Divine Alternatives

Wilfred Owen was a British poet, born of Welsh descent in the late nineteenth century. He was best known in his young life for his poems about World War I.

He wrote most of his more than 80 poems in just slightly over one year, from August 1917 to September 1918, while on the front lines of that war. In November of that year he was killed in action in Northern France at the age of 25, just one week before the Armistice.

Owen experimented with a variety of images to convey the horrors of war, especially what transpired in the trenches of the First World War—let’s not forget that by the end of 1914, just five months into that war, more than four million men had already been killed or wounded in those trenches.

In one of his attempts to write about that war Owen turned to the harrowing story from Genesis about Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son (Gen. 22:1-14). Here is what Wilfred Owen wrote:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

To our horror, the poem’s ending differs from the biblical story; Isaac is not spared—the offspring of Europe are not spared.

Perhaps more horrifying still, and just like the biblical version, there was a way out. God provided an alternative path—as Owen described it, to sacrifice their pride—and that path was not taken.

Owen shocks his readers with the violent ending hoping they would be equally horrified by their own actions—or inaction concerning war. He was convinced that war subverts everything we hold dear as human beings: goodness, justice, empathy, and compassion. Owen subverts the ending of the biblical story to make his point about what war itself subverts and destroys.

The iconic story from Genesis appears repeatedly in Christian history. Most of the theologians writing in the first five centuries of Christian traditions, for example, chose to read this story from Genesis symbolically. Abraham and Isaac arrived to the place of sacrifice on the “third day”; this represents the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Or it refers to the day of resurrection after Christ has been sacrificed on the wood of the cross—the very wood Isaac himself carries, who is himself a symbol of Jesus, who carried his own cross to his death…and so on.

While I whole-heartedly endorse symbolic language in our faith traditions, I also worry sometimes that symbols themselves divert us from the actual story right in front of us.

Abraham was poised to kill his dear son, the one he thought would never be born, and the one through whom God had promised to bless the world—Abraham nearly killed him, but he did not, and God prevented it.

“Binding of Isaac,” Abel Pann

Right there is the key to this story, especially when we keep its ancient Mediterranean context in view. In many of those societies, child sacrifice was not uncommon as a way to secure the favor of the gods—whether for a good harvest, victory over enemies, or prosperity for your extended family.

This story, foundational to Israelite history, suggests that Israel’s God is not like all the others. Israel’s God wants violence to end, and provides an alternative.  

That’s exactly why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up, Jehovah jireh! That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story—the Lord will provide.

Notice the significance of that confidence in this story: even when your course of action seems wise, or prudent, even socially expected, perhaps the only one imaginable, God will nonetheless provide an alternative—and in this case, it saves Isaac’s life.

This story of Abraham embracing God’s alternative still matters, perhaps now more than ever, especially given Wilfred Owen’s brilliant and deeply troubling insight about the human condition: even when we believe God will provide—even when we see the alternative with our own eyes—we won’t take it; inevitably, we choose our own path, even when it’s violent.

Inevitably? Really? Oh, I really want to reject that, which is what worries nearly everyone who reads Owen’s poem. He doesn’t question whether God provides; he wonders whether we will ever take what God provides! Today that quandary applies no less compellingly or urgently in the war we are currently waging against the ecosystems that give us life.

Embedded in a resource-extracting, profiteering, consumerist economy of relentless commodification, Jehovah jireh! God provides a way out—why aren’t we taking it?

Factory farming is simply today’s default standard for our food supply—the daily, hourly torture of thousands of sentient, living beings—Jehovah jireh! God provides alternatives; why aren’t we embracing them?

Meanwhile, the world runs on the burning of fossil fuels—Jehovah jireh! God provides a host of alternatives; but we aren’t adopting them, even while we choke on the smoke of our own fires.

Yes, I know all those instances of “we” are problematic. So whom do I mean?

I mean “we” as individuals, and also “we” as members of Christian churches, and also we the citizens of the United States of America, and yes, We the People—not we the corporations, not we the CEOs, not we the political action committees, not we the lobbyists, but we the people, who once upon a time declared our independence from an empire for the sake, we said, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We European Americans declared that independence nearly 250 years ago, and as members of the Body of Christ today, we have something to say about that agenda: the life must be for all beings on this planet and not just some, and that liberty must include every demographic category we can possibly ever imagine, and happiness should never come at the cost of anyone else’s wellbeing—true delight is shared, not owned.

Perhaps as we celebrate Independence Day this week, we might notice that God provided an alternative to the way things had always been done back in the eighteenth century. Some courageous souls stepped up and followed it.

It’s time we stepped up again, especially as the Body of Christ in a world that is unraveling and in pain.

The way we have done things in the past will not serve us in the future, nor even now.

The God who provided an alternative to the sacrifice of Isaac continues to provide alternatives today, and also the courage and companions we need to follow those alternatives.

This week invites the perfect occasion for giving thanks for such a generous God—Jehovah jireh!—and then, for the love of everything good, and true, and beautiful, to live like we believe it.

“Abraham and Isaac,” Alissa Kim Tjen

A Holy Week of Canine Quotidian Care

judah_profile_032818I have been spending this Holy Week attending carefully to my Australian Shepherd dog Judah. After a “hot spot” appeared on his right cheek last week, the vet shaved a small portion of that cheek, put him on a course of antibiotics, and told me to “make sure he doesn’t scratch it.”

How in the world would I do that? Explaining this to Judah was out of the question. So I have been keeping watch, with a constant vigilance.

Thankfully, he is healing nicely, but I wondered whether this meticulous care would distract me from my Holy Week observance. I tend to think in grand arcs with epic stories and indulge in some thick theological reflection, often with a healthy dose of metaphysics tossed into the mix. Caring for a single creature, no matter how beloved, seemed rather beside the point of this most holy week of truly epic tales. But I now see my canine care as woven into the very point.

Caring for just this one creature in the midst of so many other concerns brought the death of Jesus to mind in a particular way. After all, his death on a cross was just one among many thousands of such executions carried out by the Roman Empire. Why should this particular one matter? There are, clearly, all those thick theological reasons I could offer in response. But the question occurred to me quite differently as I gazed on Judah: why care so terribly much about one among so many others?

Joseph of Arimathea came to mind, who cared tenderly for the dead body of Jesus, ensuring a proper burial—a tenderness not without social and political risk. I’m thinking, too, of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (as Mark’s gospel account named them), the ones who cared about proper burial spices for this one among so many.

Judah has, in other words, brought to mind the singularity of care. I mean the intensity of focused attention, but also the care devoted singularly, to just one. Why does this matter? Should it?


As he often does, Judah also reminded me this week of our ecological crisis currently wreaking havoc among so many species—so many individuals. Just as we now face an unprecedented moment of human migration, with more of us on the move than ever before, many of the other animals with whom we share this planet are also on the move, joining a growing number of climate refugees; indeed, half of all species on the planet are moving and shifting because of climate change, and with consequences far beyond what we can now predict or even imagine. Theologian Christopher Southgate has urged us to think of this present era as the “new days of Noah” and how God might be calling us to assist some of those creatures in their migration to safety—perhaps we can save enough for a species to survive.

In the midst of all this, can it possibly matter to care so singularly about just one?

Yes, it can. Caring for Judah over the last five days, I have noticed a remarkable focus in my attention and energy, which is usually and otherwise scattered throughout the flotsam of multitasking responsibilities. Such singular focus is itself notable in a world of constant distractions.

More than this, the kind of focus matters, too. I have been concentrating my attention on a body, on flesh, and quite particularly a patch of flesh about the size of a nickel. As John insisted in his account of the Gospel, the Divine Word became flesh. As noted eco-theologian Andrew Linzey has argued, the suffering of Christ is a divine solidarity with the suffering of all animals, of all flesh.

Caring so narrowly for just a slice of an ecosystem, or so particularly for just a single individual can indeed seem pointless in the face of global urgencies. And still, such focused, quotidian care matters for a whole wide world of peril. It matters first, perhaps, for our own character. We will not save that which we do not love, as the old aphorism has it. Practicing the love for an individual creature instills and nurtures a habit of loving much more widely. If we can become creatures who love, we will become creatures who can save, protect, and nurture.

More than all this, a species is not just a conglomerate of generic flesh. We know this (or perhaps try to remember this) about ourselves, about Homo sapiens, but rarely about other animals: a species consists of distinct individuals, each and every one miraculously and remarkably individual. I have learned this from the beloved dogs who have shared their lives with me over the years. Not one of them has been exactly like the others. It matters to care for just this one because there is no other just like this singular one.


The implications cascading from this Holy Week spent with Judah are far too many to enumerate here. Not surprisingly, they tempt me to travel once again along those familiar grand arcs into thick theological reflection. That still matters, too, if we can start thinking and acting differently, for example, about the horrors of factory farming (in which, as Matthew Scully notes, we treat living beings like crops), as well as the distressing analog to this in the mass incarceration of African American men in our prison system. Each one — on the farm, in prison, migrating — each one is a unique, irreplaceable creature of God.

I’m taking all of this with me into Holy Saturday, when a singular creature of God is laid to rest in a tomb. When the stone is rolled away, that singular moment of God’s unimaginable Yes to life extends beyond that singular one to all of us, and indeed to every creature, as the apocalyptic writer John would have us believe. There, in that text, John sees a vision all creatures of Earth (all animals, insects, and fish, as Denis Edwards urges us to imagine) united in a single song of praise to the Lamb, the symbol of the crucified and risen Christ:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13-14)

I’m musing on just that as I sit here just now with Judah to make sure he doesn’t scratch his cheek. This focused attention matters for him. It matters for me, too. And I pray it will matter in new ways for the whole glorious breadth and astonishing depth of God’s beloved creation.


I Care About the Chickens

I really don’t care what some misinformed Christian fundamentalist owner of a fast-food chain thinks about my sex life. I don’t even care how much money he gives to stupid political causes. It’s a free country – he can do what he wants with his money.

It’s high time we talked about the chickens instead.

We’re in a deep food crisis in this country and in many other parts of the world as well. We have been for a long time now. The crisis is about the environment, about human health, and about the humane treatment of non-human animals. The crisis, in short, is caused and perpetuated by industrial agriculture, or what one commentator has called our “catastrophic food production system.”

If we started boycotting all fast-food chain restaurants to protest factory farming, I’d be ready to sign up. But just because some corporate hack doesn’t approve of my dating practices? I have better things on which to spend my outrage.

(A Facebook friend pointed out just recently that Chipotle’s adopted a policy concerning the humane treatment of the animals used for their restaurants. Go here for a great little film about it and also more on the horrors of factory farming.)

Over the last few years I’ve come to a greater understanding of how appalling contemporary food production has become. My awakening began by reading, back in the 1990s, Carol Adam’s provocative book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (her links between misogyny and meat packaging are persuasive, as is her hypothesis about how we manage to avoid the moral implications of our eating by distancing ourselves from the sources of our food).

More recently, Michael Pollan’s eye-opening books, The Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, are simply must reads, not to mention Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the documentary film of the same name.

It’s time to be much more outraged over industrial farming practices than over the religious beliefs of someone who couldn’t manage to come up with anything better than “Chick-fil-A” as a name for a restaurant (how many kids now think that’s how they should spell “fillet”?). While I’m grateful to the handful of mayors and other politicians taking a stand against S. Truett Cathy’s religious-based bigotry, I’d much prefer to see them and many more take a stand against the factory farms that litter our rural spaces with cruelty and environmental havoc.

I believe outrage over our food crisis can help fuel our work toward what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God.” Let’s call it the “Kin-dom.” That’s not my moniker; it’s been around a while, and came mostly from feminist critiques of patriarchal Christianity. And I like it, not least because it evokes and suggests not only that kinship is a key characteristic of human relationships but also of the relationship between humans and non-human animals.

Kinship – how much are we willing to stake on that? Are all of us humans really in the same boat on this planet? Is that ark big enough for non-human animals? It seemed to be for Noah.

I don’t claim any moral superiority on this topic at all. I’m a meat eater, so any vegetarian credibility is out the window, let alone any vegan points.

That said, I have read a lot over the last ten years or so about dogs (I’m a huge dog lover) and about horses, dolphins, and a smattering of other animals. All of it has been astounding and in some cases life-changing. Non-human animals share far more with us than most of us have ever imagined. And what we don’t have in common is equally astonishing and more than worthy of our respect.

The life-changer came when I realized just how much intelligence and emotional awareness we share in common with the animals we eat. Salmon? Not much. Pigs? Quite a lot. Cows? Somewhere in between. In all cases, however, these animals feel pain, experience fear and terror, and hundreds of thousands of them never see the light of day or are able even to turn around in their crates and pens.

Among the many topics our food crisis provokes, we need to consider nutrition and obesity rates as well as affordable food for families in tough economic times. Are grass-fed, free-range cattle more expensive once they get packaged in a grocery store than their factory-farmed counterparts? Yes, but not by much.

These days, when I stoop over the meat counter at Safeway and compare the Foster’s Farms chicken breasts (likely artificially fattened at the cost of serious discomfort for the chicken) with the Full Circle chicken breasts (humanely raised) I literally cannot stomach the former for the sake of $1.25.

Back in the 1990s, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony declared, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.” And Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once noted that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

What sits inside that little white bag from Chick-fil-A is cause for far more worry and outrage than the misguided piety of the man who makes money from it.