Of Trains, Sacrifice, and Agency

If you’ve grown up in a Christian environment, at some point you have likely heard this story or a variation of it: a man finds himself in a position where he must choose to save his son or an oncoming train headed for certain destruction. The takeaway from this tale is of course the great love of God the Father, in that He didn’t spare even His own Son in our rescue. A story like this, like a metaphor, can be said to only be useful as far as its intention (I don’t know if anyone would say Jesus has wool because He’s called the Lamb, for instance) and that’s fine as far as it goes. Even so, something about it has always bothered me, as long as I can remember. I’d like to explore this here, as I believe it is missing something important, and it is perhaps indicative of a larger gap in understanding. A story like this can be told in any way we want it to, and the fact that it is usually missing this element tells me something.

The story is all about the father’s heartrending choice between his son’s life and the lives of those on the train. As I’ve always heard it told though, it is missing any voice of the son in his own fate. The son’s only agency is to be the tear-jerking emotional appeal for the audience – his place could be swapped out for a sack of money sliding off a cliff as the train approaches the wrecked tracks, and the story still works, albeit with less potential for waterworks. His will, his desires, his thoughts are a non-issue. This is problematic, not only because it’s not even an accurate reflection of the larger narrative it is pointing towards, but because it subtly reinforces, I believe, a dangerously incomplete picture of sacrifice which marginalizes agency and consent. I can’t say any folks telling this story must not have an understanding of consent or agency, but again, the fact that it’s usually missing this element is perhaps telling of a profound gap in knowledge many Christian communities.

First, let’s look at the larger narrative, briefly. Honestly, all the story needs is the son calling out “Dad, we have to save the train!”. Scripture tells us of the Son’s submission to the Father’s will on more than one occasion, but nowhere is it implied that He had no agency in His coming to earth. Nowhere is it implied that the Father made this plan without the Son. There is a parable in the gospels which tells of an employer sending various emissaries to check up on his servants tending his property, and the servants mistreat the emissaries. Lastly, the employer sends his son, who they then kill. What’s interesting here is that the teller of the story is the son in the parable’s narrative, meaning, in larger context, it’s hardly proof of absence of agency. Jesus was clearly not thrilled in the hours preceding His arrest, knowing what was coming. But when we see Matthew 26:53, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”, it certainly does not appear to me that He had no agency in His fate. In this case, obedience to the Father’s will was also His own will. He went willingly, and with full knowledge of how things might turn out. We were worth it. All creation was worth it. “Let us make man in our image….” “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…”

Now let’s look at the issue of sacrifice for us. Again looking at our supreme Example, Jesus knew who He was, what He had to offer, what He could give up, and what His death would mean. He chose to give Himself up for His creation. What does this tell me?

  1. Sacrifice should come from our own agency and will, and a firm foundation and knowledge of who we are, what we’ve been given, and what we have to give.
  2. No other person gets to decide for me what sacrifice is, whether I should give of myself, and neither do I get to decide for another what sacrifice means for them and whether they should or not.
  3. We are called to follow Jesus and take up our cross with Him, but what that looks like for each one of us is a path and process, different for each of us, and different as we grow in relation to Christ and each other.

Will we ever fully understand who we are and our gifts and what we have to give? Not likely – on this planet, we are constantly in a flux of learning and growth. Am I saying that means essentially we never should give? No, agency here simply means you’re acting on your own accord, with the knowledge you are reasonably able to have, without outside pressure or manipulation. This makes a healthy understanding of the verse in Proverbs, “Train up a child….” so important: automatons don’t choose; they comply, subject to the mercy and competence or the cruelty and ignorance of their authority. What can we do to raise children who understand their worth? How can we help those around us find their place and know themselves and their value fully? This isn’t elevating man above God’s will, but learning to see ourselves and others the way God sees us. This is about not settling for the fallen state of control, domination, suppression, and exploitation we default to, but letting His Spirit shine through us unhindered.

I could be proud of the child of mine who could call out “Dad, don’t worry about me, we have to save the train!”. How could I live with myself though, if I am the one calling out, “I have to save the train!”, as my child looks on in frightened confusion at the coming fate, unable to understand my choice or with no grounds for questioning it?

When we do not know who we are, as human beings, children of God, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, friends, employees; when we do not understand ourselves and our gifts, we risk giving what is not ours to give. When we raise children or disciple new believers without grounding them in their identities and rights, we put them at risk to be exploited by others. They are subject to be robbed of innocence, property, happiness, health, and even faith. For example, when I do not understand my identity as a husband to our family of two, I risk giving away what I’ve rightfully submitted to my wife – my heart, time, money, sexuality, etc. The goal may be noble, even the “biblically right” thing to my mind, but it’s not just my call anymore. I know well from my own life and others’ of the damage that this can cause: burnout, loss of trust, conflict, depression, disconnect. When my “sacrifice” comes at the expense of others and without their consent, that’s cowardice and exploitation, and certainly not leadership and service.  For another example, I need not explain how a predator can wreck the lives of the innocent – betrayed by their own good will and trust, at the hands of evil people.

Our children suffer the most from a lack of understanding of agency and consent. In my past, my siblings and I often felt like pawns in someone else’s chess game, or tokens for one man’s favor with God. We were often contracted by our pastor for charity projects for people we did not know. To say it didn’t exactly teach us the value in humble service and bring us joy is an understatement. It felt to me like being used. Yeah, yeah, my heart was bad, etc, but that’s just it – it was dead legalism, and a star on someone else’s collar, not my choice. God loves a cheerful giver, the good book says, but that’s not as simple as telling children or church congregations to slap a smile on anxious, confused, weary hearts and sacrifice anyway, and God will be pleased. That’s just all backwards. We insist they give for a cause they may not believe in, or even in a God they don’t trust yet, teaching them their agency does not matter, only obedience.

We also risk hurting ourselves and others when we give in ignorance or out of compulsion – perhaps born out of a need to “do something” and ease our conscience. We might just be giving others a broken cane to walk with, and cause them further harm.

Bringing this to a close, we have story after story of God meeting His children where they are to explain and build trust, and help them understand their place. I think of Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Job, David, Elijah, Mary, the women at the tomb, Paul, Peter – those who ask, receive; those who knock, the door is opened; and those who seek, find. We do not have a God who expects us to sacrifice before we are ready. He desires us to be agents with Him. We are not helpless pieces in His cosmological game, statistics in a report, currency to be exchanged. If He is who we follow, children and the vulnerable among us are not commodities to be used or regrettable casualties in the spiritual wars of the powerful. We’re a body, made of many members with purposes and value, and no right to ownership of one member over another – His body. In Him, we are free.

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