from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The measure of our actions -- the story of Abraham 

ames Carroll has a provocative op ed in this morning’s Boston Globe. Entitled Iraq and the legacy of Abraham it is, as his work often is, worthy of reading by itself. He uses the story of Abraham in Genesis to make a pointed commentary about the meaning of human existence, which he says has its “first measure” in this tale. He notes
If his descendants were more fully in touch with that meaning, Iraq would be a different place today, and the religions would not be on the cusp of war.

This entry will use Carroll’s work for a brief, but somewhat broader meditation of my own. I will offer a few snips from the column, but I will explore other (and to me related) thoughts as well.

Let me continue with two uninterrupted paragraphs that set the frame. I acknowledge that those not of a religious persuasion may well disagree with part of what Carroll offers in the the second, but it is an accurate reflection of a good deal of scholarship
Abraham's story comes to us from Genesis. What makes it important is all that precedes it. The Bible begins as a set of creation myths, narratives about Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, the Flood, the tower of Babel -- anecdotes that few contemporary readers take in any literal sense. They are stories from the era of ''once upon a time," and they define the concern of the Creator as extending to the entire scope of creation.

But at the end of the 11th chapter of Genesis, something new happens, a shift from the universal to the specific, from timelessness to ''that time then"; from never-never land to a particular locale -- a bridge of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One day on our calendar, a specific individual, whom scholars believe actually to have existed, became the subject of the biblical text. That was the true beginning of the world-view we take for granted.

Carroll quotes the text of the call of Abraham, to leave his land and go to one which God will show him, and includes the promise to make of Abraham “a great nation.”

Carroll interprets this to be the beginning of human historical consciousness,
a direct consequence of the revolutionary affirmation that God meets human beings by meeting one human being at one time, and at one place
and goes on to describe the call as a command to leave the land of the mythical. He then posits a difference between the Abrahamic God and those worship contemporaneously (or previously) in the Levant:
This God acts not out of time, but in it; not in the other world, but in this one; not in heaven, but on earth. This Creator is invested in creation not in general, but in particular. Therefore history -- what happens here and now -- is of ultimate significance. This means that the value of mere abstractions must be measured against the real-world consequences of their implementation.

Now Carroll explains the relevance of the tale to our time, that the war in Iraq was launched without regard for such consequences. He notes that for those for whom this God is the God of history real actions take on absolute values, that we must therefore measure the actual against the ideal.

Before I proceed with Carroll, let me focus on this last point. For a person who truly grasps it, this demands of us humility, since in our imperfection we know before we start that the actuality we attempt to achieve will never match the ideal that we can imagine. One might argue that there is direct connection between such an understanding and the Gospel command in Matthew 25 about how we treat those described as the least of Jesus’ brethren, one we can see throughout the writings of the Hebrew prophets in their condemnation of the treatment of the poor and dispossessed in Israel. I will return to this point after I finish with Carroll.

The piece goes on to describe the God portrayed in this part of Genesis as the God of freedom. But Carroll wants us to be clear:
Not freedom in the shallow rhetoric of American politics, but freedom that defines each human choice as having as much significance as the very acts of God.

One can see a parallel to the power of human choice in the story of the Annunciation. Some early Church fathers pondered the incredible power put into the hands of the young Miriam (Hebrew equivalent of Mary) - when Gabriel announces to her, she asks a question of how this would be possible. After hearing the explanation, she has a choice, which she completes with the saying that is should be unto her according to the words she has heard. But what if she had declined? God’s action in this case (which many devout Christians take as history while others may interpret as a paradigm) is possible only with the assent of humans, as was God’s promise to Abraham achievable only with his agreement.

Carroll is quite clear on this with respect to Abraham:

God, in freedom, initiates. Abraham, in freedom, responds. But as subsequent verses of Genesis make clear, Abraham's will and God's are not identical, and that is the way this God wants things to be.

It is this characteristic of freedom of human action that is critical. And because the actions are made freely, from choice, there is inevitably responsibility for the consequences, a responsibility we cannot ignore. As Carroll puts it:
A God of freedom invites a response, but does not coerce it. Why? Because in this way the God of history makes humans responsible for history.

Carroll notes the common legacy held by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and in his final few sentences he offers us a meaning as well as a connection to our current situation:
History matters absolutely. So does each human life. And so does every human choice. Absolute responsibility follows. That this wisdom first showed itself in the landscape across which war now rages is another reason to end it.

When I was reading this, I was reminded of the scene in Schindler’s List where Oskar is given the ring with the inscription. The source of that inscription is from the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:9), and can be translated as
He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.
If memory serves there is a reference to this it the Qur'an, to the effect that the people of Israel had been told that whosoever killed a human being it was as if he had killed all of humankind (I’m sorry I cannot offer a direct quote or reference).

These passages, as well as the passages in the Prophets to which I referred, have in common an interconnection of humanity, a requirement that we value each individual person regardless of her circumstances, and that we cannot avoid responsibility for our actions because they are the result of our will, our exercise of our freedom of choice.

I chose to use Carroll’s writing as the basis of a more personal reflection. I hope what I now write may be of value to others who have read this far. Carroll is writing with some power about our actions in Iraq. I view the words in a far broader context.

As a teacher I know that each action I take, each facial expression, each set of words, has consequences. If there are thirty adolescents in my room, there are thirty different interpretations of what they have perceived. I cannot approach them as an undifferentiated mass. I must insofar as is possible in a 45 minute period approach them as a collective of thirty absolutely unique individuals. I cannot know who will achieve greatness in the eyes of his contemporaries, or who may be viewed as a disappointment by her family, friends, and teachers. Nor does that matter. The task before me is to challenge and assist all, each as the absolutely unique person, whose loss represents an inevitable diminution of the entirety of humanity.

I have not been in combat. I have trained for it, for all Marines are first infantry men. I have not, as our current troops in Iraq do, confronted the choice of taking the life of another, a life through which each could become like Abraham, one through whose name nations would bless themselves. After all, within a dozen generations hundreds or even thousands of descendants would be possible, but in the loss of that one life those many future unique persons have been irrevocably lost. Perhaps that is why so many who have killed others in combat, even though it was a justifiable action, are haunted by what they have done. They accept that although justifiable the action still carries with it a heavy weight, a responsibility that they cannot ignore. That would haunt me far more than my regrets over having not paid attention to the needs of an individual student -- as damaging as my actions may be -- and believe me they are -- they do not carry the kind of finality that attains with the taking of a human life.

I do not propose here to argue the merits of this war or war in general. I realize that Carroll is speaking to a specific issue. I believe, however, that the power of any moral lesson is not the specificity with which it is applied but rather the universality of its application. Moral philosophers wrestle with such issues regularly, and while I may lack their wisdom I can draw from their insight. Immanuel Kant in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals offers us the idea of the categorical imperative, that we should act only according to those principles that we are willing to have applied as universal laws. One who accepts this framework can never proceed on the basis that what he does is justifiable because he does it, nor that his actions apply uniquely because of some particularity of persons or situations.

If I combine the sense of responsibility I believe Carroll properly adduces from the Abrahamic material with the import of the insight of Kant to which I have just referred, it becomes exceedingly difficult to rationalize an action I know to be wrong in the short-term on behalf of some long-term ideal desirable. Potentially that could paralyze, preventing any action at all. But this is not the case. Because we know that are actions are limited by our imperfections, that we rarely even approach our ideals, we also can acknowledge when we are wrong and change our course of action. We can accept our responsibility - to others, to ourselves, to our ideals.

I see a dangerous pattern in our society. The actions of this administration certainly contribute to it, but one could argue that they are but one reflection of an overall pattern, one of not acknowledging our common humanity, our lack of perfection, and the responsibility for the freedom we constantly and proudly exercise.

You may view the story of Abraham not as a historical account. That does not matter. Even if it is only a moral tale, it is one of power, with the potentiality to illuminate much of life. God -- or life - invites us, presents us with choices. Whichever path upon which we then embark, the choice and the consequent responsibility are both ours, and we must never forget that. The great American philosopher Yogi Berra tells us “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It is WE who take it, it becomes our possession, our responsibility. If as a society we continue to look for justification and avoid responsibility then the distorted version of a democratic republic as it represented by the current administration is better than we would deserve.

This is a moral issue. It is one that can be addressed in Biblical terms, as Carroll shows us. Whether the text from Genesis has literal, symbolic, or even only literary value, it still offers us a powerful insight on human nature and actions. That is why I decided to write about it today.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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