Looking for Good Like Abraham
After a particularly demoralizing day on the internet last week, I posted a status on Facebook– something to the effect that I wanted to start a website that only posted good news. Within just a couple minutes dozens of people had Liked it. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has grown tired of the incessant focus on negativity and tragedy in both traditional and new media. The outrage and angst that now permeate our culture are spiritually destructive, causing some of the very best people I know to regularly get burnt out and depressed.
Why are we so obsessed with bad news? Why do we focus all our energy on the killers, the oppressors and the abusers? Why don’t we focus on the people who actually deserve our attention – those who are successfully working for a better world in a variety of ways – social activists, political activists, public servants and religious leaders who have made great sacrifices to challenge unjust systems?
I’m reminded of a story that exists within all three of the Abrahamic Traditions. In the story, God comes to Prophet Abraham (PBUH) and tells him he is going to destroy the entire city of Sodom; but Abraham argues with God saying “Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
In the Torah the story goes as follows:
|23. And Abraham approached and said, “Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?||כג. וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע:|
|24. Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?||כד. אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:|
|25. Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?”||כה. חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשׂת | כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט:|
|26. And the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous men within the city, I will forgive the entire place for their sake.”||כו. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אִם אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל הַמָּקוֹם בַּעֲבוּרָם:|
|27. And Abraham answered and said, “Behold now I have commenced to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes.||כז. וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הִנֵּה נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל אֲדֹנָי וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר:|
|28. Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy if I find there forty-five.”||כח. אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם חֲמִשָּׁה הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה אֶת כָּל הָעִיר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית אִם אֶמְצָא שָׁם אַרְבָּעִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה:|
|29. And he continued further to speak to Him, and he said, “Perhaps forty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not do it for the sake of the forty.”||כט. וַיֹּסֶף עוֹד לְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם אַרְבָּעִים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה בַּעֲבוּר הָאַרְבָּעִים:|
|30. And he said, “Please, let the Lord’s wrath not be kindled, and I will speak. Perhaps thirty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”||ל. וַיֹּאמֶר אַל נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי וַאֲדַבֵּרָה אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם שְׁלשִׁים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה אִם אֶמְצָא שָׁם שְׁלשִׁים:|
|31. And he said, “Behold now I have desired to speak to the Lord, perhaps twenty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not destroy for the sake of the twenty.”||לא. וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל אֲדֹנָי אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם עֶשְׂרִים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית בַּעֲבוּר הָעֶשְׂרִים:|
|32. And he said, “Please, let the Lord’s wrath not be kindled, and I will speak yet this time, perhaps ten will be found there.” And He said, “I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.”||לב. וַיֹּאמֶר אַל נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ הַפַּעַם אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם עֲשָׂרָה וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה:|
|33. And the Lord departed when He finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.||לג. וַיֵּלֶךְ יְהֹוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר אֶל אַבְרָהָם וְאַבְרָהָם שָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ:|
The Qur’an describes Abraham in this same story in Surah 11, Ayat 74-75, as follows:
فَلَمَّا ذَهَبَ عَنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ الرَّوْعُ وَجَاءَتْهُ الْبُشْرَىٰ يُجَادِلُنَا فِي قَوْمِ لُوطٍ
“And when the fear had left Abraham, and the glad tiding had been conveyed to him, he began to plead with Us for Lot’s people: for, behold, Abraham was most clement, most tender-hearted, intent upon turning to God again and again.”
Abraham was moved to argue with the Almighty, not to demand justice against the evil ones but to to beg for justice on behalf of the innocent. This is more than just a matter of semantics.
The Qur’an says that Abraham was most ‘tender-hearted’ and who hasn’t felt that way as we witness the suffering of innocents? Who hasn’t been moved to tears of appreciation by the personal sacrifices of those who have dedicated themselves to opposing injustice? When our hearts are tender our primary concern is for the innocent, not the guilty.
Switching our focus to the good, the innocent and the worthy can give us the kind of moral courage that Abraham had–the kind of moral courage one would need to attempt to argue with God. It can help us to stay inspired in the midst of suffering and keep our hope alive. It is a positive force that creates solutions, even as we dismantle the existing power structures that oppress. As we become consumed with a vision for a positive outcome, the work we do becomes spiritually nourishing instead of spiritually destructive.
The vision of ‘something better’ can and has sustained many brave souls, even in their darkest hours.
Focusing on good isn’t being a naive “Pollyanna”, nor is it about pretending that the real evil in the world doesn’t exist. Rather, it is a stubborn refusal to allow that evil to dictate the terms of our hope and faith. Focusing on the good means consciously, deliberately putting our resources where they can make a real difference. It is a refusal to fritter away time, energy and money on that which is undeserving.
Why do we spend so much time and money on war, but not peace? Why do we spend so much of our attention on those perpetuating crimes against humanity, when everywhere there are small pockets of good people working to right the wrongs, and who truly need our financial, moral and spiritual support?
If Abraham would argue with God to protect even a small number of ‘good’ people amidst the evil in that ancient city, surely our own tender human hearts can argue with one another for the same purpose today.