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Abraham, Isaac, and Us (and Hagar and Ishmael and Trayvon and Michael Brown, Too)

The story of Abraham being commanded by God to offer his son as a burnt offering as proof of his love for the Almighty has always bothered me. It’s not that I think that God doesn’t have the right to put those of us who believe in God to the test. After all, I’m a university professor who tests his students all the time, even if the stakes aren’t nearly as high. One might think by the horrified reaction of some of them that I was asking them to sacrifice their firstborn. That’s a curious sight to see since most of them aren’t yet parents.

To be fair, many of my students have been victims of a culture of high-stakes testing in our public schools that has got way out of hand. The debate about what we take to be standard, and about the standards we observe in the pursuit of solid education, is plagued by racial injuries and cultural scars that have never fully healed. In many schools across the nation, the stakes are too high when standardized tests are used to determine promotion to the next grade, or what courses one might take, or what curriculum might be followed, or even if one graduates from school. I spent many days in Florida with activists arguing that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) was unjustly used to block the high school graduation of black and Latino students who failed the test but successfully completed their course work. Testing is never devoid of social forces and political choices that test our commitment to equality and justice for all children.

God’s tests are steeped in politics, too, and a fair bit of philosophy and theology as well. That’s especially true in the case of Abraham, who believes he heard the voice of God tell him to sacrifice his only son. How does Abraham, or any of us, ever really know that we’ve heard God’s voice and not our own desires or fears, our own hatreds and suspicions, or our own intuitions and dreams dressed up as divine will? How do we know we’re not merely sanctifying our social norms or deifying our political instincts when we say that God is telling us to believe or behave a certain way?

Take, for instance, trying to decide between moving to Michigan and moving to Minnesota for work. What roles do my racial identity and political ideology play in how I discern God’s will? Does God work within my biases to protect me from exposure to ideas that I find harmful or distasteful, while upholding my preferences and validating my experiences? Is that why few black pastors feel called to white churches in Maine, or why few white churches in New Hampshire extend a call to black pastors, despite Martin Luther King, Jr. immortalizing their “prodigious hilltops” in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech? Does the divine will merely track human intention, and how do we know the difference between the two?

One answer to this question subscribes to the notion that there is a transcendent truth that eclipses the limits of our human understanding. Many believers seek to avoid the quicksand of subjective ideas of truth and goodness by endorsing an objective point of reference to ground their moral beliefs and ethical practices. These believers get nervous when they think that what they say or do lacks the seal of divine approval or the signature of godly intention. Oddly enough, many believers think that the Bible offers them unqualified access to transcendent truth. I say oddly because if there’s any book that’s proved to be the product of its time and place in history, it’s the Bible. The scriptures capture ancient folk fighting for meaning in a world that either oppressed or inspired them, or sometimes both; we see glimpses of the humble trading places with the exalted and stories that show how power can be both redeeming and corrupting.

David, for instance, rises from shepherd to king by slaying a menacing giant, only to arrange the murder of a loyal soldier and steal his wife while leaving his kingdom in shambles. The Bible scolds injustice in the mouths of the prophets, yet amplifies it in the throat of Paul, whose Haustafeln (household codes) reinforce the social inequality of women as a way to reassure the Roman Empire that Christianity wouldn’t undermine the social order. The Bible is in heated conversation with the culture that shaped it, at times as a faithful mirror of its virtues and biases, and at other times as a window onto a liberating social landscape.

The Bible’s complicated cultural status makes it impossible to conclude that the scriptures offer an ironclad version of transcendence that resolves clashing views of truth. The Bible is intimately bound to those clashes; its words are used to support one truth claim or another in vastly different communities with greatly opposed theological, moral, and political agendas. Even if the transcendence police break down the front door of faith and arrest theological interlopers, enough dissenters will escape out the back door to challenge the Bible’s link to truth.

The only meaningful interpretation of transcendence we might propose is to strip the term of its philosophical and theological orthodoxy and offer instead a more forceful definition. Truth can be described as transcendent if it illumines the time and place of its emergence as well as other places and periods. Truth’s transcendence is not pegged to its authoritative reflection of an unchanging reality that everyone would agree on if they had access to it. Truth happens when we recognize the expression of a compelling and irrefutable description of reality. Truth is not irrefutable because it appeals to ideals that escape the fingerprints of time and reason. Truth is irrefutable because it is morally coherent and socially irresistible.

That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. and his comrades could challenge the transcendent truths of white supremacy and black inferiority, truths seen by their advocates as true for all times and places, and truths that were rooted in religion and reason. But King and company offered a more compelling version of truth that ultimately proved to be more reasonable, more morally coherent, and more socially irresistible than the tribal truths it sought to displace. They didn’t prove their vision of truth was superior by appealing to a transcendent truth that rang through the universe as self-evident, even though King spoke of black folk enjoying “cosmic companionship” in our struggle for equality and justice.

Rather, King and his companions worked to show that they had a more edifying grasp of truth — that their moral vision was clearer, their ethical energy more uplifting, their description of democracy more meaningful, and their alliance with other truth tellers more cogent than those who bonded around the moral and legal justification of oppression. Thus, irrefutability is provisional, and may change with the appearance of other compelling views of truth that are rooted in reason and affirmed by morality. Such is the case, for instance, with gay marriage: traditional views of marriage that rest on religious and social orthodoxy are slowly giving way to superior versions of the truth that support gay and lesbian domestic intimacy and family values.

Closely yoked to the idea of a transcendent truth, of course, is biblical literalism, a plague that has often robbed Christianity of its liberating power and inspirational appeal. Believers who turn to the Bible for a transcription of God’s thoughts, word for word, have arguably done more to harm the reputation of the Good Book than a million heretics.

I suppose the fear that some misguided soul would hear God telling him to sacrifice his children is a major reason I’ve worried about the meaning and interpretation of Abraham and Isaac’s story over the years. Scores upon scores of mentally ill folk have done just that, telling us that God instructed them to drown, stab, shoot, or otherwise murder their offspring. Instead of reading this story metaphorically, as one that asks human beings to clarify the priority that God holds in our lives, too many folk afflicted with demons seek to purge their spirits by spilling the blood of innocent children. The tragedy is that literalism fails us when we need it most, when even naysayers to the doctrine wouldn’t mind being wrong for once. Alas, no angel descends to keep many fathers from slaughtering their children in the name of God; no lamb is caught in the bush to exchange for the sacrifice of a child.

The story makes it clear that Isaac was an unwitting victim of religious sacrifice. He trusted his father to protect him, like millions of children around the globe expect their fathers to do. Isaac had no idea that the man who had crept into his centennial before fathering the only son he had with his wife, Sarah, would be the one who thought he must kill the future he had helped to make possible. The tragedy was doubled because Abraham had already lost one son, Ishmael, the child he fathered with his slave Hagar, whom Sarah had forced Abraham to cast out with his mother in a fit of pique, making certain that Isaac was his father’s sole heir. (One can’t help but note that too many children of the oppressed, who are the legitimate heirs of American freedoms for which black folk bled and died, are treated as outcasts, their rightful share of equality divided among members of the majority culture, who are viewed, with all the protections it brings, as the as sole heirs of our national bounty.) Now all of Abraham’s plans would go up in smoke on an altar whose components Abraham compelled Isaac to tote on his back, making his son the vehicle for his own destruction.

In retrospect, I’m sure that as I got older I read this story through my own pain and suffering. My father believed, like many other black fathers do, that God dictated not the sacrifice but surely the punishment of his children. Brutal measures of corporal punishment feel like symbolic sacrifices of one’s children, a snuffing out of their self-esteem, a mortal unbodying of their fragile, vulnerable flesh.

The indictment of famed football player Adrian Peterson by a Texas grand jury for reckless or negligent injury to a child — he subsequently pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault — set into relief the harmful disciplinary practices of some black families. Peterson used a “switch,” a slim, leafless tree branch, to beat his four-year-old son, raising welts on the youngster’s legs, buttocks, and scrotum. This is child abuse dressed up as acceptable punishment.

While 70 percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment, black Americans have a distinct history with the subject. Beating children has been a depressingly familiar habit in black families since our arrival in the New World. As the black psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote in Black Rage, their 1968 examination of psychological black life:

“Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated.”

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

If beating children began, paradoxically, as a violent preventive of even greater violence, it was enthusiastically embraced in black culture, especially when God was recruited. As an ordained Baptist minister with a doctorate in religion, I have heard all sorts of religious excuses for whippings.

And I have borne the physical and psychic scars of beatings myself. I can’t forget the feeling, as a 16-year-old, of my body being lifted from the floor in my father’s muscular grip as he cocked back his fist to hammer me until my mother’s cry called him off. I loved my father, but his aggressive brand of reproof left in me a trail of uncried tears.

Like many biblical literalists, lots of black believers are fond of quoting scriptures to justify corporal punishment. Many Christians often cite what they think is a verse of scripture that supports beating their children, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” But that is a line from Hudibras, a mock epic poem penned in 1664 by English poet and satirist Samuel Butler to ridicule the Puritans. To be sure, there are plenty of scriptures that bolster corporal punishment, particularly the verse in Proverbs 13:24 that says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” And Proverbs 23:13–14 says, “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”

But in Hebrew, the word translated as “rod” is the same word used in Psalms 23:4, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used to guide the sheep, not to beat them. Of course, the Bible, in Exodus 21:20–21, accepts slavery, in part by referring to the death of slaves by the same rod used to beat children. “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

The passive acceptance of slavery and the ringing endorsement of child beatings are flip sides of the same biblical coin; the same literal interpretation of the Bible that justifies beating a child justifies enslaving her as well. In the end the believer is faced with a choice to worship either the Bible or the God who inspired it. Arguing for biblical literalism in the case of punishment — although certainly not in the case of slavery, as one is often forced by biblical literalism to pick and choose which verses really do apply — casts the black Christian in an uncomfortable role of supporting his own oppression.

Many believers — including Peterson, a vocal Christian — have confused the correction of children’s behavior with corporal punishment. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin discipulus, which means “student” or “disciple,” suggesting a teacher-pupil relationship. Punishment comes from the Greek word poine and its Latin derivative poena, which mean “revenge,” and form the root words of “pain,” “penalty,” and “penitentiary.”

The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and, failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge, a realm the Bible says belongs to God alone. Yet secular black culture thrives on colorful stories of punishment that are passed along as myths of ancient wisdom — a type of moral glue that holds together varying communities in black life across time and circumstance. Black comedians cut their teeth on dramatically recalling “whoopings” with belts, switches, extension cords, hairbrushes, or whatever implement was at hand. Even as genial a comic as Bill Cosby offered a riff in his legendary 1983 routine that left no doubt about the deadly threat of black punishment. “My father established our relationship when I was seven years old,” Cosby joked. “He looked at me and says, ‘You know, I brought you in this world, I’ll take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, cause I’ll make another one look just like you.’”

The humor is blunted when we recall that Marvin Gaye’s life ended violently in 1984 at the hands of his father, a minister who brutalized him mercilessly as a child before shooting him to death in a chilling echo of Cosby’s words. Perhaps comedians make us laugh to keep us from crying, but no humor can mask the suffering that studies say our children endure when they are beaten: feelings of sadness and worthlessness, difficulties sleeping, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, diminished concentration, intense dislike of authority, frayed relations with peers, and negative high-risk behavior.

Equally tragic is that those who are beaten become beaters, too. And many black folks are reluctant to seek therapy for their troubles because they may be seen as spiritually or mentally weak. The pathology of beatings festers in the psychic wounds of black people that often go untreated in silence.

Adrian Peterson’s brutal behavior toward his four-year-old son is, in truth, the violent amplification of the belief of many blacks that beatings made them better people, a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice in younger generations. After Peterson’s indictment, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted: “A father’s belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!” He is right, of course, but only in a forensic, not a moral or psychological sense. What hurts far less than either is the loving correction of our children’s misbehavior so they become healthy adults who speak against violence wherever they find it — in the barrel of a policeman’s gun, the fist of a lover, or the switch of a misguided parent. Far too often a literal interpretation of the Bible has tragically reinforced violence against loved ones and prevented Christians from embracing the emancipating elements of the stories we read.

Ironically, the siege of biblical literalism keeps us from identifying with the son of Abraham who, like many black children, is referred to, though not by name, and certainly not heard from. Hagar was the slave mistress of Abraham, just as Sally Hemings was the slave mistress to Thomas Jefferson. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was prophesied by an angel to become “a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” That angel’s message delivered Isaac but damned Ishmael. That reality rings true today.

There are still few angels to deliver the children of the socially disposable and despised. Isaac is kept from death by divine intervention; Ishmael is condemned to bitter circumstances with no relief in sight. There are far too many Hagars in our time who are social outcasts: single black mothers who bear the stigma of shame and disrespect, who scrap for every single resource they can muster to provide for children who are marked for tough and brutal lives. Our present-day Ishmaels are prophesied, or stereotyped, as failures, when in truth they enjoy few of the privileges of the Isaacs in our culture. The same drug use by contemporary Isaacs that leads them to be lightly admonished about their bad behavior leads our Ishmaels to be harshly reprimanded and sent to prison. The same adolescent pranks in school that land the Isaacs of our time in the principal’s office land our Ishmaels in detention or lead to outright expulsion. And far too frequently the Isaacs of our age are free to grow into fruitful adulthood while our Ishmaels are harassed and policed to death.

Our present-day Ishmaels, and our young Hagars, too, suffer the wounds of persistent and subtle racial injustice. The nation’s foster care system, like most other institutions in America, reflects the racial dynamics that plague our society. Although black children are only 15 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 24 percent of the children in foster care. Not only are black children more likely to be reported, investigated, and relegated to foster care, but once they are there, they face prohibitive barriers: black children are far more likely to endure longer placements in out-of-home care, are on the short end of comprehensive services, and reunify with their families far less than white children. In Los Angeles County, for example, eight out of every 100 children are black, but 29 out of every 100 children are in foster care. When black children in Los Angeles County are placed in foster care, they are trapped there 50 percent longer than children of other races. More troubling is the fact that black children are mistreated by family members and die at a higher rate than children of other races.

Young Hagars are also targeted by the epidemic of sexual abuse in our communities: 60 percent of black girls are sexually abused before they turn eighteen, while 40 percent of black women suffer sexual assault in their lifetimes. Their suffering is compounded by the virtual silence that clouds the issue and the reluctance of black female victims to seek counseling. Black women are raped at a higher rate than white women yet are less likely to report it. Then, too, the myth that they are “fast girls” has made black girls who are victims of sexual exploitation wary of coming forward. As long as the culture at large, and black culture in particular, perpetuates stereotypes of inappropriate black female sexual desire, black girls and women will endure their sexual suffering in silence. Although “hashtag activism” has been widely assailed as a virtual substitute for substantive social action on the ground, it can have helpful, even therapeutic, results. Such was the case with #fasttailedgirls, the idea of Hood Feminism cofounder Mikki Kendall, a topic that trended nationally on Twitter as survivors of sexual abuse detailed their hesitation to speak up for fear they would be labeled “fast-tailed girls.” From the pulpit to the playground we must educate our communities and fight vicious stereotypes of black women as Jezebels and loose women who bring harm to boys and men.

But the battles over our children don’t end there. Sixty years after the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown decision that blacks should receive the same education as whites, educational disparities between the Isaacs and the Ishmaels of our nation loom larger than ever. Black and brown students are less likely to gain access to advanced math and science courses and experienced instructors. Black students, even preschoolers, are more likely to be suspended than other students. That’s not the entire story of educational inequities: 25 percent of high schools containing the greatest percentage of black and brown students don’t offer Algebra 2, while a third of such schools don’t offer chemistry. As our civil rights groups and other bands of activists advocate for broader social justice, and the fuller participation of black folk in our society, these educational disparities must be targeted to ensure that the next generation of Isaacs thrive.

Even more proof of the failure of biblical literalism can be seen in how elements of Isaac’s and Ishmael’s stories are conflated in narratives about the social suffering of black youth. Our Ishmaels, like the biblical Isaac, are unwitting victims of sacrifice. Our nation’s political fathers have left our black youth vulnerable, convinced, like Abraham, that they are listening to the voice of God when leading our youth to their downfall, saddling them with vicious beliefs about their own lack of worth in a culture that doesn’t prize or respect them. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are but the most recent examples of our national failure of will to protect our Isaacs from sacrifice. Trayvon deserved the dignity of normalcy. He deserved the protection that comes with the presumption that one is a regular kid, a child with no malicious intent, one who will experiment his way to adulthood by making the same immature choices many children make when they pose as rebels on social media or smoke some weed. And, like any red-blooded youth, Trayvon deserved the right to defend himself when recklessly pursued, and then shot to death, by a cowardly bully masquerading as a community savior named George Zimmerman.

Michael Brown was an unarmed black youth who, like many Isaacs, made mistakes (on the day of his death he was caught on tape rougharming a store clerk and stealing some cigarillos from a convenience store), but didn’t live long enough to regret them. Brown was gunned down in the street by a relentless, and apparently remorseless, policeman named Darren Wilson. The officer fired several shots into Brown’s body, including one into his head, as he was positioned beneath Wilson. A friend of Brown’s who witnessed the killing said his friend pleaded with Wilson, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting,” to no avail. After Zimmerman shot Trayvon, his killer claims that Trayvon’s final words were “Okay, you got it.” If true, what could Trayvon have meant by “it”? That Zimmerman had the presumption of innocence on his side despite being out of order in pursuing Trayvon? That Zimmerman had the right to kill any black youth he wanted because their negative images flooded the culture? That Zimmerman had the advantage because he brought a gun to a fistfight that he provoked?

Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown both perished as unwitting victims of sacrifice on the altar of an American history that has exploited and expelled black youth from school — and from existence. Uncaring political fathers have repeatedly compelled black youth to carry the instruments of their own demise, such as unjustified reputations for wrongdoing, on their backs. Or, in turn, they see, like so much of society sees, what is on their backs, and their faces, and their bodies — their black skin — as cause for suspicion and death. (How, indeed, can we distinguish God’s will from cultural suspicions and racial intuitions? The question has far greater existential weight when asked in relationship to black bodies that have been deemed threatening and perishable in our culture.) The black New York Times writer John Eligon summed up the harmful view of black youth in a sentence that was published the morning of Michael Brown’s funeral: “Michael Brown . . . was no angel.” In sharp contrast, the Times ran a concurrent story that praised Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, as a “well-mannered, relatively soft-spoken, even bland person.” It may as well have called him an angel.

There is another sense, however, in which Eligon’s phrase is quite fitting: “no angel” showed up to save Brown, or Trayvon, or thousands of other black youth. Even though it had been drilled into the collective unconscious of black American youth that no ram would be waiting for them in the bush, that no angel would deliver them, Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s last words were, tragically and paradoxically, a stubborn belief that the lamb might come, that it should, somehow, be in place, or that their last-breath attempt to snatch hold of its wings might make the angel descend to their aid. Their final words were gasps of protest at the horrifying and unjust absence of help, and also the undying affirmation of a crude optimism, equally unjustified, that they shouldn’t perish this way; that, by surrendering to their victimizers, they’d done what was necessary to live past the rage of an armed assailant who sought to impose his one-man judgment — his steely, bullet-riddled narrative — on their lives and bring the story of their youthful existence to a violent end in the barrel of a gun.

As a sign of how even bad stories feature glimmers of hope, Eligon also offers us, in the same piece that disparaged the youth, a heartening glimpse of Michael Brown’s theology of divine intervention:

“It was 1:00 A.M. and Michael Brown, Jr., called his father, his voice trembling. He had seen something overpowering. In the thick gray clouds that lingered from a passing storm this past June, he made out an angel. And he saw Satan chasing the angel and the angel running into the face of God. Mr. Brown was a prankster, so his father and stepmother chuckled at first. ‘No, no, Dad! No!’ the elder Mr. Brown remembered his son protesting. ‘I’m serious.’ And the black teenager from this suburb of St. Louis, who had just graduated from high school, sent his father and stepmother a picture of the sky from his cell phone. ‘Now I believe,’ he told them.”

Sadly, Brown’s budding belief was killed and left to fester in the same body that lay prostrate on the street for four hours after his death. If Michael Brown is Isaac, and his father, Michael Brown, Sr., is Abraham, imagine the suffering the father endures as he realizes he was unable to keep his son from being sacrificed, that no angel spoke to rescue his son from peril, that no lamb was exchanged as his son was sent to his bloody demise.

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers us a powerful lesson about the tests of God, and what we do with them, and our own tests, and how we sometimes abuse them. The story opens the possibilities of a broader view of truth, and the contrasting perils of biblical literalism. It highlights the virtue of rescuing narratives from the grasp of the powerful and the parochial as we read them to rescue in ourselves the excitement and vigor of fresh interpretation — and an uplifting, if sobering, application of the Word to our words, and to the worlds we make of them.

Above all, Abraham and Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael, too, remind us that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and countless other black youth besides, are daily sacrificed on the altar of unmerited suspicion and fear of black identity, pushing them into early graves. We must be the angels our children seek. We must keep them from destructive discipline at our own hands. And we must shield our children from death at the hands of those who think, bizarrely, often in veiled manner, though sometimes in fatally explicit terms, that they are doing God’s will to kill them.

This essay originally appeared in The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages, now available in paperback, and is reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster and the author.

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