The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Wilfred Owen 1893 – 1918
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.
Wilfred Owen was an English poet who served in the British Army during the First World War. In the course of his service, he suffered a concussion from falling into a shell hole and was hit by a trench mortar that knocked him unconscious for several days. He was ultimately killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the armistice ending the war was signed. Throughout the war, Owen wrote poetry that gave voice to the horrors of combat. His poetry stood out because it presented the naked truth of battle, without the varnish of patriotism or heroics.
Since I first was exposed to Owen’s Poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as an college student I have been unable to hear the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac without these words echoing in my soul. Owen succeeds in rendering the Biblical narrative more horrifying by presenting us with the untold possibility. Abraham does not listen to God, does not accept the alternative sacrifice, and instead kills his son.
In recent weeks our political leaders have been occupied in a debate about immigration. There are swirling questions about who to deport, how much to spend on a wall, and what should happen to Dreamers. There are pundits galore offering insights on the politics of it all. While this unfolds, actual human families face the terror of being torn apart. There are actual children wondering what future they will have with their parents. And many who have lived here their whole lives long face the unimaginable possibility of losing the only home they have ever known.
I cannot escape the thought that while these real human lives are under threat, there may be a ram caught in the thicket. That is, there may be something else we could sacrifice, instead of these: God’s children and our neighbors.
Could we perhaps sacrifice instead the idea that America is a nation defined by whiteness?
Could we sacrifice the myth that security and safety can be achieved by sheer force?
Could we sacrifice the idea that this corner of God’s creation belongs to us?
Could we sacrifice fear?
Could we sacrifice pride?
Or do we cherish all this so much that we prefer to sacrifice people instead?