THE GREATEST INSPIRATION CAN BEGIN IN THE PARTICULAR. I was reminded of this while reading Pamela Haines’ article “Faith and Economics” in the May issue of Friends Journal, the magazine of contemporary Quaker thought. Haines describes how she pursued a goal that initially seemed beyond her – starting a conversation among Friends to challenge the way the economy works in our society – by breaking it down into human-sized actions.
While the essay's focus is her process of organizing an interest group on the subject at Friends General Conference’s annual “Gathering” last year, she communicates a larger idea relevant to this era in which so much seems to be askew: that we have the right to speak the truth as we seek it. We have the right to take a seat at the table; to say, as Haines does, that there is more to life than “the idolatry of materialism,” that “unbridled growth comes at the expense of the planet’s integrity,” and that “we can do better.”
Early in life, Haines writes, she learned that “I had the right to think, to question the standard way of doing things, and to act.”
Reading the Old Testament this spring for a class at Earlham School of Religion , I’ve been impressed at just how grounded that right to question and call to mercy and justice is in Judeo-Christian tradition. In challenging the world – be it to help people suffering in this economy; to prevent environmental catastrophes like massive BP oil spill now spreading through the Gulf of Mexico (BP photo of the leak below); to end military aggression; or to create a more compassionate workplace – we live out an idea that goes back thousands of years. We become what one writer calls "present-day Abrahams" bearing witness to "the scandal of the particular."
I think I first heard the story in Genesis 18:22-33 of Abraham persuading God to spare the city of Sodom if 10 righteous people can be found. Studying it again, as an adult, I’ve been amazed at Abraham's feat. It’s not only just Abraham "talks God down,” as a friend, recalled the other day, smiling at the memory of his Hebrew school lesson.
It’s how Abraham does it – asking whether God really wishes to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked”; appealing to God’s sense of justice (“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”); acknowledging his secondary status in this negotiation (“I who am but dust and ashes”); admitting he’s pushing things (“Do not let the Lord be angry if I speak”; “Do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more”); and negotiating God down in increments, resting his case first on finding 50 righteous people, then persuading God to accept 45 (“Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?”), then 40, 30, and 20, before resting at 10. To which God says, essentially, all right.
Some scholars don’t seem to know what to make
of this. Is Abraham (depicted below in an earlier encounter with God by the artist Raphael) being shrewd or foolhardy? Compassionate or heretical?
But the passage -- though less famous than other wranglings with the Divine, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Job arguing with God, and Moses' intervention for the Israelites -- has inspired passion that belies that "theoretical" conclusion. It has been drawn on in calls against war, poverty, and degradation of the environment. “This story boldly states that what we do does matter,” writes a minister on the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota’s website on environmental stewardship.
Word-Sunday.com, the Catholic lectionary website, holds it up as a model for prayer: Abraham is “clear,” “logical,” and “persistent,” pleading, essentially, “If you are the God of the just, then act with justice… Be faithful to those who are faithful; be merciful to those who treat others with mercy.”
Most striking to me is Nora Gallagher's essay on the website Journey with Jesus (fast becoming a favorite for its interweaving of theology and world events). Within the back-and-forth of Abraham and God, Gallagher says, is “a wonderful theological idea: the scandal of the particular.” God, who “‘hung the stars’ and created ‘that great leviathan just for the sport of it’” can be concerned with the particular, a tiny group of 10 persons in the vastness of humanity and creation. The "small" is imbued with Divine importance. Archbishop Tutu of South Africa makes a similar point in a recent interview on "Speaking of Faith," saying that everyone, regardless of our station, is a "God carrier."
To Gallagher, this insight is more than a small-is-beautiful-type sentiment. It speaks truth. Individual human experience binds us in a special way. It's attested every day in the media in the photos of individuals; in the ability of stories to inspire, anger, sadden in a way that statistics or statements about aggregates like "nation" cannot. Gallagher quotes the philosopher Hannah Arendt: “I don’t love ‘groups.’ I can only love persons.”
This interdependence calls us to speak up and be
“present-day Abrahams,” says Gallagher. She cites the example of 150
scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project who petitioned President
Truman to not drop the bomb on
For more on Friends Journal, a magazine that I am a major fan of (and, full disclosure!, a member of the board of trustees of), please visit Friends Journal.
To read Nora Gallagher’s essay at the website Journey with Jesus, please click on"The Scandal of the Particular".
To read “Reflection on Genesis 18:20-33,” by the Rev. Wanda Copeland, in the lectionary of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota’s Environmental Stewardship Commission, please click on Reflection on Genesis 18:20-33.
To read Larry Broding's essay on what Abraham teaches us about prayer on the Catholic lectionary resource Word-Sunday.com, please click on Negotiating with God.