Akedah

AbrahamsCurseViolence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.

Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.

Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.

Dystopian Dreams

Hunger_gamesOne of the most terrible stories in the Bible is the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Of course, depending on your point of view, this was either a necessary evil or an act of wanton cruelty by a deity with anger issues. Still, it ends with a bunch of dead children. Then, as if that weren’t enough, a horrible reprisal comes at the birth of the child of the main character, with Herod slaughtering the innocents in Israel. And let’s not forget the very source of Kierkegaardian angst, the knife poised above a bound Isaac by his completely believing father. More recent, less literary examples could add poignancy and reduce the distance: Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech—the murder of children is beyond the farthest reaches of perversion into a realm that no longer classifies as human. I think the Bible might agree with me there. So it was with some trepidation that I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, at the urging of my daughter.

Although written for a young adult readership, The Hunger Games is a classic dystopia with a dark future and repressive government mandating the killing of twenty-three children every year, just to make a point. Deftly combining teenage angst with the bleakness that just about any future-based novel seems to hold, Collins spins a sad but engrossing tail. Dystopias have grown in popularity since some of the earlier, Cold War exemplars such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The number of dystopian novels grows every year. I suppose if I were an elected official I might cast a worried eye towards the increasing number of exposés of a society where consumers read so many books of the future gone awry. I know many intelligent, sober people who seriously wonder if we’ve already shifted onto that track. Tomorrow is only an extension of today.

Dystopias are among the most biblical of literary genres. The Bible itself is a bit of a dystopia. Consider the framing of a perfect world ending up with the original apocalyptic tale, the Apocalypse, or Revelation. It only ends well for 144,000. In-between there are pages and pages, chapters and chapters of oppression, violence, and suffering. Paradise gone bad. That’s the essence of the dystopia. Although Collins doesn’t make any overt biblical or religious references in The Hunger Games, the very genre she chose can’t escape the biblical bounds laid out for it. And besides, long before the year both Collins and I were born, the Bible had already set its vision for our society. And that vision, to our everlasting trembling, includes the massacre of innocents.

Bread Alone

The sad story of the death of an eight-year old girl from Irvington, New Jersey bears uncanny echoes to a case a year and a half ago of a mother who starved her children believing God would provide. The current case of Christiana Glenn’s death is heart-wrenching and the outlook is not improved when it appears that the girl’s mother had religious motivation to abuse her child. Christiana died from untreated physical wounds and malnutrition, prompting columnist Kathleen O’Brien to write about how food and religion often come together in unusual ways. As O’Brien points out, religions generally safeguard children from food privations, but less scrupulous leaders of what are frequently termed “cults” do not have the same strictures. The only real difference between a religion and a cult is society’s attitude toward it—religions tend to be larger and with finer pedigrees, but beliefs are beliefs. When religions seek control over believers’ lives, they often delve into the practice of deprivations, generally mild. More extreme groups take the idea to fatal limits.

Even the Bible records from near the very beginning that deprivations are part of the religious expectation. One of the most complex and frightening stories from Genesis is that of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. No matter how theologians wash it, this story retains its stain of an adult—whether directed by God or not is a mute point—attempting to harm a child in the name of faith. The story, many centuries later, still sent Søren Kierkegaard into a tailspin that came out as Fear and Trembling. What kind of deity asks for a child to be harmed, even in jest? For Christiana Glenn, there’s no taking it back. The Bible tells us nothing of how the interior life of Isaac responded to this episode.

Food and religion are among the most common elements abused in American society. For our bifurcated (if not bipolar) outlook, one sustains body and the other sustains soul. While science still lacks evidence for the soul, the body remains the only basis upon which we have to base our ethics. Even biology dictates that care of one’s own young is an evolutionary imperative. It is tragic indeed when a religion overrides what all cultures respect as the ultimate “should” —take care of your children. In a world overpopulated by religious experts the street value of the soul will never face a recession. Believers, characterized my many religions as sheep, will go wherever their leaders tell them to go. As a culture suspicious of funding the study of religion, it may not be food that is reaped at the end of this harvest.

Thou shalt not...