There is much ado being passed around social media, critiquing the character of Donald Trump and bemoaning the mystifying amount of support he is receiving, particularly among Christians. Much emphasis has been given to the least likable aspects of his character, statements, and record. Trump has become the measure by which the other candidates are measured, causing them to look better, or worse, relative to him. Many are beginning to evaluate whom they would choose as an alternative to Trump. In the process, I have heard several persons express willingness to compromise on their distaste for another candidate, simply because he or she would be a “lesser evil” than Trump.
Trump, I believe, is not the elephant in the room. Rather, he seems to me to be a mirror, reflecting back to us an image of whom we have become. If we have the opportunity, friends from places outside of the USA can also be a helpful mirror to reflect on whom we have become. I listen to friends from the Middle East, and observe events occurring in their daily life. As I evaluate the reflection that I see, I am drawn again to the narrative of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael.
Ishmael, was the son of one of the wealthiest men on earth, the man chosen by God to be a blessing to the nations. Yet, what blessing was in it for him? According to the Hebrew Scripture, even before Ishmael’s birth, Abraham turns dismissively from Hagar, deserting her to her fate at the hands of Sara. Hagar learns that, although this family has been chosen by God to be a blessing to the world, their household is not a safe place for her. Jealousy rules. Violence and abuse flare, and Abraham is too passive to confront it. Fleeing the abuse, Hagar encounters an angel, who gives her a prophetic word of blessing and commands her to return to Abraham and Sara’s household. The angel pronounces the name for her son, “Ishmael,” which means “God hears.” Why? Because God heard the groaning of Hagar as she cried to Him in desperation.
How telling, that even the name of Ishmael, given by God before his birth, continually reminded others of his rejection at the hand of Abraham. Apart from the intervening hand of God, Ishmael may never have been born, let alone survived. Abraham was reminded of this daily, by Ishmael’s name.
Jump ahead a number of years to when Ishmael is likely an adolescent. God has fulfilled his word to Sara, and she and Abraham conceived a son, Isaac. On the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham prepared a huge feast. Sara declared that the feast was a feast of joy. She invited all to join in her immense joy, since she, who was barren, has miraculously borne a son! This was an awesome act of God, and demanded an extraordinary celebration. A celebration, it turns out, that is for everyone but Ishmael and Hagar.
Sara saw Ishmael do something that reminded her of the threat, which she perceived that Ishmael was to Isaac. The Hebrew text is not singularly clear whether the intent of Ishmael was hostile or not. Ishmael was, after all, an adolescent brother. It is easy to imagine there may have been a bit of jealousy there. At any rate, Sara was reminded that Isaac would not receive the full amount of possessions and blessing, if Ishmael, the first born, were to share in them. He was a threat! “He must go, along with his mother!” she told Abraham.
At first Abraham resisted Sara’s demand. But God assured Abraham that he should listen to Sara. He promised that he will make Ishmael great as well. So, send Hagar and Ishmael away, he must. Now Abraham had choices as to how to enact his decision. How might we expect Abraham to send off Ishmael and Hagar, his mother? There is precedent here. . . .
In Genesis chapter 12, we read that Lot traveled with Abraham and the two men gained many possessions. So many possessions, in fact, that we read in Genesis chapter 13, that each man’s possessions had grown so great that the two could no longer remain side by side. Presumably the natural resources were taxed too heavily by the many animals and food demands. Moreover, the narrative also notes the conflict that arose between the servants and workers of the two men, also adding to the need to remove themselves further from each other.
How did Abraham respond to Lot? He presented the entire land and gave Lot his choice. He placed the needs of his nephew on the same plane or higher than his own desires. Later, when he heard that Lot and his family have been taken by marauding kings, he pursued the kings, doing battle to rescue and return Lot and his family and possessions. Hopefully he will respond in similar manner to Hagar and his son.
But, alas! Abraham, likely one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time, sent his own son and his mother into the desert, with only a small pack of food to carry with them. Why?! One can only assume that the intent was to protect the accumulated possessions that were meant for Isaac. The sense of abandonment and rejection is unfathomable! In the setting of the great feast, marked by joy and abundance, Ishmael was sent off with nothing, except what he and his mother could carry on their backs.
I imagine Ishmael, pausing to look back, before crossing the last rise. Setting his eyes one last time on the only home he knew. The smell of barbecue still lingering on his clothes; The faint sounds of music and joyous dancing yet barely audible to his ears; The sight of his father’s hired men and servants tending large flocks of sheep, goats, camels, and cattle; Then silently, he and his mother turned, faced the wasteland before them, and with tears and fears resolutely began the journey, with one small sack of food and water. Ishmael nearly died, before God sent an angel to rescue them. Years later, while Abraham sent a servant on a long journey, armed with great wealth, to procure a bride for Isaac, Ishmael’s mother found a wife for him in Egypt. Amazingly, scripture records that, years later, Ishmael returned to help Isaac bury Abraham. I believe this act, modeling forgiveness, speaks positively of the character of Ishmael.
The persecution that some of our forefathers faced continues to dwell with us, to a certain degree. To varying degrees, it forms the communal faith identity of some groups. In a similar manner, I believe that this sense of humiliating rejection and abandonment, of the one they claim as their forefather, is still recognized in the Islamic identity today. The Hadith and Islamic traditions speak of it. In Islamic tradition, Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca. It is there that he leaves them. When Hagar asks who will provide for them, Abraham assures her that he is leaving them in the hand of God. Hagar stated that she is certain God will take care of them. After Abraham has left, Ishmael became desperately thirsty. Hagar frantically ran back and forth between two nearby hills, seven times, searching desperately for water. God answered her cries and provided water for the boy. To this day, Muslims reenact her desperate search, when they perform the Hajj to Mecca. They also throw stones at a rock, which symbolizes the devil, who was attempting to kill the boy. Yet, the feast,Eid Al Adha, commemorates the great sacrifice that God gave on behalf of Ishmael, to save him from death.
So, today I picture myself on that symbolic rise, with my Muslim friends, gazing at the party. Or with immigrants and refugees, for that matter. Will we be invited to join? Will we be recognized as individuals, created in the image of God, as well? Will assistance come the way of those with need, from the great wealth of this nation? Will a hand be extended in friendship, or will it be wielded as a weapon to harm us? America is seen by many as the party of the world–in the process, consuming far above it’s proportionate share of the world’s resources.
What do I see, when I gaze back at America, through the perspective of others, who share our globe? What do eager ears hear? It seems the loudest voices are the self-protective voices of Christian leaders, political leaders, and others crying, “Halt! You are not welcome here!” Fear abounds. Talk of banning all Muslims, of deporting all undocumented workers, Militaristic threats, and proliferation of soldiers and weapons disseminate around the world. In numerous ways, it seems that our global neighbors are experiencing rejection and humiliation similar to the Ishmael and Hagar narrative, once more.
For example, the debate between Rubio and Trump, regarding Israel and the Middle East this past weekend, was sobering. Do Americans really believe the misleading characterizations that were painted? In apparent hatred, or perhaps ignorance, an entire people, the Palestinians, were painted with hate and violence, with one dismissive stroke of the brush? I am left to ask, “are my Muslim and Israeli friends just pawns in the game of seeing who could get Sheldon Adelson to unloose his purse strings first?”
I suppose it is fair for our global neighbors on this planet to ask, “Isn’t Jesus the Messiah supposed to be at this party? Isn’t he the bearer of Good News? Didn’t He talk of opening one’s life to others? Of loving those who seek to harm you? I have a hard time finding him.”
I think he is watching on, weeping. Although I may not have a loud voice, I wish to offer, with the voice I have, the message of respect, love, peace, and hope.