"Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return." James Baldwin
For years I've been haunted by the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Why, I've wondered, would a father be willing to sacrifice his son because he thought he heard the voice of God telling him to do so? Isn't that something crazed murderers say: that God or the devil told them to kill, to take the knife and cut up their victims?
When I was growing up the catechism told me that sacrifice was "the most perfect way for man to worship God." We were taught that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac was a sign of his obedience and a prefiguring of the death of Jesus, the son of another father, who was well-pleased with his son's obedient sacrifice. But even as a youngster I could read the words and clearly understood that Abraham had tricked and lied to Isaac, and that Jesus was a free rebel dangerous to the Roman authorities, who put him to death for his revolutionary message. But church fathers and theologians later preferred to emphasize his execution as the act of a son obeying his father rather than the result of non-violent resistance to the authorities of church and state. Obedience became the justification for millennia of sacrificial victims and their compliant killers.
"I carried out the orders I was given, and do not feel wrong in doing so," said Lt. William Calley about the grotesque slaughter of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.
Why all this need for blood, this need to prove obedience to a father God? It gradually grew on me that there was something perversely macho in all this, the kind of thinking that would encourage fathers to send their sons off to war, what the pundits like to call "the ultimate sacrifice," and for sons to obediently march off to kill and be killed in a sacrificial bloodbath to appease the fathers.
But being an only son myself (with seven sisters) and coming from a patriotic milieu, it also seemed "natural" to me that sons had to be sacrificed on the battlefields for the sake of God and country. If not, the communists or Canaanites would seize our new Promised Land.
But a little voice and the tale of Abraham and Isaac kept speaking to me. I never went off to war, but I was in the Marines and quickly came to see the immorality of the war against Vietnam -- the madness of war in general -- and applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector. My father, a WW II era guy who tried to volunteer when he had five children but was refused for that reason, disagreed with me, but he supported me fully, and I was eventually honorably discharged. It was for me a harsh introduction to a world in which the group mentality holds sway and the individual is made to seem mad if he doesn't obey the bloodthirsty impulses of society. And made to seem less than a man for rejecting the "manly" ethos epitomized in the Marine slogan, "My Rifle is My Life."
It wasn't mine, and I have an ironic memento of that truth. It's a photo of my parents, who gave me life and sustained me, when they came to Parris Island for my graduation from boot camp, standing in front of, and partially blocking, a large red and gold sign ablaze with those egregious words resonating with a double entendre lost only on one totally unfamiliar with the Marines' obsession with rifles and "guns" -- as the other unofficial slogan hammered into us recruits put it: "This is for killing and this is for fun." Fun with all the Suzie "rotten-crotches" we could find, as we were repeatedly told was a perk that came with the equally enjoyable opportunity to kill all the "gooks "we could find once we got to Vietnam.
Last week I was rereading a book when I again thought of these issues of socially-sanctioned violence passed down the male line. The book was Philip Roth's The Counterlife and images of Abraham holding that knife to his son appeared to me. Perhaps it was Caravaggio's painting that I saw. Or an image living in my imagination since I first heard that story that haunted me. Or was it Wilfred Owen's words from The Parable of the Old Man and the Young forming on my lips?
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,