Holy Terror

God said to Abraham, kill me a son.

Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on.

God say no. 

Abe say what.

God say you can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.

Well, Abe say where you want this killin’ done?

God say down on Highway Sixty-One.

–       Bob Dylan

Depending upon how you measure things, Abraham may be the most successful human who ever lived.  Three different religions claim him as their originating ancestor, including the two largest in the world.[i]  That’s more than 3½ billion followers, many of whom still fervently revere his name, 3½  thousand years after he died.  Dynastic conquerors can only wish for that kind of historical legacy.

The adulation is even more remarkable when you consider the kind of guy he was.  He had a son with his maid, and later abandoned them both in the desert.  Twice he offered his wife to other men.  Most famously, he nearly slit the throat of the son he did keep.  If you or I did all that we’d be multiple felons.

In Abraham’s defense, he lived in different times.  Women and children were a man’s property and disposable at his discretion.  He could have simply killed his son Ishmael.  Nobody would have objected; it was a father’s right.  Dumping mother and progeny in a waterless waste was an act of kindness, especially since Abraham apparently believed the two would be just fine.  God was going to take care of them.

Abraham was the first of the true believers, and remains their shining archetype.  People from Paul, to Muhammad, to Kierkegaard have regarded Abraham as the model of faith, someone who believed whatever God told him, and did whatever God asked.  As Mr. Dylan recounts, when God said to kill his son Isaac, Abraham asked where and when.

People of faith are supposed to admire his single-minded devotion and willingness to sacrifice whatever he held most dear.  Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother, or son or daughter, more than me is not worthy of me,” and Abraham was a living embodiment of that sentiment.  Paul described him as the man who never doubted or disbelieved.  For Kierkegaard, who decided not to marry the woman he loved out of deference to God, Abraham was an exemplar.

As Kierkegaard pointed out, what made Abraham’s faith exemplary was not simply his compliance to God’s directives.  It was his willingness to go against his own best interests and do what others might regard as crazy or depraved.  Even in his world, you didn’t kill your only son.  But Abraham’s faith placed him above the norms of society.  God was in charge, and if God gave you a command, then that command was law, because God was the source of law.  God can turn immorality into the moral, evil into good, simply with the force of will.

Abraham was planning to kill Isaac; of that there is no doubt.  God gave him a command, and, in such situations, the only question is whether you believe it to be true.  Most people would have doubts that God wanted them to kill their own child.  Abraham didn’t.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 anniversary, Abraham is a man worth thinking about.  The men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers were also followers of Abraham, people convinced that God directed them to acts of murder.  On cockpit recorders, found in the wreckage of Flight 93, terrorists are heard to shout “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great.”  They were following in the footsteps of their spiritual mentor, and there have been many like them.  The sheer number of suicide bombers has cheapened the meaning of martyrdom.

I don’t mean to imply that Islam is the only place these followers of Abraham are found.  Christianity can lay claim to everything from medieval Crusaders to Eric Rudolph.  Joan of Arc led the slaughter of thousands under the direction of God, and she’s regarded as a saint.  Anders Breivik massacred 77 Norwegians trying to protect Christian culture against an invasion of Muslims.  “Gruesome, but necessary,” is how he described it.

One way or another, religious faith has been used since the time of Abraham to validate all kind of atrocities, and we have Abraham to thank for it.  If he told God to find another patsy, we might not be in this mess. Why didn’t he sacrifice a sheep in the first place?   What was God going to do?  Kill him?  I think I’d allow myself to be killed before I’d kill my own son.  Was God going to send him to hell?  I think hell would be murdering my child.  Instead, Abraham foolishly set an example for all his posterity that murder and mayhem are okay when you do them for God.

Unfortunately for us, we no longer live in the age of hand to hand combat.  Joan of Arc only killed thousands because her army fought with bows, arrows, and swords.  If she had access to nuclear weapons, England might still be radioactive.  She would have burned them first on the pyre of righteousness.

So I think it’s time to redefine the notion of faith and Abraham’s place in the temple of spiritual masters.  His vision of a God who demands blood can be brought to a merciful end, before it leads to the end of us.  Even the expression of faith has limits, and I propose that blood is where it begins.

We already kill each other for a multitude of idiotic reasons.  We don’t need to use religion anymore.  In fact, religion should never be involved.  People of faith need to be the ones saying, “Stop!”  The sacredness of life is an unalterable commandment of God.

Whether it’s just war or holy war, Augustine or Muhammad, neither one is viable in the age of mass destruction.  The example of Abraham must be left behind.  Faith can no longer claim exemptions for the taking of lives.  We can’t simply object to abortion, and close our eyes to capital punishment and military invasions.  None of it can be acceptable to a serious, personal spirituality.

The total inviolability of human life, and the associated rejection of all violence, can be one of the gifts that people of faith carry into the 21-st Century.  It takes faith to believe that violence isn’t necessary.  The world certainly doesn’t show much evidence it’s true, but that’s what it means to have faith.


[i] Christianity- 2.1 billion, Islam- 1.4 billion, Judaism- 14 million.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

6 Responses to “Holy Terror”

  1. Well-put. Especially the last part.

  2. Thanks Bucky. I always enjoy your blog… but this one particularly hit home with me. On this 9/11, probably from all the media focus, I’ve had pause to mull over the irony of it. We Americans, many of whom call ourselves Christians, seem to feel that our sorrow is somehow more valid than that of the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives are shattered through our vengeance. It seems we feel this precisely because we are Christians, and, as such, our wars are always just. Your post presents a compelling argument to the contrary that I had been struggling to verbalize.

  3. Funny , you should post this now, because it is something that has been keeping me awake at night. I have broken down and cried in the last month, thinking that mankind is really no more civilzed than it was two thousand years ago.We are now more inventive in our cruelity to each other and have more sophisticated ways to kill each other. The fact that we are still killing each other in the name of religion shows just how barbaric we still are. I think of what Einstein said, that the next war after WW 3 will be fought with sticks and stones. On 9/11 I felt like a countdown had begun and the clock is ticking louder……..

  4. “People of faith need to be the ones saying, “Stop!” The sacredness of life is an unalterable commandment of God.”

    Aaaaah, but whose life? Always in the Big Three we have a layer of priestly ones between us and God. They speak with God (or interpret his ancient words to discern his will) (same thing) and we uneducated unholy damned sinners better obey or else* . Popping off the odd disbelieving infidel dog on the orders of a mad mullah or petty pope is small cheese compared to eternal roasting in hell, no?

    * From Dylan’s song as quoted above, it seems to me as if Abe was more conventional (“Man, you must be puttin’ me on”) up until big G threatened him (“next time you see me comin’ you better run”); at which point he did a quick cost/benefit analysis and started sharpening up the knives …

  5. Well someone once told me. . . in no religion does god say “be a fool”. –I am liking your blog daddy!

  6. Thank you for your opinion. I enjoyed reading it. Brenda (friend of Rachael)

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