefs and behaviors, its principles and practices, and an implied presumption of applying that set of standards to separate believers from non-believers. In this, I find, fear a less violent, but no less virulent exclusivistic tension that motivates our human religious predilection to divide, to defame, and, sometimes, to destroy.

Yes, Mr. President, “Humanity has been grappling with (this) throughout human history,” and, I believe, until time’s end.