A reflection by USPG Theological Adviser Evie Vernon…
Religious societies tend to put a high premium on obedience. It makes for a tidy, stable and well-organised community.
It usually works like this: there is a structured hierarchy, usually male, which derives its authority from the Divine; we then offer unquestioned obedience to the patriarch/father/national leader, who is unquestioningly obedient to the deity – so our obedience to this leader is equivalent to our direct obedience to the deity.
For me, this whole notion of unquestioning obedience is dangerously misguided.
People in authority are merely human. They do not speak with the voice of God. They get things wrong, sometimes very wrong indeed.
The religious and political authorities in Jesus’ time could not comprehend that a simple Galilean, from outside the power structures was the one speaking with the voice of God. So they ordered him to be executed, and the crowds who had loved him thought the authorities might have had a point.
Every human being is created in God’s image. This comes with the responsibility of distinguishing between good and evil, and rejecting evil no matter who commands us that it is actually good.
The So-called ‘Nuremberg defence’ – ‘I was only following orders’ – was not considered a sufficient defence for the Nazi officers accused of carrying out atrocities in the Second World War. It is not a sufficient defence for people of faith.
In Genesis 22, the patriarch, Abraham attempts to carry out the most heinous of acts. He prepares to cut the throat of an innocent child, his own son, in the name of God.
In the story, he is prevented from doing so only by the intervention of an angel, who provides a ram as a substitute sacrifice.
The spin usually put on this story is that God was testing Abraham’s obedience, while Abraham believed that God would prevent him from doing anything really evil.
Others have chosen to do evil things in God’s name, doubtless confident that God can always intervene to save the innocent. So when there is no miraculous intervention, they feel their actions are justified.
But what if the general spin on this story is entirely wrong? What if the test were not about unquestioned obedience, but about morality? What if Abraham should have said: ‘No God. This order could not have come from you. Only a monster would order me to kill an innocent child. If you are a monster, I cannot serve you, so, no! And if you are not a monster, you do not desire this, so no again!’
We cannot do evil in God’s name. Ever. If we hear a voice, internal or external, calling us to commit heinous acts, then we must disobey in God’s name.