The current President of the United States, who has taken some actions related to religion but who has no recognizably religious commitments at the core of his own life, wanted the world to know about the destinations for his first international trip in office. He was going to the lands where three of the world’s greatest religions offer sanctuary.
In Saudi Arabia, home to Muslims’ Mecca, he bowed to accept the highest award from an Islamic monarch. In Israel, the homeland for all Jews, he covered part of his famous hair and put a prayer in the last relic of the last temple the Jews ever built. In the Vatican, the home to the remains of the Apostle Peter, upon whom Roman Catholics believe Christ has built the Church, he accepted a medallion in the shape of an olive tree from Peter’s successor, who previously questioned his interest in making peace with all persons.
He made little sacrifice to do all this. It was ironic.
While the president was making the rounds in countries with religions that all reach back for their faith to a man called Abraham, the leaders of his administration were in Washington laying out the details of their plans to follow the example of Abraham and sacrifice our children. In a budget proposal released for the next fiscal year, they proposed to set fire to Medicaid funds that provide health care for America’s poorest families, cut a fifth of the funds that support 6 million youngsters in a Children’s Health Insurance Program called CHIP, and remove nearly $22 billion from a program that gives aid to the poorest of the country’s parents and children.
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So, in the same days that the President was celebrating the three great Abrahamic religions by stopping by their sacred spaces, he let his Cabinet announce how he planned to follow the example of Abraham.
The adherents of all three faiths know the stories of the preparations that Abraham made to sacrifice a child. He assembled the necessary materials and had a sharp knife to make the necessary cuts. He was even abetted by the child who was to be the victim of the sacrifice: in the Bible (Genesis 22:6), the child carries fuel for the fire; in the Quran (37:100-107), the child tells the father to do whatever he must. There was no doubt that Abraham was prepared to do what he felt had to be done. There was no doubt that he was prepared to make the cuts that he thought were required in order to achieve some greater goal.
Yet the adherents of all three faiths also know what happened before the proposed plans were accomplished. God interrupted Abraham’s readiness and willingness to make the cuts. The power of God stopped the plan that would have sacrificed a child for some other presumed purpose. It was a fundamental turning point in our religious history as a human community. Followers of what became Judaism, Christianity and Islam would not practice such sacrifices. Believers determined that children and their needs were the values that they would neither sacrifice nor set aside.
Islam, Judaism and Christianity all have core values that emphasize the care of others, hospitality to strangers and ministries to those who are most in need. One of the five pillars of Islam is zakāt, which is charitable giving to those who are poor or needy as well as to those who are travelers or sojourners. One of the fundamental laws of Moses in Judaism is ẓedaḳah, which is justice in the form of care for the needy. One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is demonstrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where a person’s need is what defines the meaning of love for a neighbor.
One can hope that the medallions and mementos of the president’s pilgrimage to places of great importance for Islam, Judaism and Christianity will have a transformative impact on him and his administration.
William B. Lawrence of Chapel Hill is a professor of American church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.