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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sacrifice
distributed 9/11/09 & 6/20/14 - ©2009, 2014

The 2009 distribution of this Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Thomas Pakurar, of Midlothian, Virginia. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

On a day when I'm feeling very open-minded, I find a well-known Bible story to be theologically difficult. Most days, I find the passage to be downright offensive.

It is that familiar story about Abraham and Isaac -- which is part of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for June 29, 2014. After decades trying to conceive, Abraham and Sarah finally have a child. The birth of Isaac fulfils the promise made by God, the promise of old age fertility that made both Sarah and Abraham laugh. The long-awaited child opens the door to God's astounding promise of a multitude of descendants.

Then comes the incomprehensible word to Abraham (Genesis 22). Take your precious child up on the mountain, and sacrifice him to prove that you love me. Abraham sets out to do what he is told, but at the very last moment, an angel intervenes. Abraham sees a ram caught in the bushes, and is able to kill the sheep instead of his son.

The commentators are fairly consistent in their reassurance that God never intended for Isaac to die. God knew that a substitute would be offered, but Abraham did not.

I have a really hard time with such an utterly abusive test of loyalty. To prove that he loves God the most, Abraham must be willing to give up the one thing that might have a competing claim on his loyalty. Perhaps he trusted God to continue the pattern of fulfilled promises. Perhaps he simply was willing to do anything and everything that God demanded. For whatever reason, he was prepared to sacrifice his own son.

Traditionally (Hebrews 11:17-19), Abraham is celebrated for his obedience. From my modern vantage point, I feel that God should be taken to task for making that demand.

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An even worse variation of the story of Abraham and Isaac is re-enacted every day in our society. It is a story of deadly sacrifice, without any redeeming virtue.

The gods of growth and consumerism, of convenience and status, demand that we show our love and obedience. Every day, we are told to follow their bizarre instructions: buy, use up, pollute, exploit. Despoil the world more and more, to prove that we are utterly subservient to their expectations and demands.

When we do that, we sacrifice our children. It is not as direct and vivid as what Abraham was prepared to do. We don't have to tie up our descendants, lay them on top of a fire, and slit their throats. But the effect is the same. When we accelerate global climate change, when we recklessly exhaust supplies of oil and gas, when we deplete aquifers and topsoil, decimate the oceans, spew toxic wastes and spread bio-active chemicals, we are dooming future generations.

Scripture and the commentators remind us that God was testing Abraham, and the actual death of Isaac wasn't going to happen. But that isn't the way it works with the petty gods of our market economy and technological society. Those gods don't have a trick up their sleeves. They don't have the power or the creativity to deliver us from the pending destruction of the children they command us to sacrifice. And what's more, they don't care. They are only interested in our loyalty and obedience, not in our survival.

Like Abraham, we do what we are told, even when we're fully aware of the danger ahead. And like Abraham, we keep our eyes open for a substitute that can avoid the crisis. Maybe we can find a new form of renewable energy that will allow us to serve the gods of consumption, but without killing our children. Maybe elaborate new technologies will allow us to heal the cancers and hormone disorders that are triggered by our waste. Maybe, we hope, some miracle will occur, some alternate approach, that will save us from having to destroy the future.

But, even as we hope for deliverance, we keep preparing the sacrifice. We will obey the gods. Politicians of all stripes tell us, "the American way of life is not negotiable" -- and most people in the US seem to agree with that absolute pledge which places our wealth and privilege above the survival of our kids. All around the world, the same promise of obedience is being made. Whether in China or Great Britain, world leaders and enthusiastic consumers pledge their loyalty to prosperity at all costs.

We all know that it is unsustainable. We all know that the accelerating curves of energy consumption, resource use and population growth will lead to ecological and social collapse. But our gods have told us that obedience requires us to sacrifice our children. So we reluctantly, but dutifully, walk up the mountain with our descendants and a knife.

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The God that I worship does not make abusive demands. My God does not ask us to do things that are morally repugnant, and then announce, "Ha, ha, fooled you!" after putting us through hell. The God that Abraham heard calling for human sacrifice is not my God, who seeks reconciliation with all creation.

The God that I worship does call for sacrifice -- O, yes! -- but not of future generations, and not of the health of creation. The sacrifice that needs to be made by the faithful is of our own wealth and privilege. The holy sacrifice that we must make is for the sake of our children, our neighbors and Earth community, not at their expense.

A sacrifice must be made. All the gods agree on that. This is a test of our faith and obedience as we decide which gods we will honor and serve. Will we submit to the gods of empire, privilege and consumption, and sacrifice the future of Earth community? Or will we really obey the God we say that we serve, the God of love and justice, the God who promises joy in sufficiency, the God who models self-sacrificial love?

The choice is real and urgent. What sacrifice will you make?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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