When I was a seminary student I once heard a visiting theologian say, “We have to be willing to sacrifice our children for what we believe.” I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said that. You can imagine the response. There was a stunned silence and then hands shot up across the room. Of course people were horrified that he would say such a thing. And all our minds went to those awful stories that surface periodically about folks who give their twelve year old daughters in marriage to a cult leader or who refuse medical treatment to critically ill children on religious grounds. Was this theologian standing before us, someone whose books we’d read, really supporting this kind of crazy thinking? But the more we talked about this astonishing claim, the more it made sense.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children were 13, 12, 7 and 5 years old when he was assassinated. And certainly, his absences to work for racial justice must have taken a toll on his family. Erin Brokovich was a law secretary and single mother of three who cracked open a chemical company cover up of water contamination in the town of Hinkley. Her work exposed the company’s gross misdeeds but complicated the care of her three children.
Robert Katende worked for a ministry that brought sport to children living in the Kampala slum Katwe. He ended up creating a coaching a children’s chess team that changed the lives of the children who participated. When he had the opportunity to leave the low paying ministry position and take a job as an engineer for a water company which would mean much more pay for his struggling family he turned it down. In the movie Quee of Katwe that chronicles the story of the chess team, Robert says to his wife, “this will make life more complicated for us.”
It’s not just those who work for a better world that sacrifice their children. We’ve seen the damage often done to children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs. We’re not really surprised when the children of the super wealthy have emotional problems. Social isolation created by wealth, the need to make one’s life look perfect, and the focus on material well being over interpersonal relationships take their toll.
It’s not just the super-wealthy. Dr. Suniya Luther from Columbia University found that that adolescents raised in suburban homes with an average family income of $120,000 report higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than any other socioeconomic group of young Americans today. The research suggests that the reasons are varied – a consumer culture combined with a media onslaught of how the rich and famous live give teens an unrealistic understanding of what life is about. Plus, parents who over-emphasize achievement and success leads to a perfectionism and a fear of failure. Sound familiar? Sound like Northbrook? I’m not trying to pile on and make you feel guilty about how you raised or are raising your kids. Most parents I know wrestle with a constant state of feeling inadequate. Maybe this awful story reveals what we know to be true – we will all sacrifice our children or the children of our community to something.
No wonder this text terrifies us. At one level we can’t understand a father who would say yes to this awful demand of an awful God. And at another level we know all too well the myriad of ways we sacrifice our own and other’s children. This is a terrible story – I wish it wasn’t in the Bible. I feel that way about a lot of stories. But I wonder if it also reveals to us something of the human condition. We will sacrifice our children to what we believe. Abraham climbs a mountain in Moriah. We carry the children of our community up mountains of affluence, achievement and consumerism.
Here’s the good news – Abraham and Isaac come down the mountain together. Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and God gave Isaac back. In this horrible story, Abraham took Isaac up the mountain. He bound him, prepared to sacrifice him. But before he completed the awful act, God stopped him and gave a ram instead. The two walked down the mountain together. We will all give our lives to something. We will all give the lives of our children to something. When Abraham gave Isaac’s life to God, God gave Isaac life.
This is the message of Jesus. To have life to the fullest we must give up our lives:
- “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
- Matthew 10:37-39New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
- (John)24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
This message is no less terrifying than the story of Abraham and Isaac. I met once with a couple who wanted me to baptize their son. As got to know them I learned that the mother had grown up going to church and wanted to raise her children in the church. It was very important to her. The father was agnostic. He wasn’t hostile to religion in general or Christianity specifically, but he was uncertain about it. I explained that the person baptized both dies with Christ, and is raised to new life in Christ. That though their son would also need to make faith decisions for himself as he grew, they were in the moment of baptism, marking him as a follower of Jesus. It’s as if you’re giving him a tattoo. The father had to really think about if he wanted this for his son. Did he want to give his son to a God he himself didn’t know. He understood that baptism is more than a moment to celebrate a baby and a family’s love.
A pastor I know would tell a story about when United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University. Now this is my retelling of that story. I can’t attest to the details, but the tone is the true. Apparently a father tells the story of being the chaplain at Duke University. A father came to him irate at the vocational choice his daughter had made. The father was a uriologist, like his father, and expected his daughter to follow in his footsteps. He had encouraged her school, had footed the bill for an expensive, elite education at Duke, had paid for extra biology classes and tutoring for the MCAT’s and then his daughter, instead of going into medical school, decided to go into the peace corps and serve folks in Uganda. The father came into yell at Willimon for misguiding this student. How could you encourage her to join the peace corps? he asked. Willimon responded, weren’t you glad when you found out your daughter was part of the campus Christian fellowship? “well yes, but” and didn’t you and your wife take your daughter to youth events and encourage her to go on mission trips and help out at service projects? In fact didn’t she tell me that her youth regularly served at a soup kitchen? well yes. And didn’t you take her to church most weeks? and Sunday school? And pray before meals? well yes, but. Didn’t you have her baptized? what did you think would happen when you decided to mark her as a disciple of Jesus? You led her to follow Jesus and now she is.”
That father would have understood right away what that theologian meant when he said, “we have to be willing to sacrifice our children for what we believe.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor from Germany who lived in the early part of the 20th century. He joined the underground convinced it was his duty to work for Hitler’s defeat. In his book the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
 The Price of Affluence by Amy Novotney, American Psychological Association, 2009 vol 40, no. 1 the monitor