is really the best response to the Genesis 22 story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac [link to text]. I read that once, and was impressed that biblical scholar James Crenshaw was willing to admit just how offensive this story really is. What sort of God would ask such a thing? Especially after Abraham, in total obedience to God’s command in Genesis 12:1-4 [link], had already given up his home, his family and everything he had ever know to follow God to a new, but totally unspecified land. I don’t blame people for rejecting the story outright, “Why should we listen to a god that makes such inhuman demands?”
The thing is, ever since our daughter was born three years ago, we feel like those sorts of demands are made of us on a pretty regular basis. “Leave her with strangers so you can work another job that barely pays the day care costs.” “Why are you still nursing that child? Put her on formula so you can go back to work.” Who has time to even hold babies anymore or play with their children, when both parents have to work all day, come home, dish out some sort of meal, and then catch up with the laundry and pay the bills before they go to bed? When I look at the ways children are raised in this society, it scares me! Could it be, that we, like Abraham, are sacrificing our children in small ways every day?
My sisters and I were the first generation of latch key kids. Since both my parents had to work to pay the mortgage and make the car payments on time, we were left to fend for ourselves. Instead of mom greeting us with homemade cookies when we came home from school, it was reruns of “Little House on Prairie” and Hostess Twinkies. And because both my parents had to work late some nights, sometimes we had to make our dinner too: which usually meant a jar of spaghetti sauce over noodles. How much worse it is today!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a return to traditional family values or forcing women back into the home. But I can’t help feeling that American families are under attack - we no longer have the time or resources to provide a healthy home environment that actually nutures our children. What scares me the most is not that we are blind to the ramifications of this, but that we seem unable to find solutions. Many parents I know are deeply troubled by the effects of today’s lifestyle on their children, but feel trapped by economic realities beyond their control.
In a recent discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book This Land is Their Land [link] aired on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” [link] the commentator suggested that middle class families are to blame for their plight: isn’t over consumption responsible for the financial problems of the middle class, especially all that overextended credit?
While its true that my generation, Gen-X, was brought up believing we would inherit all the prosperity enjoyed by our parents, its not necessarily true that we consume more than them - all that prosperity is increasingly out of our reach. As Ehrenreich says, the corporate profits once shared with employees are now being channeled to a very small minority (.01%) at the top of the corporate ladder, while the rest of us on the lower rungs are left to fend for ourselves. The rising cost of living paired with the stagnation in wages, despite a 75% increase in worker productivity, means that today’s parents are forced to work significantly more hours than their parents, not just two jobs per household, but three just to make ends meet.
Recently John and I watched Bill Moyer’s “Journal” on PBS [link], in which experts discussed the effects of the economy on middle class families. Not only are we earning half of what the previous generation earned, today’s minimum wage is $5.85 as compared to $9.85 if we take inflation into account,
we no longer receive employee benefits, and are forced to shoulder those costs ourselves. But since the cost of health insurance, retirement funds and education, have sky rocketed in the last decade, many of us, John and myself included, simply can’t afford health insurance, much less any kind of retirement! It was one thing back in the 90s for single twenty-somethings to complain about “McJobs” [link to definition], living on minimum wage without health insurance, but its quite another thing for those of us now trying to raise families to survive in a financial climate thats being compared to the greed of the Gilded Age a century ago [link], the gross inequities of which produced the soup lines of the Great Depression.
In reaction to these criticisms I’ve heard the rebuttal, “stop complaining, and instead of making excuses, take responsibility for your problems: there are no free handouts.” Yes, its true that some of us Gen-Xers were slackers in our twenties, but as delayed adolescence passed, and we finally got serious about our futures, we’ve found that no matter how much we play by the rules, we just can’t win. There are too many odds against us - if the student loan debt doesn’t sink us, you can bet the credit card fees will! Especially since credit card debt for middle-income families is soaring — up 75% to $5,031 between 1989 and 2001 (according to a report by Demos, a non-partisan public policy organization). [USA Today] “Middle-class families are using credit cards to fill in a gap between their income and costs,” says Tamara Draut, director of the economic opportunity program at Demos. “It’s more about maintaining their standard of living than frivolous consumption.” There’s something seriously wrong when a family with a $70,000 annual income admits, “we used credit cards to pay for diapers, food and school stuff.” [link to article in USA Today]
When Bill Moyers asked his guest Holly Sklar “why do we put up with it?” she responded, “everyone is afraid to loose their job, whether you’re trying to unionize… or the company is threatening to outsource, you now add to this everyone is terrified to loose their job, because they have health insurance through their job… it’s a much harder context in which to ask for higher wages.” In today’s workplace, we don’t have permission to say “no” to our employers’ demands; especially when constant downsizing makes us anxious that we could be the next cut, and you’re living just one paycheck away from the bill collectors knocking at your door. Is it any wonder then that the voices of our children get lost in the daily rush to get to work on time?
Like Bill Moyers, we usually end up blaming the greedy corporate heads, who really do seem to be benefiting at our expense. But isn’t it a bit more complex than that? Why, in a democratic society, don’t we demand more of our government and politicians?
That’s precisely the point: when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham didn’t object (at least not at first) because in Abraham’s day it was normal to sacrifice children. In his world people believed that the laws governing property and inheritance were dictated by the gods and those gods insisted that only one son could inherit. Thus when God repeatedly promised Abraham that his descendants would receive a great inheritance, Abraham assumed without question that it would happen according to those rules. Since Abraham had more than one son, he thought he had to sacrifice one of them. Therefore he sent Ishmael, his first son, into exile, which in those days meant certain starvation and death. But since sacrificial systems have a way of demanding new victims, it eventually turned on the one it was supposed to benefit, demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s favorite son, the one who was supposed to inherit everything!
Little has changed. As Paul Nuechterlein says on his website, “For we still practice child sacrifice, do we not? But the cultural difference is that it is no longer part of religious ritual. Our modern versions of sacred violence are acts of violence we sanction with causes or transcendent values we hold as godlike.” To break free, our minds must begin to question the false logic of their claims. “The unveiling of sacred violence means the unveiling of our false gods.” [link] As long as we, as a people, continue to believe that our present economy is the source of our happiness, our security, our future, we will be pitted against our loved ones. It makes too many demands on us, insisting, for instance, that we sacrifice time with our children.
Abraham actually traveled three days to Mt. Moriah, the place God designated for the sacrifice. He had plenty of time to think things over. In the moment he raised the knife to sacrifice his son, his eyes were finally opened to the monstrous reality of what he was about to do. Likewise, after years of trying to keep pace with all the economic demands on us, John and I found ourselves exhausted and demoralized. We finally realized that whether we played by the rules or not, we would never get ahead. As Holly Sklar says, the American Dream is really working in reverse, trapping middle class families in a vicious cycle from which they are unable to escape. So instead of pursuing three incomes, we’ve decided to limit our work load. Family and friends sometimes criticize us for this choice and we still feel the economic pressure, but we are now thoroughly convinced that if we gave into the demands of those false gods the quality of our life would actually be diminished. We’d rather have time to garden, and to take walks in the evenings. Instead of eating fast food or frozen dinners every night, we’d rather invest our time and resources in relationships, entertaining friends and family. Instead of day care, we plan to schedule play dates, in which parents and not just children can network with each other. It will certainly be challenging, and our credit score may suffer a bit, but already we’ve noticed an important difference as the focus of our family has shifted: we’ve broken out of the isolated struggle to survive that so many families experience and find ourselves surrounded by a loosely knit community of friends. This feels like a much healthier environment in which to raise our children.
Likewise, its no accident that its only after refusing to sacrifice Isaac that Abraham is finally able to receive the blessing - the inheritance - that God had been promising him all along. (Paul Nuechterlein). It wasn’t enough for Abraham to leave the land he had known. Just as all our strategies to get ahead financially or even our attempts to simplify our lives will prove futile, until we like Abraham free our minds, so that instead of listening to the gods which demand sacrifice, we can hear the generous and compassionate voice which promises abundant life and prosperity for all god’s children.
John and I can say that we’ve experienced more of the simple pleasures of life in the last year than in the previous years of our marriage. We’re getting better at seeing through the false promises and focusing on what really matters. We don’t feel as defeated by the economic system as we used to, because we’ve learned from experience that it just can’t deliver all the goods. In the process we hope to discover the positive ways in which God truly blesses us and our children. - Sue Wright