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4 The God Who Refused the Sacrifice

Since Christ came the world has been created,
the cities adorned,
the dead carried out.
Gospel of Philip 5

The sign of Christmas is a star, a light in darkness. See it not outside yourself, but shining in the Heaven within, and accept it as the sign the time of Christ has come. He comes demanding nothing. No sacrifice of any kind, of anyone, is asked by Him. In His Presence the whole idea of sacrifice loses all meaning. For He is Host to God.
Course in Miracles Text 15:XI:2 1-6

I have three treasures, to hold and keep:
the love to nurture and release,
the generosity to conserve,
and the courage to desert the front.
By nurturing without owning,
one can love as freely as the sun.
By giving without wasting,
one can be as abundant as the earth.
By retreating without pride,
one can achieve the ocean's fullness.
To love without nurturing,
to give without conserving,
or to attack without fear, is to bring death.
Forgiveness overcomes all and needs no defense,
which is why it is the only weapon of the holy.
Tao te Ching 67

Invisible Work

Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don't mean these poems only
but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare
I interviewed years ago,
who said, "It's hard.
You bring him to the park,
run rings around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner,
and there's no one
to say what a good job you're doing,
how you were patient and loving
for the thousandth time even though you had a headache."
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself
because I am lonely,
when all the while,
as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon.

There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world's heart.
There is no other art.

Alison Luterman, "Invisible Work"


4. The God Who Refused the Sacrifice

The theology chosen by the New Testament to represent Christianity turns Jesus into the first name and Christ into the surname of a specific person who was really a God in human disguise. Jesus was unique from birth to death to resurrection, particularly in the complex gospel of John. If we think that we could be like Jesus, we have only to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion". Gods demand sacrifice, as everyone knows. Jesus is primarily distinguished from the rest of us by his superhuman powers to withstand pain. If we think we can follow in his footsteps, we better be ready to be persecuted. The cross is a constant reminder that we're no Christ.

The Roman and Greek pantheon of gods liked nothing better than a human sacrifice. In one example, Agamemnon is ordered by the oracle to "make holy" his daughter, Iphigenia, by throwing her into the sea to bring the wind. A compassionate god might have been hinting that the fickle Helen of Troy wasn't worth fighting over. Except for his word of honor to her husband, Agamemnon would have agreed. But Zeus isn't swayed by compassion or honor - he accepts the sacrifice. Agamemnon's wife does not - Clytemnestra readies to kill Agamemnon on his return. The oracles have nothing to lose by unreasonable demands. They take no responsibility for the consequences if you kill your daughter to go to war for an ex-girlfriend. But if you don't, watch out. And if you do, watch out. The most reliable prediction of all time still holds true: shit happens. And so the oracles of doom are always right.

What kind of god is YHWH that he refuses the sacrifice of Isaac? To my knowledge, it was unprecedented behavior for a god to feel that any sacrifice was too much. How was Abraham so sure that he didn't misunderstand the ram caught by its horns in the thicket? Anyone who knew of the switch must have been staying out of lightning bolt distance, just in case. Another question that begs to be asked, how would history have been changed if Isaac had been sacrificed? By law, Ishmael would have been the heir whether Sarah liked it or not. But Sarah had sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert years ago, when Isaac was weaned. It seems highly unlikely that she'd have gone along with Isaac's sacrifice now. More likely, she'd have been like Clytemnestra, gathering those kings and suitors from her harem days and sharpening the knives.

If Isaac had been "made holy" and Ishmael had inherited, there would have been no future division into Jews, Christians and Muslims. There would be no Jacob to have Joseph, who read the dream. Egypt wouldn't end up as a land of tenant farmers with a priestly elite through a slave's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream. All of Exodus could have been circumvented if only Abraham had followed through.

But Abraham substitutes the ram, and the climax of the Hebrew story is this - NOTHING HAPPENS! Abraham's family thrives and grows, through the next three generations. This is long enough to justify Abraham's self-serving interpretation of the will of the god. We picture the god of Abraham speaking clearly and unmistakably, but only in hindsight. Even for Abraham, he had to be sweating it out until the decision was justified by the consequences.

Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins...

Is the God of the New Testament patterned after YHWH, the god who refused the sacrifice, or the Greco-Roman gods, for whom no sacrifice was too much? Atonement theology puts the thorny thicket back on the head of the lamb. This time, rather than the lamb substituting for the "only" son (not including Ishmael), the "only" Son (not including us) substitutes for the lamb. The implication is that the sacrifice of Isaac was refused, not because it was too precious, but because it wasn't good enough. The sacrifice of the Jewish people is tainted.

The Greek New Testament changes Yeshua, the Hebrew son, communal product of centuries of scripture study, ritual, prophecy and law, into Jesus, a Greek by name and a God by paternal lineage. His teachings aren't a gift to the rest of the world from the Jewish culture. When he's crucified, it's not a crime and affront to those oppressed by Rome. Neither is his resurrection their victory. All of these things are turned against the Jews. His anointed ones, the Roman priestly elite, become a divinely-appointed hegemony over the Jews. Christianity goes from being the persecuted to the persecutor. In Constantine's conversion, does he end up serving the Christ (the whole) by changing his unjust ways, or does his "own personal Jesus" serve his political agenda?

The Christ Quality

In Philip, the presence of Christ is here among us, creating the new world. Christ cannot come again, because Christ has never left. The second coming is a continual process, inseparable from the first. Yeshua is not Christ as a person; he embodies the state of mind that's the Christ. What is the Christ state of mind? The word that keeps recurring is forgiveness. Not forgiveness in the ordinary sense, which makes the forgiver superior to the one who's done wrong. The origin of forgive is to give wholly and completely, as in the forgiveness of a loan1. It's the way you'd give medicine or food to a child, simply because they needed it and you had it.

To us, giving means giving up, and giving wholly means making a complete self-sacrifice. In the previous essay, this would fit with the martyr definition of a good Christian. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, where self-sacrifice and piety went hand-in-hand to "offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory." Saints were those who endured the most pain, in the most grisly fashion. Every room in my house had an image of the tortured Jesus. God loves the suffering or God loves suffering - the two were very much confused. Is there a middle way between the martyr and the atheist? Or, in economic terms, between the martyr and the capitalist? Can we love others as ourselves without sacrificing ourselves in the process?

Here's a possibility. Whenever the relatives get together in my family, the Uno deck comes out. Every night after dinner, the card sharks circle the table, sharpening their pointy little teeth and gleefully thrashing each other. But at some point, a run of bad luck will leave a player hopelessly crippled - very often, not the youngest member, but grandma or grandpa. This is no fun. So the kids start cheating in the floundering fish's favor. They'll work together to set up the person who's losing miserably to win the next round. A conspiracy for a third-party puts them on the same side, rather than taking advantage of one another. Rather than winning being the objective, it becomes extending the game with everyone having a fighting chance. There's no reason that we couldn't play our economy like an Uno game, if we entered into a conspiracy for the global poor. We don't have to lose, we just need a cooperative definition of winning.

The New World

The literal meaning of healing is to make whole2. By giving wholly, we make whole. Our relationship to humanity is as a whole to a whole - we treat others as our self because the others are our Self. We're not being generous, we're simply acting in accordance with reality. What is this reality?

The Reality of God, a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven, is already at hand - all of the elements wait for us to see the beauty in their order, and recognize that we've created this beauty. The real world is already reaching across chaos, like a dawn that doesn't fight the darkness but reveals what's already there. Forgiveness is the light of recognition, inclusion of all in the circle of empathy, within our identity as Self. It isn't giving up our self to another, it's giving our self to our Self. Invisibly, the small acts of courage tunnel into the darkness. Ending sacrifice, we ransack this world into being.

Death recedes.

1Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
2The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.