Centre News

“A Ram in the Thicket”

By Dr. Rick Axtell, College Chaplain and Paul L. Cantrell Associate Professor of Religion

May 19, 2013
Click here to print the PDF (which includes footnotes).
Centre College Commencement Dr. Rick Axtell, Paul L. Cantrell Associate Professor of Religion
and College chaplain delivered the 2013 Baccalaureate Address
on Sunday, May 19.

Baccalaureate Address

Texts: Genesis 22: 1-14; Qur’an, Surat As-Saffat (37): 99-109

Abraham showed up at Centre unceremoniously on August 24—twelve feet tall, noble and bronzed, reading a book. After his journey here, tied up in the back of a truck, he was secured upon his pedestal, wrapped in red white and blue, and bound with ropes.

Two days later, after Opening Convo, we gathered in front of Crounse for an unveiling which almost strangled him! After a few awkward moments he was emancipated from the red, white, and blue. We applauded and dispersed to begin the year that put Centre in the national spotlight.

Ed Hamilton’s Lincoln sculpture quickly became an iconic Centre image. The photo of Lincoln with his VIP credentials became one of the most popular tweets of the debate season.

Lincoln’s statue has had a different effect on campus than the Flame, not having inspired the confident and courageous among us to dash toward his bronzed feet emancipated from the shackles of proper clothing.

Instead, you quickly created the practice of placing pennies at his feet to ensure good luck on exams. It has not been lost on your faculty that this reflects a problematic understanding of the inscription at the base of the statue—“I will study, and be ready.”

Facilities Management is collecting those pennies for a library book fund—a fitting corrective gesture. Because focused time with books was really all the luck you needed to get to this momentous day.

The monumental new piece on Centre’s campus is larger than life, as is our image of this, our Abraham, the Great Emancipator.

This morning I want to talk about two Abrahams that are part of our shared heritage, because together, the two might have something significant to teach us on the day of your graduation.

The story of the other Abraham is canonized in the sacred writings of western civilization’s three great religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

And the most troubling part of his story is the Akedah, the binding of his son, Isaac—the divine command to an ancient patriarch to perform a human sacrifice. The story’s meaning is contested within and between the three religions. But this foundational narrative is fixed in our collective memory.

In HUM 120, you studied the bronze reliefs of the Sacrifice of Isaac submitted by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti for the doors of the Florence Baptistry at the turn of the 15th century (which Helen Emmitt assures me you will remember…). Some of you saw them more recently in Florence with Dr. Paskewich. So you’ll be well prepared, because right after Baccalaureate, Dr. Emmitt will be asking everyone to identify the slides as a condition for graduation, that you, too, may enter the Gates of Paradise.

These famous bronzes depict a remarkable story. Abraham is the wanderer whose sojourn beyond the land of his kindred is the archetype of an individual who moves beyond fate and ventures into the unknown. He journeys—propelled forward toward something new, a destiny.

For Abraham is the follower of the Promise. It is the promise of a great nation, with many descendants. And in Genesis, Isaac is the hope for fulfillment of that promise. His name means “laughter.” Isaac is the laughter of faith in the face of impossibility.

But now, the laughter shall end. This God commands:

“Take your son, Isaac, whom you love, … and offer him… as a burnt offering….”

Isaac, whom you love!

It is among the Bible’s most horrifying stories. The prose in Genesis is sparse:

"So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey. … Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.

"So the two of them walked on together."

What must have been going through Abraham’s mind, as they walked together? No parent sitting here today can imagine the anguish, the anxiety, the terrible dilemma of this unreasonable, unbearable conflict between love for one’s child and obedience to a God.

And Isaac carrying the wood! In the Hebrew story, even when they get to Mt. Moriah, Isaac suspects nothing. His innocence is heartbreaking:

"Isaac said to his father Abraham…, 'The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?' Abraham said, 'God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.'

"So the two of them walked on together."

The text repeats this last phrase. It is heart-wrenching.

Finally, Isaac is bound; placed on the altar. He knows. His world changes forever.

What passed between them in that moment? Was there a last look into the anguished, determined, inscrutable eyes of his father?

Imagine it:

The arm extended.

The knife suspended in the mountain air.

The ethical suspended in a pivotal moment of fear and trembling.

And then that moment… Another voice! Abraham hesitates. He questions.

He is no longer certain.

Whose voice? He looks over his shoulder, wild-eyed. He listens.

Now Isaac is panicked, unable to breathe, feverish…

And then! The bleating of a ram in the thicket!

Abraham lowers the knife. He listens. He sees the ram tangled in the brush.

There is an alternative. Abraham chooses. There is another way.

When the alternative sacrifice is offered, Abraham returns down the mountain with two servants. There is no mention of Isaac.

What was it like for this son to walk down that mountainside, now alone, traumatized, forsaken, no longer innocent? The damage had been done.

In the ancestral narratives that follow, Isaac remains the silent ancestor, almost invisible. He is not so much the subject of his own story as the object of someone else’s story.

This is the genesis of tragedy. Isaac is the tragedy of Genesis.

How is this story to be interpreted?

Of course, on one level, the story legitimates the sacrificial cult of the temple priesthood, firmly established by the time the ancestral legends took written form.

Some also see it as a polemic against the human sacrifice so common in the ancient near eastern context. In the developing morality of these Bronze Age peoples, this story may signal a progression away from the practice of offering the firstborn son. People of the Book are not to be people who engage in human sacrifice. It does not have to be this way. There is an alternative. There is a ram in the thicket.

But the standard interpretation is that Abraham models exemplary faith. He passes a test of loyalty through absolute obedience, a willingness to go through with even so hideous an act, out of allegiance to his God. The Sunday school lesson is that he is the model of faith.

In the Islamic version the son is also the model of faith, understood as perfect submission to the will of God. The text never names him, so the tradition differs on which son it was. But in the Qur’an, Abraham tells his son of the divine command. The son knows and willingly submits. Here, too, it is a story of faith as absolute obedience.

Now, such readings that spiritualize the story as a model of courageous faith may make it palatable if we gloss over what’s really going on here, if we sanitize the narrative and strip it of its human elements, if we accept the storytellers’ assurance that Abraham’s God commanded him to slaughter his son.

Well, Abraham may be a product of his time, but we moderns can’t help but read this passage with a fear and trembling that troubles us to our core.

For this ancient text of terror cannot be abstracted from our modern world of terror.

After Auschwitz, who can be comfortable with any defense of Abraham that sounds like the Nuremburg defense of German Christians: “I was only obeying orders”?

After the horror of 9/11, who can affirm the willingness to kill in obedience to a divine mandate?

We wonder, like interpreters from medieval Spanish rabbis to Immanuel Kant to Elie Wiesel: Was this really the voice of God?

And so I ask, where is the divine voice to be found today?

Today, the divine voice is heard in the trembling cry of Isaac.

It summons us anew from the camps at Auschwitz.

It calls from the refugee tents of Haiti and Syria.

You see, in the searing light of our modern age, we must read this story differently—from the perspective of Isaac—for this story is still our story.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel pictures Isaac looking into this father’s eyes—a moment when “all creation held its breath.” He says, in that awful moment “Isaac understood that what was happening to him would happen to others, that this was to be a tale without end, an experience to be endured by his children and theirs.”

To see the world from the perspective of Isaac, rather than Abraham, is to know a deeper truth about this passage: It is the story of the bound one, the victim sacrificed on the altars of any age.

Class of 2013, on this day as you look toward the future you will build and the world you will repair, we must face this truth: Isaac is still bound. Altars are still being assembled.

You will be called upon to ask a crucial question: Is there a ram in the thicket? Is there another way?

The question brings me back to “our” Abraham. Back to Lincoln.

On Lincoln’s birthday this year, we emerged from Crounse to find giant footprints proceeding from the Great Emancipator’s statue. Step by step, the footprints led down the sidewalk to the back of a truck parked on the street outside Cowan.

And inside that truck were human beings, bound, gagged, crowded into the back of a U-Haul.

You see, 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slavery still thrives. Slavery.

On the side of the truck were statistics about human trafficking:

  • 20 million people are currently enslaved.
  • Over half a million people are trafficked across borders annually, for a profit of $32 billion a year.
  • Human trafficking is now favored by organized crime because, unlike drugs or guns, human beings can be sold again and again and again.

If you looked into that truck, that was the day you unveiled our Lincoln, untangling him from the red, white, and blue, to remind us of the call to unbind every Isaac, every suffering one sacrificed on the altar of profit, or convention, or nationalism, or religion…

It does not have to be this way. There is a ram in the thicket.

So hundreds of you followed those giant footsteps and wrote letters that helped Kentucky pass a human trafficking bill this March. That legislation is now part of the Centre narrative. A small strap of Isaac’s binding, loosened. Perhaps you will be the generation that abolishes slavery once and for all!

The altars of our modern sacrificial system have seldom been unveiled with more clarity than last month in Bangladesh. On April 24, 1,127 human beings perished when an unsafe building collapsed upon thousands of garment workers. These are (were) the people who make our clothes.

Why? Because they are paid only $38 a month. Low wages and minimal regulation are precisely what attract retailers to labor markets like Bangladesh.

These factories operate on the slimmest profit margins to survive the competitive world of outsourcing for corporate retailers. So their workers barely survive on what amounts to slave wages.

We are the ones who reap what they sew, importing 97% of what we wear, much of it from cheap labor markets like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Yet, in real dollars, what we pay for apparel has fallen 39% just in your lifetime.

The poorest people on earth, risking their lives in unsafe working conditions to make the cheap t-shirts we demand…

What happened last month is not new: A factory fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers last year, not long after 260 garment workers died in a fire in Pakistan.

Burnt offerings on the altar of consumer demand…

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is a ram in the thicket.

We are not powerless to change this system.

Already public pressure has created a new Fire and Building Safety Agreement that establishes a mechanism for corporations supplied by factories in Bangladesh to pay for safety improvements.

You see, as a group of garment workers told us on a study abroad visit in Nicaragua, workers don’t want us to boycott irresponsible brands. They want us to exert consumer pressure to ensure that corporations are no longer willing to sacrifice people on the altar of profit.

So members of this graduating class have worked hard to educate our community on the labor conditions of those who sew our clothes and those who harvest our food. This work is the thread that strengthens the fabric of a global community and the seed that will yield a harvest of justice.

You see, the story of Abraham and Isaac reminds us of the perils of acting without questioning, as if there are no alternatives to the conventional ways of doing things.

There is a ram in the thicket—a previously unseen pathway to moral choices that can liberate we who are chained to habit and those our habits may put in chains. But it’s up to us to pay attention, to examine the alternatives, to think critically and creatively.

The liberal arts education you celebrate today taught you to examine the many sides of any argument, to beware of the absolute certainty, or unexamined convention, that can lead us to act without the conscientious pause.

We hope it has also taught you humility in the face of complexity and mystery. For today we know the perils of absolute truth claims, of blind obedience in a world of black and white, of Abraham’s walk up that mountain with unhesitating certainty.

Now, I must admit that having just graded some of the papers with which you advanced to this moment, I am newly aware that absolute certainty is not the plague with which some of you have been afflicted!

But even the debate that took place on this stage reminded us that our political system itself is polarized and paralyzed by the fixed certainties of entrenched positions.

It will be up to you to imagine a better way.

The Centre ethos has also taught you to pay attention to Isaac, with empathy. And you have worked to unbind him wherever the invisible one cries out for attention.

In the victims of Birmingham’s tornado whose homes you cleaned up, and in the residents of West Virginia’s mountains whose homes you restored.

In the faces of the children you taught in Costa Rica and Ghana, or the immigrant children you tutored at the Warehouse.

There is a village in the hills of Cameroon whose health clinic now has a well because of your help.

And just as Lincoln received his first law books from a Centre graduate, the bookshelves your class built and stocked for residents of local Habitat houses may lead to emancipations you never imagined.

You have written it into the Centre narrative: There is a ram in the thicket!

Perhaps this is the innovative genius of the Abraham story—his surprising openness to an alternative.

For faith is an “audacious openness” to a new way. Far from blind obedience, faith imagines—and thereby fulfills the ever-unfolding vision of freedom toward which the Promise points.

In Pakistan, a 15 year-old girl named Malala Yousufzai became a champion for the value of education for girls and women. On a BBC blog, she chronicled her life in Pakistan where the Taliban banned education for females and blew up girls’ schools. As an advocate for universal education, Malala is determined not to let the Taliban prevent her from realizing her dream—to “study, and be ready.”

Two days before Centre’s debate, a gunman boarded a school bus in Pakistan and shot Malala, as a lesson to anyone advocating education for girls.

These militants, fueled by the absolute certainty of their version of religious law, insist that girls should not get an education. But Malala survived, and reminds us that even in a war on terror that has sacrificed so many on every side, there is a ram in the thicket.

“If children aren’t given pens,” she says, “it’s more likely a terrorist will be able to give them guns.”

In a world where 60 million school-age children are not getting an education, this Muslim girl is fighting terror by uprooting the hopelessness it feeds upon. Education emancipates.

Class of 2013, there is a dream of Isaac unbound, walking free, and in spite of everything, laughing. Imagine it!

Now, if you saw Life of Pi, you may know what I’ll ask next:

Which narrative do you prefer?

The narrative of binding or the narrative of emancipation?

The conventions of culture and nation and economics, or the ram in the thicket?

I think I know which narrative you prefer. For today, you will be graduates of Centre College.

“And so it goes with God.”

Click here for more Centre College Commencement information.

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail elizabeth.trollinger@centre.edu with your feedback.

Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.

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