Saturday, March 28, 2009

Father, forgive them...

A recent article on Religion Dispatches regarding torture and the closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility strikes visciously and deep. We cannot deny torture, Sarah Sentilles claims, without feeding it and giving it life. Denial is what causes torture to thrive. Denial is what makes torture possible.

In an excerpt from the article, we read:
In Genesis, we find the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s faith that he is doing what God demands blinds him. Seeing only his duty to God, he cannot see his son. By turning violence into God’s will, Abraham denies Isaac’s pain. So he takes Isaac to the top of the mountain. He binds him. He lays him on top of the wood. He raises the knife. And in that moment, with a deadly weapon raised above his child, he sees Isaac and imagines a different ending. And only when he sees Isaac, can he put the knife down. God did not need Abraham’s faith; Isaac did.

But this isn't what we learn the story means in Sunday school, right? We're taught that Abraham was tested by God to see if he would really do what God asked him to do: "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 of which I shall tell you" (Genesis 22:2). There are similar stories in the Old Testament which speak of God's requests (nay, demands) for death and destruction, even in light of the constant calls of God's true prophets for "justice and mercy."

The point Sarah is making is an excellent one. We can read back into history whatever purpose we desire - the colorful and sometimes violent history of the Jewish people, or the Catholic Church, for instance, can be viewed in light of being "God's chosen people" or "the army of God." In those instances, the violent acts are justified (by those looking on) if they resulted in successes, and condemned if the consequences were dire instead. We posthumously assign the "will of God" to our actions. The writer of this portion of Genesis may well have "read back into" the story of Abraham the current zeitgeist for violence as God's will: we destroyed the Amalekites in battle, so surely it was God's will that we destroy the Amalekites; so surely also we must also assume it was God's will to test Abraham via a violent act, because what else would truly test Abraham's faith in the will of God? In these instances, too, of "selective" historical recording, we see denial - denial of other peoples (cultures, nations, etc) as human beings. In saying "one nation under God," we imply that other nations may not be; depending on our penchant for our religion, therefore, we may see those nations not "under God" immediately as less worthy.

In the end, the call is for action: action is necessary to end denial, to end selective remembrance of history, to end torture and end our disgusting justification of violence against other human beings. Whether it be secular or spiritual, the call is the same, and the end result is that we find ourselves that much closer to the kingdom of heaven.

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