Reflections on Sacrifice

In Chapel on April 9, the Reverend Holland gave a powerful address to students about the nature of sacrifice. I have shared his address here, with his permission. 

These next few weeks are important holy days for three of the world’s main religious traditions: Ramadan for Islam, Passover for Judaism, and Easter for Christians. These three traditions have been formative for western civilization and have had a significant impact on cultures throughout the world; in some very good ways and some not so very good ways.
For the last 1500 years, these religious/cultural world views have been (and continue to be) in conflict with one another, sometimes in bloody conflict. We all know that. What many people do not know is that these traditions are not so different as they might appear on the surface. They all have a common root, a common creation story, and a common understanding of who and what God is.
All three trace themselves back to the ancient figure of Abraham.
And who was Abraham, you ask? Well, think of the nomads of the middle east, extended families who live in tents and move about the deserts with their camels and goats. That was Abraham, the leader of a small group of obscure, unknown desert wanderers.
With him, we have the beginning of monotheism, the belief that God is one. According to the Koran (the sacred book of Islam), it was from Abraham’s first child, Ishmael, that the Arabs and the Muslim religions descended. According to the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), it was from his second child (Isaac) that the Jewish race descended. The spiritual founders of Islam and Judaism were brothers. From different mothers, but the same father; actual brothers.
So, you might ask, why is everybody fighting each other? Good question.
And one I will attempt to address in some small way this morning. We start with one of the most celebrated and controversial stories associated with Abraham. It is a story you likely wouldn’t have heard in Sunday school. It is recounted in the Bible and the Koran. And I am going to invite Esme to come and read the version from the Bible:

Then God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
When we decided to name our first-born son Isaac it was not with this story in mind.
You may have the same reaction that I have had to this biblical story, a sense of horror that God could ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and perhaps even worse that Abraham set out to do so, seemingly without a word of objection.
The traditional interpretation of this story is that it shows how much faith Abraham had. Which I get. Then I saw this scene portrayed by the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo Caravaggio. In his painting, Isaac is not a young boy, but a strong young man who looks to be about 17 or 18.
And when I think of the Isaac bound and placed on the altar at Moriah, not as a child, but as a young man I can’t help but see him as a metaphor for how the nations of the world have historically been quite willing to sacrifice their own youth, not on a religious altar, but on the altar of armed conflict. Not only without objection or question, but often eagerly, knowing that the only alternative to war is negotiation and compromise, and the unthinkable possibility of having to give something up.
This is not to denigrate the sacrifice made by young people in defending freedom and fighting oppression, but it is a commentary on how leaders of nations are willing to sacrifice young people in war.
The British soldier Wilfred Owen who fought and died in WWI makes this point in his short poem entitled the Parable of the Old Man and the Young:
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,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belt and straps
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! And angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold, A
Ram caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe one by one.
It is estimated that in the last century 200 million people died in armed conflicts, a great number of these being young soldiers. Today we see the same horror unfolding yet again in Eastern Europe. Young Russians and Ukrainians are being sacrificed rather than the Ram of Pride.
The striking thing about the story of the Binding of Isaac is not that Abraham is so willing to sacrifice his son.  As I say, history is only too full of examples of nations sacrificing their young people for national pride, greed, and avarice. What is notable, rather is that Abraham is stopped from killing his son. Some scholars suggest that the story is a transformational story about God. That the God of the Hebrews was a God that would not require human sacrifice, as some of the local gods were wont to do.
But we might see the story, not as one in which Abraham is a model of faith because of his willingness to sacrifice his son, but rather as a story in which Abraham learns something about himself. It is a story that might cause us to reflect on how we in our own lives might cultivate respect for human life and look for ways to create a more peaceful world. And of course, we can start here and now by continuing to live as an international community in harmony and understanding.
The story of the Binding of Isaac has always been seen as a story of Faith. But, faith is not about a willingness to destroy what we do not understand, or what does not conform to our views. Faith is about openness and trust to allow the world to be the rich and varied place it is; to allow for, and to celebrate, differences; different cultures and different manners of expression, different languages, and different religions.
Let us continue to pray for peace in Ukraine, in Ethiopia, and throughout the world.

The Reverend Holland
School Chaplain
April 9, 2022
We acknowledge with respect the Coast Salish Peoples on whose traditional lands and waterways we live, learn and play. We are grateful for the opportunity to share in this beautiful region, and we aspire to healthy and respectful relationships with those who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia.