Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Glurge: A father is faced with the horrifying choice between saving his son's life at the cost of many, or watching his son die as his inaction saves others.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2000]
Origins: The example quoted above has been in circulation since December 1997, but the tale itself originated as "To Sacrifice a Son: An Allegory," a short story written by Dennis E. Hensley and first published in the Michigan Baptist Bulletin in 1967. Since then it has appeared in numerous forms, including as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints video version produced in the
However even the 1967 recounting is but a version of a much older story. Consider this form of the tale from 1888:
THE RAILWAY SWITCH-TENDER AND HIS CHILD.The tale of a son sacrificed for the salvation of many is best classified as an inspirational parable. It attempts to render God's sacrifice of his son Jesus understandable on a more direct level by relating it in terms of an earthly father's anguish over having to make a comparable offering. As such, it's a teaching tool, nothing more. Asking if it's true is akin to asking if Goldilocks and the Three Bears was based on a real event.
On one of the railroads in Prussia, a few years ago, a switch-tender was just taking his place, in order to turn a coming train approaching in a contrary direction. Just at this moment, on turning his head, he discerned his little son playing on the track of the advancing engine. What could he do? Thought was quick at such a moment of peril! He might spring to his child and rescue him, but he could not do this and turn the switch in time, and for want of that hundreds of lives might be lost.
Although in sore trouble, he could not neglect his greater duty, but exclaiming with a loud voice to his son, "Lie down," he laid hold of the switch, and saw the train safely turned on to its proper track. His boy, accustomed to obedience, did as his father commanded him, and the fearful heavy train thundered over him.
Little did the passengers dream, as they found themselves quietly resting on that turnout, what terrible anguish their approach had that day caused to one noble heart. The father rushed to where his boy lay, fearful lest he should find only a mangled corpse, but to his great joy and thankful gratitude he found him alive and unharmed. Prompt obedience had saved him. Had he paused to argue, to reason whether it were best - death, and fearful mutilation of body, would have resulted.
The circumstances connected with this event were made known to the King of Prussia, who the next day sent for the man and presented him with a medal of honour for his heroism.
As a "Jesus died for us" parallel, the tale falters on one key point: Jesus did not go to his death as the result of an accident. Though the Heavenly Father did give up his son to save mankind (the way the drawbridge keeper sacrifices his child to spare the lives of strangers), the choice was not forced upon Him by circumstance. The death of Jesus Christ was predetermined; the Son was always fated to die for mankind's sins. Some scholars find that inconsistency a sticking point with this allegory; they say it debases God's planned sacrifice by presenting it as a spur-of-the-moment decision.
The tale has another function besides that of religious allegory. It is sometimes framed as a question and used on philosophy tests.
Suppose that your spouse or your baby, like in an old movie, is tied to a railroad track with a train approaching that is carryingAnother version involves one child playing on one set of tracks while ten children play on another set the train is headed for and asks if it is right to throw the switch, resulting in one death instead of ten. In that form of the question, the children are not known to the switchman, which removes from the equation the emotional factor of choosing between beloved family members and strangers.
(If you're a philosophy student trying to ace an exam and can explain the reasons for your response, the "correct" answer is to leave the switch alone. By moving it you would be murdering those now about to die. If the switch is left in its original position, no murder will be committed even though deaths occur as a result of inaction. Those who believe in a higher power have a further philosophical reason for leaving the switch untouched; by changing the course of the train, they are usurping God's prerogative in deciding who is to live and who is to die.)
Philosophy exams and religious allegories aside, the tale has achieved the measure of popularity it has likely because it leaves the reader asking himself what he'd do in a comparable situation: save the many at the cost of the one he cherishes, or rescue the one he loves at any cost. It's a question that takes the measure of a person.
Barbara "half-pint measures" Mikkelson
Last updated: 27 February 2010
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