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Sacrificing Our Sons and Daughters - An ON Scripture Feature

Genesis 22: 1-14, A Reflection By Cari Jackson

"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." (Genesis 22:1 NRSV) Was God really directing Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Why?

When this text was written, child sacrifices were fairly commonplace. Across ancient cultures, many believed that offering innocent and undefiled humans or animals showed great homage to the gods. For it was regarded as the highest form of reverence to give up the cherished and unblemished. The belief was that in return for this reverence, the gods would show favor to those who offered the sacrifice.

Abraham — the father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims — is heralded for his willingness to sacrifice, to give up his son, Isaac. After all, to love God so much to be willing to give back to God that which you have longed for, prayed for and cared for is no easy matter. For his faithfulness to God and for having a reverence of God that was greater than his adoration of son Isaac, Abraham was rewarded an alternative sacrifice — a ram that God pointed out was nearby in the bush.

 “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac… He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” (Genesis 22: 6,9 NRSV) This too is the story of Jesus Christ who was forced to carry on his back the cross which he was later to hang until he died. Like Isaac, in many ways, those who are identified as ideal for sacrifice have been obliged to carry the very wood to be used on the sacrificial altars on which they were to be burned.

There are two prevalent ways that we contribute to or allow the sacrifices of our daughters and sons in contemporary U.S. society. One, the numbers of individuals, especially children and youth, who are killed through gun violence each year. Two, veterans and their families who are not receiving the adequate and timely care and support they deserve. Both these forms of sacrifice have become so normalized as part of U.S. culture that it has become easy to overlook them or to call something else.

The current rate of gun ownership in the U.S. is more than one firearm per person. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in privately owned guns in comparison with 178 countries. The U.S. also rates #1 in gun-related deaths in the top-20 industrialized nations.

Those who oppose strengthening gun laws contend that more people are killed by cars than guns, but no one is calling for a ban on automobiles. Legislation requiring tighter controls on gun ownership is more comparable to requiring the use of seatbelts while driving automobiles. To ensure the safety of all traveling U.S. roads, in addition to wearing seatbelts, drivers are also required to have valid driver’s licenses, vehicle registration and vehicle insurance, pass emissions inspections, etc.

Like laws relating to driving, gun ownership regulation is designed to save lives. Given the overwhelming data about the number of lives that would be spared with more comprehensive gun regulation, a critical question is: Who is the god that some in our nation give reverence to by the human sacrifice of our fellow citizens by gun-related deaths every year? What are the favors we seek to receive from this god in exchange for the lives of our sons and daughters?

A veteran and military spouse speaks about the challenges facing her community

Is this the same god we seek to revere by sacrificing our military personnel and their families? Despite wide political agreement that we need to do more to support our veterans and their families, our sons and daughters are sacrificed amidst federal budget debates about how to fund increased veterans' benefits without increasing the deficit.

On Memorial Day, President Barack Obama challenged all U.S. citizens to “keep working to make sure that our country upholds our sacred trust to all who’ve served. …They’ve done their duty,” Obama continued, “and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours.” As Obama states, most of us agree that our duty to veterans and their families is a sacred trust. So, then, who is the god that we collectively serve and pay homage to that keeps us placing the lives of our daughters and sons on sacrificial altars?

Abraham loaded the wood on the back of Isaac — the wood that was to be used in offering a sacrifice to God. So too, as a nation, we load the wood onto the backs of military active and retired personnel and their families. The wood is asking them to be ready to go into harm’s way. The wood for their families is living with the anxiety of not knowing if their loved ones will return alive, and if they do, in what condition. The wood is returning from multiple deployments and having inadequate support services to attend to the physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial wounds of war. 

On our U.S. currency are inscribed the words: “In God, we trust.” Many of us have believed that those words referred to trusting in the God of Abraham. But I am convinced that there is another word that is implied in this motto. With the implied word, the proclamation really means: “In this God we trust.” That is, the god of greed. As a nation, it is in homage to this god that we keep sacrificing our children. Homage given to the god of greed is reflected in the sale of guns and a defense budget more focused on the development of equipment and technology than on the support of wounded soldiers and their families. If we trusted more in the God of Abraham, we would be more able to recognize and seize the alternatives to human sacrifice that are within our reach.

Must our sons and daughters carry their wood to the altar and then be placed on the burning wood? I believe the answer is no. Together we can discern the ram in the bush that God is showing us.

As we come together to celebrate Independence Day this year, may it be a time for us as a nation to develop a new resolve to seek the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to reveal to us new ways to love God and one another that do not require the sacrifice of our daughters and sons. My prayer: God, give us the eyes to see the ram in the bush that you provide for us. Amen.

Study Questions

1. In addition to gun violence and underservice to military personnel and families, what are other ways that we have been allowing the sacrifice of fellow Americans and others?

2. Along with greed, are there other gods that we worship as a nation that lead us to continue sacrificing the lives of our fellow Americans?

3. What will the U.S. look like as a society if we continue to sacrifice our fellow Americans in the ways we have allowed?

4. How can we discern together the alternatives to the systems that promote the sacrifice of veterans and their families?

5. How can we work together to disrupt our patterns of worshiping the gods that disregard the value of human and other life?

Recommended Further Reading

Friedman, Michael. “Honor Our Veterans by Supporting Military Families,” Psychology Today. 6/10/14.

Just the Facts: Gun Violence in America,” U.S. News, 2/16/13. 

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Gun Violence Statistics.

Naiman, Robert. “Keep Your Promise: A Left-Right Coalition to Help Veterans and Cut the Debt” Huffington Post, 2/21/14.

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