The Easiest Mistake to Make
Text: Genesis 21:10a: “So she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this slave woman with her son...'”
Nothing could be so timely as the Lectionary’s choice of readings from the Hebrew scriptures today. I generally and strenuously avoid preaching to the headlines, but this is a case in which the readings speak almost directly to the case, and more broadly to what seems perhaps the most intractable, most tragic conflict between human communities we face in our day.
The reading from Genesis takes us back to a point of contact between all three of the great Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In some ways this is the last point of contact between these three traditions, the last common story we have to share before our stories begin to diverge on their separate paths through history.
The inheritance we all have from this story is the legendary explanation of a division between peoples who have been in relationship with the same God throughout history. We have to suspend some of our modern-day scruples to enter the world of this story fully. Abraham is the patriarch. He has a wife. They cannot have children. In their world, and in their particular relationship with God, that is a catastrophe.
The faithful wife suggests that Abraham have a child with a woman of their household who is, for lack of a better term, a slave. The child is conceived and brought forth. That child is Ishmael.
Sarah, the faithful wife, still longs to have her own child. God is faithful to the promise, and now a child is conceived between Abraham and Sarah. That child is brought forth and is called Isaac.
Probably you know how this story has been differently treated by the three Abrahamic traditions. In Judaism, and in Christianity, it is an episode within the long arc of the covenant story; of God’s keeping faithful to the promise made with Abraham. It is a story of the promise of a great nation for Abraham being kept through the appearance, very late in the game, of this one precious son with his wife.
And in Islam, it is the same story seen very differently. In Islamic tradition the focus falls on Ishmael, the one who is named “God hears” because God hears the child’s cry of thirst in the desert and sustains him with water. Ishmael becomes the ancestor linking Abraham to the Prophet Muhammad and thus to the whole of Islam’s founding.
The tragedy of this little story is perhaps clearer to us than it has been to Christians of any other era. Just a quick reminder of what is happening in the world around us at the moment. Both Iraq and Syria are sinking into the abyss of civil war, where people are people are killing neighbors and friends because of a way of defining communities in terms of religious difference. Those conflicts are part of a much larger and longer conflict between two branches of the Abrahamic family tree, Islam and Judaism.
Meanwhile in North Nigeria, a militant group of is attacking Christian schools and churches to take a stand against the spread of Westernized education. In the Central African Republic, Christian militias have been targeting Islamic communities in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. And not too many days ago American soldiers entered Libya to arrest a man named Ahmed Abu Khattala, whom we think bears responsibility for planning the attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi in which four Americans died.
Mr. abu Khattala has between quoted as saying that it is the destiny, if not the purpose, for religions to cause conflict and war. “That is the nature of religions,” he told an interviewer.
Whether you think the Bible is a verbatim transcript of ancient history or a set of stories and symbols our ancestors used to explain and explore human nature, it is not hard to perceive in this morning’s reading from Genesis the root of all this sorrow and bloodshed.
The story is often reduced to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar, to the injustice of Sarah’s anger at the situation that she had no small role in creating.
But there is something even deeper than that at work here, I think, something that applies just as well to us, even if we look back on this ancient story involving polygamy and slavery and think of it as something very separate from us.
The root of the injustice in this story is the most common of all human mistakes. It is to attribute to another human being an intention, an agenda, a set of objectives, in ways that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with us.
In our scientific age we have different language for this. The cognitive scientists call this a fundamental attribution error. It is the error of attributing to another human being a motivation, or a character trait, based on the meaning we make of an observed behavior.
It’s believing that we know something about what someone else wants, or who they are, or what they believe, or what sort of person they are, based simply on something we observe.
There is a reason—a good reason—why we make this bad error. It’s because one of the things that pretty much all of us do is imagine how another person thinks. The technical phrase for this is that we have a theory of mind. We know that we think; we can consider our own thoughts; and so we automatically assume, without really thinking too much about it, that other people around us think, too.
That much is true, and in fact experiencing the world this way is crucial to what it means to be social animals—and we are.
But the mistake comes when we conclude that we know someone else’s mind based on what we observe. The mistake comes when we convince ourselves on tiny scraps of evidence about someone else’s motivations, or character, or intentions. That is the easiest mistake to make.
Sarah in this story is a person with power and status. In a story about a woman in her house who is a servant, Sarah is the one being served. She might see this other person through the lens of that critical differential; she might see Hagar, and Ishmael, and understand that their circumstances are vulnerable, and in many ways dependent on Sarah herself.
To see the story in that way would be to see this other person from the perspective of Sarah’s own abundance, her own relative safety, her own ability to be helpful.
But instead Sarah attributes to Hagar an intent that is threatening. She observes the boys playing together and is seized with fear that something she feels should belong only to her and to her son—the particular relationship between Abraham and God, or maybe even the possessions of this world that Abraham has gathered, his willingness to settle his whole estate on Sarah’s child only—all of that she feels is threatened.
She ascribes this intent to Hagar, and determines on a course of action based on fear rather than a course of action based on possibility. And all of this comes as the result of the simplest, most common, most pervasive error of all—the error we make in imagining for ourselves the reasons for other people’s actions and motivations.
Some of the most important thinkers of our time have explored this basic human weakness and seen in it the relationship between the values we articulate and the conflicts we fall into—or, to say it in other words, the relationship between religion and violence. Rene Girard’s important book Violence and the Sacred has been for me the most powerful expression of this idea.
But at least we have to look out on the landscape of our own day and see both the purposes for which God gives us the gift of faith, and the dangers to which religious belief can be put. Mr. abu Khattala may articulate what many people, religious and otherwise, believe about religion—that it causes the conflicts we see. But he is not just wrong about that; he is substituting the symptom for the disease.
The gift of faith we receive from God is exactly the gift of being made aware of how faulty, how frail, how fragile we are. It is the gift of being made to see how easy it is for us to fall into error and misapprehension. Religion does not cause our errors; religion reveals our errors to be deeply written in our nature. Religion, the story of humanity given to us in the tradition of our faith, holds us up against our own systematic and social shortcomings, and makes abundantly plain the need for us to realize our constant temptation to hubris and self-worship.
The gift God offers us is not to save us from our errors by changing us, but to save us from ourselves by making us aware of our frailty—and at least by helping us to see that the space inside us that separates our best hopes for ourselves from our humble and halting reality can only filled, in the end, by the transforming and redeeming love God gives us. Amen.