The subtitle for my sermon today, if I had one, would probably need to be “Disposable People.” Now, I thought I came with that designation, but as I did some research I found out it wasn’t my phrase after all. Turns out that Kevin Bales has a hot off the press book about the subject titled, of all things, Disposable People. He is dealing specifically with the enslaved and only the enslaved. My concerns are broader, but the phrase is his. Before we leave him for the moment, let’s hear a word from him on our topic for the day.
Slavery is illegal throughout the world, yet more than twenty-seven million people are still trapped in one of history’s oldest social institutions. Kevin Bales’s disturbing story of slavery today reaches from brick kilns in Pakistan and brothels in Thailand to the offices of multinational corporations. His investigation of conditions in Mauritania, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan, and India reveals the tragic emergence of a “new slavery,” one intricately linked to the global economy. The new slaves are not a long-term investment as was true with older forms of slavery, explains Bales. Instead, they are cheap, require little care, and are disposable.
Back to us. What do we do with those who have been a part of our lives that we no longer want to have in our lives? I can think of at least six primary possibilities.
One, we could simply ask them to leave. Now, if they do not want to leave, being comfortable with the situation and surroundings where they have been living with us, they may refuse to leave. This was a serious problem on one of my favorite television shows that is no longer running, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The main character and his wife separated, and after a bit he took up with another lovely young lady. Soon, she moved into his home, and in a short time she brought a house full of her family members to live with her in the large home of her new man. The last season of the show centered around his frustrated efforts to try to get rid of everybody except the woman in whom he was interested. Claiming some kind of squatters’ rights, the person or persons we want out of our homes manages to thwart our efforts to have them removed, and so they stay put. Any humor in the mess, if any in the real world, quickly dissipates.
A second way of getting rid of people that we don’t want to have to deal with anymore is to force them to leave or have them forcibly removed from our home. I remember when one of Liberace’s boy toys was no longer welcome at the Liberace mansion, and the talented Liberace forced him out. It wasn’t long afterwards that I first heard the word “palimony.” The young man, maybe his name was Scot Thorson or something like that, who was forced to leave what had been his residence for a number of years sued Liberace for palimony, which was to cover the expenses of having lived with Liberace and presumably been at Lee’s beckon call 24/7.
Sometimes in a divorce settlements one party is forced to leave the house for which she or he has made most of the payments so that the other person may have control over the house entirely as a part of living post-divorce. The person forced to leave is the one who made possible having the house for both of them in the first place. Something seems very wrong about that to me.
A sub-option to this possibility of getting rid of somebody by forcing her or him out of your life and/or your home would be to give away the person or abandon the person if she or he has no ability to find a way back home. Unsuspecting suburbanites find babies in baskets at their front doors because some parent is no longer willing or able to care for the child; leaving the child in the care of God knows who is a gamble that the kid will have at least a 50/50 chance, maybe, of making it. There are those who deliver their parents to a retirement home of some sort and then disappear forever. When it’s time for more money, the home can’t find the adult child who admitted the mother or father to the care facility; same thing when the parent dies.
People have tried this with pets they thought they could no longer take care of; they didn’t hate the pet enough to do direct harm to it, but they wanted the pet removed from their list of day to day responsibilities. They drive their dog 25 miles away somewhere and leave the dog out in a field or in the woods there. I love the stories when the dog eventually finds her or his way back home and waits on the porch for the owner to come home as if the dog won an oddly twisted game of hide and seek.
A third way of getting rid of someone that you don’t want around anymore, thereby making her or him a disposable person, is to arrange to have the person killed or to do it yourself. One of the standout news stories during my years here in Wilmington, 12+ of them, has been the story of the New Jersey rabbi who had his wife killed by two paid assassins. The murder took place in 1994, but the trials were held shortly after I took up my duties here. The good rabbi is now serving a thirty-year to life term in a prison near Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
It is shocking even to imagine the possibility, and yet that option is a rather frequently chosen one. Children have been known to get rid of their parents this way. Friends have been known to get rid of ex-friends this particular way, and spouses of course have used this option for ages. Parents also have used this means of getting rid of their children, and we have had some nightmarish stories in the news in the last few years proving that this is the case. Several years ago there was a bloodcurdling story about a mother of, I think, three children. She drowned them all three in the bathtub of their home, and when asked why she did it she said that God had told her to do. I believe the mother was insane, but what both frightens and angers me is that she was part of a fundamentalist church that constantly portrayed God as killing humans or commanding humans to kill other humans; somehow the church that preaches that kind of violence has some complicity in what an imbalanced person has rattling around in her or his consciousness to the same degree that manufacturers of children’s games centered on violence have when one of their customers, a kid, acts out in the real world what has been seen on a video screen for more hours than anyone can count. More to come.
A fourth way, by the way I’m not assuming this is a comprehensive list, would be to act so badly and so ridiculously that the person decides that she or he can no longer live with you. The person runs away from you to sanity and tranquillity. Your irrational behavior finally drove the person you wanted to be rid of over the edge. You got rid of your disposable person.
A fifth way to make someone who has been of value into someone who is now disposable is to call on the community in which the person is living to freeze the person out, to turn its collective back on the one who has violated some primary community standard. Many of the Amish send their children out into the big bad world when they are in their late teens; the Amish teens are told to live as wild a life as they wish and then after a year or two to decide if being traditionally Amish is going to be a way of life for them as long as they live. Those kids/young adults who waver or who blatantly say, “No,” are treated from that moment on as dead or nonexistent. Officially, they can no longer visit with their parents and friends, or even talk to them on the one shared phone at the town’s general store or at the home of one of the residents who does business with the outside world often enough so that a phone is required. Community freeze out.
I suppose the dominant way to declare a whole group of people “disposable” is to declare war on them and start killing them systematically. Once this begins, if it hadn’t already, the enemies are all the same. For practical purposes, they look alike, think alike, and share hatred of us. We can get rid of them with our high-priced weapons with no more flinching that hitting a paper target at shooting practice.
You may know from your personal study of Greek mythology or from a course you took somewhere along the way that the King of the second generation of Greek deities, the Olympians, Zeus, the King of that collection of gods and goddesses residing atop Mt. Olympus, was lucky to be around at all since his father, Chronus, had been so jealous of competition that each time his wife, Rhea, presented him with a beautiful new baby, he ate it. Zeus only lasted past the first few hours of god-life because Rhea gave her husband their newest baby in the form of a stone all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and such, and Chronus ate the stone instead of his son. Their relationship was never very chummy, as you can imagine.
A hint of that horrendous practice creeps into our story for today in that after waiting most of his life for the gift of a son, Abraham eventually gets two, and he tries to kill each son, though not by eating. No doubt human sacrifice, including child sacrifice, was a part of ancient Hebrew religious practice.
If you are familiar with the scriptural stories surrounding Abraham, founder of monotheism, you likely know more about his second attempt to kill a son than the first. If you were a Muslim, chances are you’d know more about the first story than the second.
In both stories regarding Abraham’s sons, he is intent to kill one, different ways perhaps and different reasons. We in the Jesus tradition know more about the Isaac story than we know about the Ishmael story. This is because the Jews trace their ancestry back to Abraham through the second son, Isaac; and Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism.
The story of Isaac is fundamentally a delightful story at first, a story about how a couple in their old, old age are able to conceive and have a child together, something that just wouldn’t happen for them in their youth or middle age. When each of them hears from God that they will be conceiving a child any day now–they laughed, Sarah as she waited for her hormone therapy injection and Abraham as he discussed Viagra with his health care professional. Therefore, when little Isaac was born he was given that name meaning “laughter.” Before we know it, the tenor of the story has changed; so has the locale, and suddenly Isaac is bound atop a stack of kindling, his father with a sharp knife in hand eyeing the artery for which he would aim to minimize his son’s pain as he died a sacrifice for no one knew what.
Some scholars say it was nothing more than a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’d really go that far in sacrificing what may have been God’s greatest gift to him. God stops the cruelty before the worst happened, but it’s still not funny; and I think it proves nothing except that Abraham feared disobeying God. He’d sacrifice his son if he thought he could please God.
What about the first story, though. It is equally as confusing, but in it, Abraham tries to take the life of his first-born, Ishmael, whose mother was one of Sarah’s maids and eventually one of Abraham’s concubines who was permitted initially by Sarah to attempt to conceive a son with him and for him. It worked, and even though Sarah had sent her maid, Hagar, to perform this function, she detested the results: a greater closeness between Hagar and Abraham along with Abrahams’s utter delight with his son, Ishmael.
Sarah tried to pay little attention to what was grinding away at her, but when Isaac was born and big brother Ishmael was playing “bug your little brother games,” which I’ve always thought were pretty much universal, Sarah went ballistic. She demands that Abraham get rid of his first-born son and the mother of his first-born son. Sarah didn’t want them around her child, and she didn’t want to have to remember the pain she’d lived through before Isaac had come into their lives.
The most stunning part of the story is not that jealous Sarah wanted to rule the roost again without reminders of previous complications and pain. The absolutely shocking part for me, even if it’s a fictional tale, and I don’t know that it is, is that Abraham would consent. The storyteller said that God told him, Abraham, it was the right thing to do. Pleez! God has been blamed for everything from tsunamis to fratricide to wars to the results of American presidential elections.
The sermon serious is about memorable biblical meals so look at what Abraham had packed up for his former professional sex partner and the son they bore together. He was sending them into the wilderness, and sent them with a really scrawny set of supplies: some water, some bread, and some dates. At most, they could have stayed alive in the wilderness for a few days eating those rations. They weren’t long for this world. Disposable people. God, however, rescued them. Odd huh? Since God had pressed Abraham to send them to where their lives were in danger.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Its dates are moveable. This year Rosh Hashanah will begin at sunset September 16 and end at sundown on September 18. During this part of High Holy Days, the Jews reaffirm God’s sovereignty over creation, and in doing so they blow a ram’s horn, reminiscent of the ram caught in the brush that kept Abraham from having to go all the way with the sacrifice of his son.
During Rosh Hashanah two years ago, Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, preached on the same story on which our sermon for today is based. What follows is what I take to have been the core of his sermon preached mostly to Jewish hearers, and I find it chillingly powerful and on target, truly a message for all of humankind in our time:
This year as every year, we [Jews] recount the juxtaposed stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac in the midst of the most highly charged moments in our sacred calendar. At the heart of the two days on which we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all Creation, and recommit ourselves to be partners in the task of speeding the arrival on earth of God’s kingdom—at that very moment, we tell the stories of two births to Abraham in old age, two threats to life (on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac), two acts of salvation of life, a double fulfillment of divine promise, and the making of a covenant that is marked not only on male children of Israel but on male descendants of Ishmael. Contemporary Jews stand in a long line of ancestors who have pondered this relationship over the centuries. We do so [still] with renewed urgency born of wholly new developments both in Israel and in Diaspora communities.
How shall we address these perplexities? At the very least, I think, Jews should resolve at this High Holiday season to give careful attention in coming months to the vexed relationship that binds us, our land, our faith, our Scripture, our view of history, our position in the world, and our profoundest hope for the future, to Muslims. (This relationship is arguably far more intimate and troubling at this moment than the age-old ties and tensions that connect us to Christians and their faith.) I offer [two] observations….
One: Muslims will not go away, either in Diaspora or in the Land of Israel. Nor should we want them to. I remember when a thoughtful Israeli professor I knew well…said to me about thirty years ago that he wanted Israel to return all of the conquered territories, every square inch, because he wanted nothing to do with Palestinians. Like Sarah in relation to Hagar, he wished them out of his sight. Some thirty years later, it is clear that this cannot be. Muslims will not disappear from Jewish vision or Jewish concern. They will remain an integral part of the State of Israel, and that State must find its place in the Arab world. Whether Muslims are wholly reconciled to that reality or not, they and their faith—used by some to support violent opposition to Israel’s existence, and by others to promote peaceful coexistence—must be seen, heard, and confronted. And not only fought. God heard the cry of Hagar and of Abraham’s son Ishmael. That is what his name, given by God, means. We too should heed Muslim voices.
Two: there is much to be learned about Ishmael and his descendants [as well as] about Isaac and the children of his son, Israel. This is no mere nicety or cliché. Key elements of Jewish tradition stand greatly indebted to Islam, from the grammar on which all reading of Jewish sacred texts depends, to the most profound insights of Jewish mystics and philosophers….I bear a great debt to Islam—and the more I compare notes with Islamic thought and practice, the better I understand Judaism, religious community, sacred space, and more. There is political urgency to Jewish-Muslim conversation. But there is even greater religious benefit to be had from this dialogue. The loss to both sides if we do not undertake it will be immense.
May it be God’s will that Islam and Judaism help to guide one another through our shared perplexities. May the latest chapter in the age-old story of the two communities achieve a peaceful resolution and lead to better times for both of us. May blessing, goodness, and life choose us, and we them, at this precious moment of new beginnings.
You know, my friends, if these two groups can be called on by an undisputed leader who doesn’t carry around concerns for his people’s best interest alone, the rest of us can listen too. A key part of what Professor Eisen preached insisted the Muslims are not disposable people. Stunning. Neither are Jews disposable. Neither is your spouse, your trouble-making kids, or your church, which will less and less in the years ahead fit into any kind of mold. The status quo powerfully convinces many people that they have to be a part of the group most like an historic counterpart, and those who don’t meet the challenge should be swept out of the way.
I had the serious privilege this week of having lunch with Professor Dr. Carol Puhl on her nearly annual visit back to the States to visit friends and take care of business. Carol was already living in South Africa before I arrived, but we became pen pals and eventually friends.
Carol found her way into Silverside when Jack Orr was our pastor. She had left the Roman Catholic Church and the convent. She was warmly welcomed here, to no one’s surprise, but she felt like she was less than she should have been; her former church had a way of making her feel like a disposable person. Silverside wouldn’t stand for it. Eventually, she believed the Silverside folk, and adjusted her self image and her spiritual pathways accordingly.
In time, she met and eventually married Johan. She has been in South Africa for years now. They farm and tend vineyards for wine. She’s still a part time university professor, and he’s a consulting economist.
She had assumed she’d never darken the door of a Catholic Church again, but in her area of South Africa, the Catholic Church is where there’s the greatest post-Apartheid intermixing of Black people and White people. So, Carol’s baggage (my word, not hers) notwithstanding she attends Catholic services to support the interracial blending going on there. Perhaps still a liberal nun at heart–I did not make the accusation while she had a wine glass in hand–but Carol Puhl will not live as if there are disposable people anywhere. May her tribe increase.