Friday, October 27, 2006

Graven Images and the Law of Anti-Idolatry

An Amish couple in Pittsburgh recently filed a lawsuit (something the Amish don't typically do) against the federal government for requiring them to provide photographs for immigration purposes. (Read it) The husband, a Canadian citizen, wishes to become a permanent resident so that he ultimately can become a citizen. As a result of increasing threats of terrorism, the government has stopped making exceptions based on religion, and so the Amish husband is forced to grapple with this dilemma: provide immigration officials with a photograph of himself or risk deportation.

Why do the Amish have a problem with photographs? Because, according to their beliefs, photographs violate one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Now, of course, I wish that the government could accommodate them in their beliefs, and not force them to provide photographs. But let's say the government says, "No, I'm sorry, sir, you have to provide a photograph, or we will deport you, while your wife and two children remain here, now husband and fatherless."

It seems to me that the ethical decision would be to bear down and smile for the camera -- because the alternative, deportation, inflicts great damage on other people, the family who will be left alone. It becomes a question of what is going to be more upsetting to God -- the fact that you took one photograph, or the fact that you allowed your family to be left without a father and husband?

I have seen this far too often in religious communities -- people privileging the laws and rules over the number one Commandment in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament: Love your Neighbor. In fact, the bible is full of examples of what not to do, examples of what happens when you privilege (or idolize) a commandment over the welfare of another human being.

Take Abraham, the great Patriarch, for example. When faced with the ultimate ethical dilemma -- murder your son at the behest of a voice from heaven in order to prove your love for God, or spare the life of your child, your gift from God -- Abraham would rather listen to voices from heaven, and blindly and unquestioningly follows orders, than actually think critically about what, really, God would want him to do. Abraham idolizes a commandment over the ethical, over the life of his son. And though ultimately Abraham's son Isaac is spared (another voice from heaven stops Abraham), he is forever traumatized, and we see this play out in the dysfunction of Isaac's own family, and his sons' families. Isaac, perhaps the first poster boy for PTSD, never really gets off the sacrificial altar, never really recovers from the pain of realizing that his father could easily have killed him in order to honor an arbitrary commandment.

It's a paradigm that, in many ways, still haunts us even today. But it should be common sense: the lives of your children, and their wellbeing, should come first.


nedric said...

It does seem best to help other human beings before honoring what seems to be an arbirary commandment - or what may be worse, an arbitrary interpretation of an arbitrary commandment.

The perspective you presented on Abraham and Isaac is quite interesting - I had not considered Isaac a posterchild for PTSD before. I recently heard a lecture arguing that Isaac had to have been over 30 at the time of Abraham's call, that Isaac consented to being the sacrifice. But even if that were true, that doesn't seem to change the fact that on many levels he and his family are dysfunctional.

Monica said...

Yes, from what I understand, it's actually true that Isaac was 30 at the time of the binding. Still, though, I think that it would be traumatic at any age to experience a moment in which your parent is about to murder you. I suppose, though, that it's even creepier to think of Isaac, a grown man, consenting to the sacrifice -- i.e., is that the kind of control Abraham had over his family? At any rate, we know that the root of this family's dysfunction didn't begin entirely in this moment. I'm thinking about the Sarah/Hagar, Isaac/Ishmael problems. A crazy family with a lot of problems, not unlike many/most families today it seems.

nedric said...

I'm wondering, alluding to Silentio's (Kierkegaard's) Fear and Trembling, what went unsaid in the narrative. What would Abraham have to say to Isaac, what would he say to get a 30 year old to consent (if consent he did)?

In another recent lecture, I learned that the only "successful" child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible occurs in 2 Kings 3:27. There Mesha, King of Moab, sacrifices his son in full view of Israelites, and the Moabites end up winning the battle... as in the Biblical God sides with the Moabites in this case.

-Not to go too far astray, but this topic always reminds me of Hegel's death struggle for recognition: what are you willing to give up to demonstrate your complete "autonomy" (not really sure if that is the word to use there though)?

dridio said...

Middle eastern families readily and willingly give they're children up for sacrifice/martyrdom everyday in the name of God.
How is that any different?

Casey said...

Monica--this is really interesting... I'm not sure I agree, that the man should grit his teeth and smile for the camera, though.

God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son?--certainly it would have been more ethical in human, earthly terms, to refuse God's command. But what if obeying God's commandments is the ultimate foundation of ethics?

It's really an old theological question: are things good in and of themselves, or are they good because God says so?--i.e., could God make his "Thou Shalt Nots" into "Thou Shalts" at his whim?

This perspective--the idea that God's justice precedes any notion of humanism--is essentially non-existent in the academy. But it remains the guiding ethical premise for billions of people all over the world, and it was almost everyone's framework until (say) Dostoevsky or Luther or someone like that.

Anonymous said...

If a god (or gods) exist why should they be good or just? From what I can see they just want to be loved and/or feared and adored. Perhaps the Amish man should have worn a burka for the photo.

Monica said...


The Hegel connection makes sense, I think.

About the 2 Kings 3:27 sacrifice -- what about the sacrifice in Judges, where the military leader promises God he'll sacrifice the first person who comes running out of his house if God we'll help him win a battle? His daughter, of course, is the one who is ultimately sacrificed. I've always had a really hard time with that story.

dridio -- I'm not sure that it is any different. It's all bad. The point is that, in my opinion anyway, God doesn't want us to sacrifice our children (or harm other humans) to prove our devotion to him. That's why Abraham failed the test -- he was ready to kill his child.

Monica said...


I'm not sure what to say about the idea that gods just want to be loved, feared, or adored because that does often seem to be the case. But I think that may also have something to do with how we have constructed God. In one of my recent posts I talked about a religion of childhood vs. a religion of adults -- we perceive God to be the ultimate parent who demands respect and adoration because we view ourselves in a childlike fashion. But if we really start to think of ourselves as adults, then we can view God (and re-construct him, perhaps) in a different way.