Sacrificing Ourselves


Chapter 4 imageYou may have noticed that the previous chapters on the theme of sacrifice seem to have been taking us in two opposite directions. The last chapter, ‘Sacrificing
People’, ended with this observation: we have long since abandoned ritualistic blood sacrifice of either animals or humans. Yet the most alarming and wholesale acts of human sacrifice ever to take place in human history have occurred in this century, and we are even contemplating more massive acts of sacrifice to come. This is an act of sacrifice which cannot be condemned too strongly – and yet we find ourselves being drawn back to it and even giving our assent to it, almost in spite of ourselves.

But in the chapter, ‘Sacrificing Possessions’, I concluded with this observation: to advance social justice in a way which makes the love of one’s fellow humans a reality we need to learn how to sacrifice our possessions for the common good. This is an aspect of the ancient ritual of sacrifice which we can applaud and which we need to recover.

I believe there is a very good reason why we have come to have such divergent views on these two components of sacrifice even though our ancient forbears were quite unaware of any inherent conflict between them and saw them simply as one. For them, they were the two sides of the same coin. This reason incidentally also explains why we keep finding it difficult to respond to the aspect of sacrifice we morally applaud while we are frequently being tempted back to the aspect of sacrifice which we morally deplore.

When we are sacrificing our possessions we are not only voluntarily surrendering something which is ours to give, but we are giving, as it were, something of ourselves. What we sacrifice is part of our extended self. For example, if we deny ourselves some pleasure in order to redirect our money, i.e. part of our livelihood, to such a venture as Operation Hope — we are not only sacrificing our possessions, we are also sacrificing ourselves.

In the phenomenon of blood sacrifice it is quite different. When an animal is slaughtered on the altar – and even more so when a human is slain – in order that we may reap some spiritual benefit, it is not really us so much as the sacrificial victim who suffers the greater loss. In other words, it is not the sacrificer who is experiencing the sacrifice of self, but the person being sacrificed. That is made very clear to us in the case of Jephthah’s daughter, much clearer to us than it was to the ancients. The life of this young woman was forfeited because her father had taken a vow to God. If God gave him the victory in battle over the Ammonites, then he would offer up to God as a burnt offering the first one to come out of his door to meet him on his return. Perhaps he expected a slave, who in that culture did not count. It turned out to be his daughter. He carried out his vow. But though he was the sacrificer it was not he but his daughter who showed itself – sacrifice, willingly going to her death to fulfil the reckless vow of her foolish father.

It is only because of the many centuries of slow development in moral sensitivity that today we can draw such a clear distinction between sacrificing our possessions and sacrificing the lives of others. In ancient times no such distinction was made for the simple reason that animals and even human beings were regarded as the possessions of the sacrificer. They were part of one’s extended self, not only did a shepherd feel quite free to slaughter his sheep as required, but parents saw a young and unmarried son or daughter as a personal possession, over whom they had absolute rights.

That was even the case with the ancient story of Abraham and Isaac, which I briefly discussed in the previous chapter. Indeed we moderns approach that story with such different premises that we usually no longer interpret it in the way the ancient storyteller intended. We naturally assume it was because Abraham loved his son so deeply that he was reluctant to slay him sacrificially in obedience to the divine command. Abraham’s fatherly concern is of course an element in the story. But there was another, even more important, reason why Abraham was reluctant. In the context in which this story is placed, Abraham had been told by God that he would become the father of a great nation. Since Abraham had already reached old age and was childless, he found that divine promise rather difficult to believe. But he did show faith and he set out for the new world. At last his son Isaac was born to him. But while his son was still a lad, God called him to sacrifice his son. It didn’t make sense. It was not just the welfare of his son which concerned him. It was Abraham’s own future which was being jeopardized. How could he become the father of a great nation if he sacrificed his son, particularly when because of his age, he had no hope of fathering any more? That was the dilemma, indeed the absurd paradox which he faced.

When we read this ancient story within its larger context we find it is not only an example of sacrificing another. It is also an example of sacrificing oneself, in this case Abraham’s own eternal future. That is how the story teller intended it and why he commended the faith of Abraham. Abraham did what was required of him in spite of the apparent absurdity. His obedient faith was divinely recognised. According to the culture of the day the story had a happy ending and Abraham became the father of a great nation. Indeed for Jew, Christian and Muslim, he became the perfect model of a man of faith. The lasting truth in this story of sacrifice is that Abraham was ready to sacrifice himself. That aspect of the story by which he was ready to sacrifice the life of another person is what we must today morally and spiritually renounce. It has for us become grossly immoral ever to sacrifice another for our own material or spiritual benefit.

Our ancient forbears were not yet in a position to analyse morally the ritual of blood sacrifice which they had inherited from the times of its primaeval evolution. But we are in a position to do so – to disentangle the component of self-sacrifice from the component of sacrificing another for our spiritual benefit. It is only in the former component – the sacrifice of oneself – that the permanent significance and value of sacrifice is to be found. Only the sacrifice of oneself can be commended as a moral value.

Why is it then, in an age when the idea of ritualistic human sacrifice fills us with horror, that we nevertheless find the human race prepared to perpetuate secular human sacrifice on such a grand scale? Perhaps we find some clues to the answer by referring to a peculiar Jewish ritual which came to be practised in the last few centuries before the Common Era.

On the annual day of Atonement – the holiest day of the Jewish year, and one which has remained so in Jewish circles right down to the present – it was the practice of the high priest, in the course of a more complex sacrificial ritual, to take a particular goat chosen by lot, to lay his hands upon it, and to confess over it all the iniquities of the whole people of Israel. It was as if all the national guilt was being quite literally transferred to the goat. Then the goat was led away into the eastern wilderness across the Jordan. The Biblical sacrificial code says, ‘The goat shall carry away on his head to a solitary land all their iniquities.’ It is because of this practice that we use the term scapegoat to this day. Even in secular usage. we commonly apply the term to anyone upon whose shoulders somebody else tries to shift the blame for their own sins. Here is an ancient sacrificial practice which actually dramatises with unmistakeable clarity this  widespread human phenomenon. When we should be sacrificing ourselves to make atonement for our sins, we try to transfer the guilt (and the appropriate sacrificial act) to someone else. We make someone else pay the penalty.

Carl Jung, that great pioneer in the field of human psychology, offers us an  explanation of why we so often unconsciously try to make others the scapegoats for our own faults. Indeed, if his analysis of the human psyche is correct, we may have here an important psychological reason as to why blood sacrifices evolved in the first place. Jung coined the term ‘shadow’ to refer to the darker side of what goes on in the unconscious depths of our psyche. We can think of it as the residue in us of our pre-human animal origins. The shadow is a powerful motivating and even creative force, but it is quite uncontrolled by any moral considerations. We all have a shadow but very often we are unwilling to recognise it. The more strongly we reject our shadow (according to Jung) the more inclined we are to project it on to someone else. It is an unconscious mechanism by which we try to protect our ego-identity from the inroads of moral criticism.

To openly confess that we ourselves are guilty of some attitude or behaviour of which we strongly disapprove may be more than we can mentally cope with. It would require swallowing our pride, and a sacrifice of our ego, which requires a good deal of personal maturity. Instead of pursuing that course, we refuse to recognise the failing in ourselves and we project it on to someone else. Then we are free to condemn it for all we are worth. Mentally, verbally, and occasionally even literally, we slaughter or sacrifice that person. So whenever we feel strongly antagonistic towards a person or a group, without being able to supply very convincing reasons for our hostility,and we refuse to listen to rational argument, the likelihood is that that person or group has some characteristics which we unconsciously know to be in ourselves. We refuse to recognise them, so we project our shadow on to somebody else. Let us look at some examples.

The prospect of homosexual law reform brought about a very emotional national debate. Psychologists have been warning us for some time that the heterosexuals who become most irrationally opposed to homosexual activity are those who are inwardly unsure of their own sexual orientation and who already experience some ambivalence. Those heterosexuals, on the other hand, who are able to discuss the pros and cons of such legislation in a calm and rational way, are quite confident of their sexual orientation and do not feel threatened by it. In a society where homosexuality has long met with strong social disapproval and prohibition, there is very strong motivation for refusing to recognise in oneself any signs of variance from what is
supposedly the norm. As a compensatory form of self protection many people become quite irrationally antagonistic towards the known homosexuals, on whom they now project their own shadow.

Whenever the projection of the psychic shadow takes place at the community level, there is even less rational restraint than at the individual level. It leads to persecution and even blood sacrifice, such as lynchings. Jung himself regarded the Nazi persecution of the Jews as the projection of the corporate shadow of the German people on a minority who could then be blamed for all the ills which had befallen the German nation. They had become the great scapegoat of that time – and it led to the Holocaust, a perverted form of sacrifice on a mass scale.

If Jung were alive today it is likely that he would interpret the confrontation between the two superpowers in the same way. Both are projecting their own corporate shadows on the other. Neither of them are willing to become in any way subject to the other. That means that each of them, secretly or unconsciously, wants to be in the international driving seat. It would be too much to claim that publicly, so each accuses the other of wanting to rule the world. Each accuses the other of increasing the arms race. Each speaks of the urgent need to provide adequate self defence, but each constructs massive weapons of destructive offence. The situation calls for radical self sacrifice but all we hear is the readiness to sacrifice others for one’s own material benefit.

In the human condition from time immemorial there has been strong resistance to the recognition of ourselves as we really are. We cannot face our own faults and weaknesses. We hate losing face. Our shadow we project on to others. While true self knowledge does make us more ready to accept self sacrifice, we are always being tempted to transfer that sacrifice to others. We want others to suffer the loss we ought to be sustaining ourselves. So we are prepared to sacrifice others that we may retain our pride, preserve our freedom or reach some kind of fulfilment.

Even when we come to recognise the supreme value to be found in self sacrifice there is still one warning to be borne in mind We must not go to the other extreme and take perverted delight in sacrificing ourselves willy nilly. There is no value in self sacrifice for its own sake. The value of self sacrificeis to be found in the particular cause which is being promoted. It is important to remember that, as well as having a duty towards our fellow humans, we have a duty to ourselves.

This is particularly well brought out in the biblical commandment which I discussed in an earlier chapter. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ As this comes from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, it is just as important for the Jew as it is to the Christian. Jewish scholars often point out that Christians frequently misread this commandment and interpret it as saying: ‘You shall love your neighbour more than yourself.’ It does not say that. It commands us to love our neighbours equally with ourselves. There is no virtue in denigrating ourselves. We should no more denigrate ourselves than we should denigrate others. Each of us also is a human person, whose spiritual and even material welfare we have the duty to promote.

The need for self sacrifice arises when there are concerns and issues which must, by their very nature, take precedence over our own purely personal concerns. Perhaps this can be illustrated most clearly by looking at those examples where self-sacrifice may involve the surrendering of life itself.

Here, at the outset, we must say that this supreme form of self sacrifice can be morally justified only in supreme circumstances. None of us has the right to end our lives for trivial reasons or unworthy causes. Those millions in the armed forces who died in World War Two quite rightly had no intention of being killed, if they could possibly help it. Yet, generally speaking, they all judged the circumstances to be so grave and critical that it was necessary to take that risk. On our war memorials we say they paid the supreme sacrifice. We quote the words of the Bible: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ However much we deplore the rise of those circumstances and think of the war dead as a shattering human waste, we nevertheless rightly honour the memory of those who died and regard their actions as a form of self sacrifice. Note, however, it was not sought for its own sake, and it was for a cause they judged to be worth it.

A somewhat different element enters in the case of those Buddhist monks and nuns who committed self immolation in the streets of Saigon during the Vietnam war in the hope that it would promote the cause of peace. Here, however much we may wish to respect their decision and their courage, we may have reservations as to whether this kind of self sacrifice is to he commended or not. This is largely because the actual death was self-imposed rather than being brought about by others.

Even the New Testament has a warning about this kind of self immolation. Curiously enough it may well be because Buddhism had actually reached Greece by the time of Christian origins and a Buddhist had actually performed this ancient kind of self sacrifice in the streets of Athens, Although we cannot be sure about this, there is a small amount of evidence to support it and, if so, this may lie behind the famous reference in St Paul’s hymn on love: ‘Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, I achieve nothing.’ That was a warning against unnecessary self sacrifice.

It was a warning which Christians needed to heed in the early centuries. For during the period of the fierce persecutions of Christians by the Roman authorities, some over zealous Christians were tempted to seek out martyrdom, as if it were the supreme virtue, no matter how it came about. It is recorded that on one occasion, when the persecuting crowds were on the rampage in Alexandria, the great Christian scholar Origen was only prevented from bringing about his own martyrdom by his mother, who hid his clothes so that he could not venture outdoors.

To understand the significance and value of self sacrifice we must steer a middle course between two extremes. At one extreme we reject all forms of self sacrifice and we end up by sacrificing others. At the other extreme we seek self sacrifice for its own sake and so do ourselves an unjust and unwarranted harm. Self sacrifice – whether it is of our pride, possessions or very existence – becomes a supreme virtue when we do not shrink from it in circumstances where it becomes a necessity because of a higher good. In there circumstances it must always be left to those most closely involved to make the final decision as to whether the higher good warrants whatever it is they are being challenged to sacrifice. That is why it is never for us to tell others what they must sacrifice and when to do it. When Captain Oates walked out into the blizzard knowing he would never return to his companions in the tent, he wanted to give them one last chance to return to base in safety, unencumbered by the burden he felt he had become to them. The world, ever since. has honoured his act of self sacrifice.

In this season of Lent we are nearing the time of year when the Christian world honours what it has long taken to be the prototype of all self-sacrifice – the death of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities. It is significant that the cross became the chief symbol of Christianity. It spells out vividly the enduring significance of sacrifice – the sacrifice of self. One of the New Testament documents, the Letter to the Hebrews, sets out to expound the death of Jesus as a sacrifice – a sacrifice to end all ritual sacrifice.

A tremendous amount of Christian thought through the centuries has been devoted to the sacrificial significance of Jesus’s death. Much of it is no longer relevant. Some of it even has to be abrogated. Christians, after all, are no more immune than other humans to the common refusal to accept self sacrifice. The death of Jesus on the cross often came to be interpreted as the one great sacrifice which now relieved Christians of the necessity of sacrificing themselves. Here the projection mechanism was at work again. It is true that Christians have universally acknowledged themselves to be sinners. But the tragic consequences of our sinful failures – the penalty to be paid for them – we have too often simply projected on to the man on the cross. The sacrifice of self which we are being continually challenged to make we have transferred to the Christ figure. That is far from being the whole of the New Testament message. It is true that Jesus of Nazareth did not shrink from the sacrifice he was called to make, even though he did not seek it for its own sake. It is true that he set forth the supreme example of self sacrifice. But, according to the Gospel teaching, he also said that if we would be his followers we too must take up a cross – our own cross. His act of self sacrifice does not relieve us of the necessity all through life, to sacrifice ourselves. No modern Christian demonstrated this more clearly than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. April 9, 1985, was the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom in a German forest by Hitler’s orders.

In this short series of studies on the theme of sacrifice I have tried to show that there are very good reasons why this concept from ancient and even primitive religion has left a permanent deposit in our common secular language. I have tried to show, in the space available, what a rich concept it is, and how multifaceted it is both in thought and in practice, There are many aspects of ancient and traditional sacrifice which we must not only condemn but also do our best to avoid. Because of the nature of the human condition. they have a way of reappearing even when we assume them to be obsolete. But there are also aspects of sacrifice which are enduring. Chief of these is the challenge to sacrifice ourselves whenever the circumstances
warrant it.

If we are to become whole and mature persons we need to acknowledge ourselves for what we really are and that means sacrificing our pride. If we are to build healthy human relationships in family, in industry, in civic and national affairs, we must sacrifice purely personal interests (such as material goods) in order to promote the common good. In international affairs we may have to sacrifice national pride, and even our national income, in the interests of promoting international peace and well being. The permanent value of sacrifice is that it is a continual challenge to each of us personally. If we respond, it can lead to new hope, to greater social justice, to peace and
to ultimate wholeness.

This indeed is the heart of the Christian message.