Dean Baxter: “Sacrificing Isaac: A Personal Reflection”
“And God said to Abraham take your son, Isaac, …whom you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. So Abraham rose early in the morning and took his son Isaac. [And when he had built the altar he laid his son upon it]. [But then] the angel of the Lord called to him and said do the child no harm” (Gen. 22).
We got up early that morning, had breakfast and prayed together. We then started the journey across town. I hugged my father, got out of the car and walked across the street. As I entered that gray granite building I took one last look back—I shall never forget that look in my father’s eyes. It was a strange gaze of patriotic pride, personal fear and moral uncertainty. Perhaps it was the look Abraham had when he laid Isaac upon that altar in the wilderness. Surely it must be the look that family patriarchs must have had for generations when offering their sons for military service. For you see, it was l968, the height of the Vietnam War, and I was entering the induction center of my hometown.
My father was a World War II veteran, serving as an infantryman and clerk in Germany, France and Luxembourg. He was a very patriotic man, he believed that serving ones country was an obligation that every young man should fulfill and experience. He once said, “With the exception of war, the military is good for every young man. It teaches discipline, responsibility and cooperation.”
As I reflect back upon that morning in l968, I now know the pride he felt was that his son was “doing his duty” as a man and as a citizen, just as he himself had done and others before him. But the fear was equally there. For he, like his father before him, had just released his child to the most vicious whim of corporate human evil—war. Was his child being offered as a noble sacrifice for democracy or as cannon fodder for political folly?
I never quite understood my father’s war, although he, his brothers and friends told their stories many times. Oh, the stories they told. But it was not until I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan that I had a graphic sense of how his war was so different from my guerrilla war. His battlefield was different from mine: the mass carnage of beachheads and battle fronts; the chaotic infernos of exploding ammunition depots; herds of great monsters of steel and thunder rumbling over the earth, raining from the skies and swarming the oceans.
Yes, his was the last great noble war. It is the war about which romantic movies and TV shows were made. It was the war that was talked about, that inspired glorious books and childhood play and popular toys. It made Americans proud and its veterans were heroes. As these veterans left Europe, North Africa and the South Pacific, they knew they had done what had been expected and now coming home would mean appreciation and respect. This optimism is reflected in these lines of a poem my father wrote on his stormy December voyage across the stormy Atlantic from Europe to Boston. It’s called “Called Coming Home” (in Vicissitudes of Man, by Belgium Nathan Baxter, l970).
Listen, winds of degradation!
I must ride with you tonight
On these cold and troubled waters
And I shudder with affright.
Howl ye not upon the tempest
Through which course my vessel roams
For my mission in this war is done
And now I’m coming home.
Open wide, O Massachusetts!
Your Myles Standish Portico.
For we have a precious cargo
In the hatches down below.
One fatigued from cares of battle
From Berlin to Fascist Rome.
One that’s sick at heart for happiness
And now we’re coming home.
But the war of my generation was different. My father and most Americans never understood my war—except that to many it felt like America’s first defeat. It was a war that always seemed to lack romantic notions and to generate deeper and deeper conflicts within our society, including churches and government. Too often the moral uncertainty caused fathers and their sons too little to share. Even Hollywood waited until the eighties and nineties to release major movies based upon the Vietnam War. And the movies such as Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon were based upon dark existential themes. Even the popular TV show, M.A.S.H. was changed from being about Vietnam to the Korean Conflict.
And its young men who returned in, whether in body or in body bags, where often received as sacraments of a nation’s shame and confusion rather than heroes. As soldiers, Vietnam veterans were visible and vulnerable symbols of America’s larger war with authority; a war being acted out in our homes, in our streets and on our college campuses—wars of race and gender equity; wars within our corporate souls for moral grounding and patriotic identity. Yes, we have had a mixed history in knowing what to do with our decisions to offer this Isaac as a sacrifice.
But what of the future? What can we—people of faith, people of peace—expect will be demanded of us in the future? What do experiences such as Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda or Bosnia suggest about our military involvement in the future? Today, as we look to the future, we live under the shadow of unimaginably destructive nuclear weapons and the daunting potential for them to be in the hands of dictators and renegade politicos. But there are other vigils of peace, vigils critical to our age, that we must keep. There is the volatile nature of regional ethnic and religious conflicts, resulting in a proliferation of mass murder of civilians and unbridled genocides. The rise of nationalism, fundamentalism and well financed terrorism are today factors more immanent in our future than the aggression of great nations and great armies.
Today, what is needed even more than sophisticated weaponry are the diplomatic skills and art of peacemaking and peacekeeping. I believe that the world is increasingly seeing the virtues of peace and those leaders and citizens committed to peace as not just abstracts of diplomacy but as people with godly graces. As Jesus taught: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
I also believe America and her institutions, including the church, have the greatest responsibility to lead in the reshaping of an imploding world. General John M. Shalikashvili, (popularly known as “General Shali”), past chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared these profound words in presentation on Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping, at George Washington University (May 4, l995):
“Now, I must tell you, that some [military leaders and others] would prefer that we put a sign outside the Pentagon that says, ‘We only do the big ones.’ We understand terms like ‘overwhelming force’ and like ‘decisive victory.’ … The fact is that we cannot lead, we cannot remain that most influential nation if we turn a blind eye to tragedies where millions are at risk or if we try to ignore the Bosnias and the Haitis. Nor do I believe I believe the American people would ever allow this to happen, for I do not believe that our nation is morally capable of watching tragedies of the scale of a Somalia or Rwanda and remaining a silent bystander. Surely there are some things that are so morally reprehensible or so inhumane that we as Americans, when we see them, must act. But the difficulty lies in distinguishing between helping … and on the other hand getting caught in someone else’s hatreds, prejudices and intrigues.”
General Shali goes on to say that there are “three strange bedfellows” who must work together in the future: the media, humanitarian organizations (of which the church is one) and the U.S. military. The media is responsible for helping with the vigilance; humanitarian organizations (social, governmental and religious) must provide the expertise of dealing with human tragedies; and the military for providing the logistic support for quick response, communication and “strategic lift. He concludes by saying, “These three strange bedfellows can be a very good combination.”
We do not know when the spirit of patriotism or moral outrage will again call upon parents to offer the sacrifice their sons, and today their daughters, but we know the call will come. For the truth is that until the Kingdom of God surely has come there will be, as Jesus taught in Matthew 24, “false messiahs” inspiring old vengeance and nationalistic aspirations; and there will be the “wars and rumors of wars” (the latter being Jesus term for Cold War). Therefore, as people of faith and citizens we must commit ourselves as never before to the work of peace. We must find ways to teach peace in our homes, our Sunday schools, our public school and colleges. We must do this so that our sons and daughters (and we ourselves) will understand and value the things that make for peace. Only our active commitment to values of peace and peacemaking will insure that our sons and daughters will never be offered on altars of our own making, whether made of religious fervor, political ambition or patriotic naivete.
As Christians our churches must build partnerships with other organizations of goodwill and humanitarian mission to lessen, if not preclude, military intervention. Most major denominations have church structures and ecclesiastical influence in some of the most troubled regions of our world. Perhaps our greatest opportunities, in this regard, lie in building relationships with the re-emerging churches in Asia and Eastern Europe, many of which are orthodox and ethnic. But we must also coalesce to hold our political and military leaders to a measure of sobriety when contemplating or managing military intervention.
In the end we must also hear the voice of the “Angel of Peace,” who, when the point has been made, will say, “Stay your hand, do the child no harm.” But we must also remember this truth, that to offer the child for any patriotic or even compassionate cause is still, inescapably, to do it harm, to change the child forever. Isaac was delivered from the altar of sacrifice in the wilderness. Yet, even though he demonstrated his father’s deepest loyalty by his obedience, he was undoubtedly a changed child and something of him died and was buried on that wilderness altar, never to return to the homeland again.
So when the sacrifice of war is over we must always understand our obligation is to help what remains of our Isaac to find his peace; to rebuild his life again with whatever is left of his body, his will and his dreams. Like Abraham we must make the journey with him, in order that he may find home again. We must also learn to honor and respect the parts of Isaac’s sacrifice, which will never return home again.
Finally, all of us—you and I, and Abraham and Isaac—all of us together, must pray and work for that day when neither for religion or for politics or for patriotism, Isaac will never ever need “to rise early in the morning” and offer his child on the altars of a far land. Amen.