What About the Innocent?

“Far be it from you, Lord, to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked. . . .” Genesis 18:25

The moral philosopher Michael Sandel is one of the more engaging teachers at Harvard, and his course on “justice” consistently ranks as one of the most popular courses for undergraduates. Among his many gifts, Sandel is able to introduce complex moral theories to new students of philosophy through the use of very down-to-earth hypotheticals.

            Here is one example taken from his textbook, which, as we’ll discuss, is quite germane to our Old Testament lesson this morning:

            “Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at sixty miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You try to stop, but you can’t. The brakes don’t work. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die.

            Suddenly, you notice a side track, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing the one worker, but sparing the five.

            What should you do? Most people would say, ‘Turn! Tragic though it is to kill one innocent person, it’s even worse to kill five.’ Sacrificing one life in order to save five does seem the right thing to do

            Now, Sandel asks, consider another version of the trolley story. This time, you are not the driver but an onlooker, standing on a bridge overlooking the track. And this time there is no side track. Down the track comes a trolley, and at the end of the track are five workers. Once again, the brakes don’t work. The trolley is about to crash into the five workers. You feel helpless to avert this disaster – until you notice, standing next to you on the bridge, a very heavy man. You could push him off the bridge, onto the track, into the path of the oncoming trolley, with the assurance that the sheer weight of his body would stop the trolley. He would die, but the five workers would be saved. (You consider jumping onto the track yourself, but realize you are too small to stop the trolley.)

            Would pushing the heavy man off the bridge onto the track be the right thing to do? Most people would say, ‘Of course not. It would be terribly wrong to push the man onto the track.’”

            Yet is there, Sandel asks, a really meaningful philosophical distinction between the two scenarios? If killing one innocent life to save five seems clearly right in the first case, why do we hesitate in the second?

            It is tempting to say that the difference is that we are a direct participant in the first hypothetical, because we are the driver with a responsibility for the safety of everyone in the way of our trolley, and in this situation we are compelled to make a choice one way or the other, one we cannot avoid. Whereas in the second example, we are mere bystanders, outside of the main action of the story, and it is not our job, so to speak, to choose who is to live and who is to die.

            Tempting as this distinction is, it doesn’t quite hold water. For, if we’ve learned anything this summer from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we discussed two Sundays ago, it is that bystanders certainly do have moral obligations to act. Even as onlookers, if we have an opportunity to intervene to save lives, aren’t we obliged to do so? Isn’t this the lesson, for example, of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany, or the civil rights movement in this country, where far too many people just stood by and did nothing?

            There is no neat and tidy philosophical resolution to these hypotheticals. They are designed not so much to provide answers as to lay bare the underlying logic of our moral decision-making. And what they teach us is this:  Justice involves, on one level, a concern for maximizing the good for the greatest number of people. This is why, when disasters loom, our moral instinct is to save as many people as possible and minimize casualties.

On the other hand, as the second example shows, justice is not just a matter of numbers. Even though pushing the heavy man off the bridge would result in saving five people, our conscience insists that there are limits to what we can and should do to promote the greater good:  there seems to be something sacred about life that calls us to respect the dignity of every human being and refrain from doing harm, even when other lives may be affected.

            Our first lesson this morning from Genesis is our Bible’s version of this same philosophical discussion about justice. The setting is this:  God has chosen Abraham to be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to all nations. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, at first have a hard time believing this because at the time they are old, and childless, and without a home, not the best material for building a great nation. And yet, God promises to change all this:  Against all odds, he promises that he will provide Abraham and Sarah with a son, who will be the beginning of this great nation; and likewise, even though they are homeless at the time, God promises to lead them to a great land, where their family will flourish, a place to call home.

            God’s plan to create a great and good human family on earth, however, has its enemies, as we learn in today’s text. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where violence and corruption reign, symbolize within Genesis the danger that evil poses to God’s plan of salvation. In our reading, God engages his new partner, Abraham, in a philosophical conversation about what is to be done regarding the threat of evil to their divine undertaking, and whether these cities should be destroyed.

            The dialogue between God and Abraham, of course, is not intended to be taken literally. The omniscient and omnipotent creator of the universe does not need to be told how to be just and merciful, and this scene is not intended to be a realistic depiction of an actual conversation between God and Abraham as if they are two guys in a bar waxing philosophical about the future of the world.

            The ancient writers of the Bible often use literary devices to engage our imaginations about deep theological questions, and today’s story is just that. As Abraham embarks upon this great collaboration with God, he wants to know how God intends to strike the right balance between righteous power and compassionate care. He knows that a righteous God is opposed to evil in all its forms, and therefore will seek to hold the Sodoms and Gomorrahs of this world accountable for their wickedness. Yet, to his great credit, Abraham also perceives that concern for the innocent is also at the heart of who God is.

            And so, Abraham keeps interrogating God about how to balance these values:  in your zeal, O Lord, to hold evil accountable, are you willing to sacrifice the innocent?  Would you sacrifice fifty good men and women to render your judgment against the evil of this world? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?

            The questions, of course, are rhetorical. The point of Abraham’s cross-examination is that each and every innocent person is worthy of God’s protection. Abraham knows this in his gut, and he is seeking reassurance from God that he is right.

            Several things are striking about this scene:

            First is the courage Abraham shows in questioning God at all. Who is Abraham, as a mere mortal, to cross-examine the Creator about right and wrong? And yet, just as Abraham trusts his God, he also trusts his God-given conscience as a guide for making choices. And notice that God allows the questioning to unfold, and does not rebuke Abraham for speaking up, implicitly endorsing Abraham’s commitment to moral reasoning. One commentator has described this ancient scene in Genesis as “the birth of human conscience in the Western tradition,” the awakening of the compassionate soul of man.

            Second, notice that Abraham’s concern in this dialogue is not for himself, his family, or even his tribe. Sodom and Gomorrah are foreign cities, populated by complete strangers to Abraham. And yet, even so, Abraham expresses concern for any righteous people who may live there, no matter who they are or where they are from. This too is an important and new development in moral thinking, one that extends the concept of justice beyond tribalism to all humanity, beyond the particular to the universal.

            Finally, notice too how Abraham so admirably refuses to abuse the power that comes with his new relationship with God. It would have been easy for Abraham, as God’s new partner in nation-building, to say:  “yeah, go ahead, God, let’s obliterate the evil cities that stand in our way.” Sadly, there are many who hold authority among the nations today who think exactly this way, so intoxicated are they with power.

            Yet, Abraham’s focus is not about wielding his newly given power as patriarch of a new nation, but instead his consistent cry is on behalf of the vulnerable:  what about the innocent, dear Lord? What about the innocent?

            Indeed, if there is a single thing I ask that you take away from today’s sermon, it is this simple but eloquent cry of Abraham’s. What about the innocent, dear God? What about those righteous men, women and children around the globe, living quiet but faithful lives, who are at risk in these troubled times?

            Our world is confronted with myriad problems of justice:  justice in immigration policy; justice in foreign policy; justice in allocating scarce resources of food, water, health care; justice in caring for our environment; justice in confronting violence and corruption. Our Scriptures do not provide a precise blueprint for resolving these complex issues, nor is it my place as a preacher of the gospel to advocate for particular social policies.


            But it is my responsibility to draw our attention to those compelling voices in our Bible who seek to speak God’s truth into the midst of our all-too-human, all-too-feeble efforts to pursue justice in this broken world. And Abraham’s voice today looms large among such prophetic voices. And his question for any local, national, or global policy that purports to be just is a simple one:  what about the righteous innocent, those who are vulnerable and may not have power but who stand to be affected by our policies? How will they fare? The rulers of this world, God help them, had better have an answer to Abraham’s profoundly important question. And so should we.