Sunday, April 06, 2014
"You know I'm strong and holy, I must do what I've been told"
In light of the complaints about the story of Noah recently, I was listening to Cohen's "Story of Isaac" and I heard it in a new light:
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it any more.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the world.
We speak, as Barbara Ehrenreich does, of morality being "only human." This is human morality: to send young people to war; to have them return broken in body and mind. Rachel Maddow reported the other night on soldiers returning from Iraq with ruined knees and injuries unrelated to combat, but brought on by wearing heavy body armor. The sheer weight of what protected them from bullets and IED's has broken their bodies, has left young men with the knees of old men, have destroyed cartilage and bone. And for what? They will live with those injuries the rest of their lives; even if the VA (hah!) gives them all the care they need and deserve, they will need and deserve care because we built the altar upon which they were sacrificed.
A scheme is not a vision. Perhaps if it has been from God, it would have been better. Perhaps not. Too many wars have been justified as being commanded by God. But the difference between that and a God who commands Abraham to sacrifice a son, or tells Noah the world will end in water?
I think the difference is in the complaint, more than in the purpose of either story. Context matters, and the context of the story of Noah makes it a different story than when recounted by Bill Maher. Be that as it may, critiques of these stories tend to come from a place of privilege; especially when we place them in the context of human affairs, as Cohen does here. Bill Maher has never had to face the draft or fear death and destruction from the skies. What does he know of evil or injustice or random death and destruction on the scale the U.S. can unleash it on another country? Afghanistan was no paradise before the U.S. invasion, but has it really improved under our military? Iraq was no Garden of Eden under Saddam, but is life there immeasurably better now? We stand above both countries, our hatchets blunt and bloody; and we were not there before, when Isaac lay upon a mountain. Who are we to say we were right, God was wrong? Abstract deaths in stories distress us, but concrete deaths in other countries are mere abstractions?
Is this merely human morality? And if it is, is there no better morality available? If you are used to being in charge of the world (white Americans in particular; or white male Americans, if you want to be more particular) the stories of Noah and Abraham are perhaps more appalling than they are to people accustomed to being killed by the world; by flood or famine or fire or war or soldiers or....
Neither position changes the morality or immorality of the stories, nor even the difficulty of the stories. But to complain that God is psychotic to kill everyone, or order the death of one child, when we actively support the deaths of thousands of children even as they inflict death on millions of children, is to miss the privilege of our position in all this criticism.
Posted by Rmj at 4:16 PM