What's It Good For?

Jumping on the war bandwagon entails great sacrifices we have not yet understood.

Once again the war wagon is warmed and waiting to rumble off into the desert. Once again, the target is Iraq. Even if you don't watch the news, listen to talk radio or, heaven forbid, read the papers, you'd know war was in the wind. The country has turned to our most solemn methods of public dialogue, the ones we use to express our deepest responses to only the most critical issues. We have broken out the bumper stickers and flag decals.

History has proven that nothing polarizes our country like rumors of war. The polarization takes place whether the motive for war is fear or greed. And one of those two is always the driving force.

There's a story in the Old Testament or Torah book of Genesis wherein an old fellow by the name of Abraham is asked by his God to sacrifice his only son. Abraham doesn't flinch at the request. In fact, he isn't even surprised by it. And he certainly doesn't question what he's going to do.

Abraham dutifully marches his boy Isaac up the nearest mountain, even drafts the boy into gathering firewood that will fuel his pyre. It is not until the boy is hog-tied, laid on the sacrificial altar and Abraham is ready to swing his sword that his God steps in and, with perfect climactic timing, says in effect, "Never mind."

This story has been interpreted as being about the righteousness of blind obedience and faith. It's also been passed off as an explanation for the trials and tests of our lives: How the deity will test us but never give us more than we can handle. From this we should find peace in the possibility that, at some point in our struggles, we will hear the comforting words, "never mind."

But, the Abraham story isn't about any of those things. Generations of rabbis, priests and ministers have gotten the thing all wrong. It's good we have this opportunity to set the record straight. This episode comes from a time when human sacrifice was not only a possibility but also acceptable.

So this story is about the evolution of a God, or more accurately, a people's evolving consciousness about what their God is liable to request. It is about discerning which understandings of our world views we are ready, even compelled, to set aside so that we may allow the best part of ourselves to grow into new life.

It is about the things we are willing to sacrifice to our incomplete, off-target or archaic definitions of a God. What things that are trying to live are we willing to kill off as a bargain to sate our fear or greed. The things might be our young people, or they may be the parts of ourselves that, in the name of fear or greed, we lay on the altar while waggling a sword.

The anti-war folks favor bumper stickers and they are always counter punchers. Their concern for the innocents of a target country that will suffer and die crescendos only as a response to war talk. The possibility of war fires emotions. It provides a stage and an opportunity for drama and public posturing that the everyday hardships and death of people in faraway places does not.

You can pick out pro-war people by their preference for flags. Sometimes these flags come in decal models. Sometimes these people splurge on the wavy flags attached to little poles that snap onto a car's drip gutter. Pro-war people like to focus on the positives of violence. Like making the desert safe for democracy. They don't like to talk about the fear that makes killing acceptable to normally friendly, live-and-let-live type people.

In times of peace, pro-war people speak out against violence. They do not like abortion and they have a particular distaste for video games that, they say, warp and corrupt young people by delivering vicarious violence. These young people are apparently unaffected, even enhanced, when they are sent off to experience first hand the character-building attributes of war.

While the motivation for war is fear, the cause is almost always procrastination. We get to this point the same way we get to most of the crises in our lives. It is the same inattention with which we drift through most of our lives, making decisions based on the appetites of the moment rather than acting out of mindfulness to the deeper issues.

We avoid dealing with little, bothersome issues until they grow to the proportions that require us to take the drastic steps of breaking out the bumper stickers and decals.

That brings up a point no one has mentioned during all the debate about this war. It is a point that is at the heart of the Abraham story. It is this: What parts of ourselves are we willing to sacrifice to wage this desert war? Is it possible to harm a human being without injuring humanity?

Socrates pointed out that the violence, or evil, we do is always worse than the violence we receive. Socrates didn't have video games but even with that handicap he knew that when we deal in violence, whether for greed or out of fear, we deeply damage ourselves.

Socrates had a point. In fact, he had many points and I am not unaware that the great democracy that was Athens served Socrates a lethal dose of hemlock to show how much they appreciated these points.

Still, it must be said that we sacrifice parts of ourselves every day. We kill off the parts of us that are new and young and reaching toward life in order to satisfy and perpetuate gods that have outlived their usefulness. Understanding a deity in a deeper and expanded way requires our going deeper into ourselves.

When we hop on the war wagon, take up our sword and wield it without full awareness and understanding of what we have laid upon the altar, we are quenching our battle thirst with a cup of hemlock that we drain one sip at a time.

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