Today a Texas jury found Andrea Yates not guilty by reason of insanity for the drowning of her five kids. Frankly, in this country that seems to be turning increasingly Christian, I’m a little surprised she wasn’t found not guilty. And not because I expect the jury to be sympathetic to a woman who suffered post-partum depression or anything like that. No, I half-expected (well not really, but for the sake of irony I did) her to be found not-guilty because there is a Biblical precedent for parents being instructed by the voice of God to kill their children.
To me, the Yates case seems rather similar to the story from the Bible about Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac. I’m most familiar with this story via Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, but I think this phenomenon of God telling people to kill their children is fascinating.
According to Kierkegaard (and others), Abraham is the “father of faith.” The fact that he had complete faith in what God told him to do and was willing to do it set the template for how Judeo/Christian people should relate to God. That is, that God has a plan and that us mere mortal humans cannot possibly try to understand what He has in store of us but that ultimately whatever He wants from us is bound to be the best thing.
Abraham is a pretty major character from the Bible and based on my understanding, very few people consider him to be insane. Yet when it comes to Andrea Yates, the obvious answer is insanity. Why is that? I’m not sure. Because she is a woman? Because we no longer believe those Biblical stories? I really don’t know.
I just find it absolutely fascinating that nobody (as far as I know) has even suggested that God really did instruct her to kill her children. Granted, as an atheist I don’t think this is possible, but I really am surprised that with so many Christians in this country who claim such a devout faith and want to create laws based on their religion, they still decide to pick-and-choose when it comes to matters of faith.
During my senior year of college I wrote a paper that sort of delved into this issue (which reminds me that I really need to post some of those papers…). One of the “first American novels,” Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist by Charles Brockden Brown dealt with a man who was commanded by what he believed to be the voice of God to kill his family. Ultimately, it turns out that the voice was definitely not God (and was instead a man who was able to throw his voice), but how was Weiland supposed to know that?
What intrigues me about these cases is the ethical dilemma that arises: harming/killing children is considered to be one of the most horrible and “evil” things that humans do to each other. Yet as the “father of faith,” Abraham is given a free pass. Granted, in the end his son didn’t die, but that was only because God supposedly intervened to stop. The fact remains that Abraham did fully intended to kill Isaac, so as far as I’m concerned, that makes him just as guilty as someone such as Andrea Yates who also claimed to hear the voice of God, yet this time God (for whatever reason) decided not to intervene. And as Weiland shows us, how is anyone supposed to be able to really tell the voice of God from the voice of someone pretending to be God.
For all we know, Abraham really didn’t hear the voice of God, but could’ve been “insane” (as we’ve labeled Yates) or could’ve been the victim of a cruel prank (as is what happened to Weiland). Either way, it seems to me that blindly following faith and believing that God is giving commands resulted in a terrible lapse of judgment.
I am glad that the jury saw the Yates case for what it was. The poor woman was obviously not in a sane state of mind when she killed her kids. If Abraham was alive today and killed his son, I would’ve argued the same thing. Both were insane.