Sacrificing People

Chapter 3 imageSacrifice, as we have seen, is a very ancient and widespread practice, in its most primitive forms the blood sacrifice of both humans and animals constituted its very essence, for the ancient words for sacrifice literally meant ‘to slaughter’. From at least two to three thousand years ago the human conscience began to develop a sensitivity about blood sacrifices. They came to be questioned and eventually condemned. This happened not only in the Israelite origins of our own cultural tradition, as a result of their  condemnation by the ancient prophets. It also occurred in India, another ancient culture in which blood sacrifice was both dominant and central. But in the Indian tradition the questioning was more tentative and consequently less effective. Blood sacrifice became explicitly condemned only by the Buddhists and the Jains. Asoka, who ruled much of India in the third century before the Christian era, and who was the only Buddhist king to do so, declared a royal edict. It stands inscribed in rock to this day: ‘No animal maybe slaughtered for sacrifice.’

It did not stop there. The Buddhists, along with the Jains, developed the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence. They fostered an attitude of respect for, and kinship with, all living or sentient beings from humans down to the humblest creature. Not only animal sacrifice but tribal warfare and the ill treatment of animals was outlawed. As Buddhism spread through the Orient, it is said to have exerted a remarkable humanising influence on the entire history of Asia. Respect for life became one of the chief virtues. The Jains took this virtue to an almost ridiculous extreme. The first of the five vows taken by the Jain monk was this: ‘I renounce the killing of all living things.’ It became the practice for the Jain monk to carry a broom to sweep the path on which he was about to tread, lest he inadvertently kill an insect by standing on it.

Buddhism did not go to such extremes but the respect for human life which it fostered not only had the effect of softening the earlier warlike character of Tibetans and Mongolians but it meant that Buddhist societies, on the whole, have had a better record of peace and non-violence than either the Christian or Muslim societies. Moreover, Buddhist respect for the life of fellow creatures tended to cause them to become vegetarian, though this never became an absolute.

Eventually Buddhism almost disappeared from India, the land of its origin,but only because some of its chief emphases were reabsorbed into the evolving Hindu tradition. Thus the doctrine of ahimsa became permanently embedded in Hinduism. In our own century Mahatma Gandhi became the most impressive and effective exponent of this doctrine.

Thus, it was not only in the Judaeo-Christian tradition that blood sacrifices came to be questioned and ultimately condemned. The human species is such that it has shown the capacity to develop sensitivity to the point where it can no longer tolerate the taking of life, even if this might appear to be for the very highest of motives, namely the worship of the gods.

This does not mean there is no room for further development of our sensitivity. Far from it. l shall later be pointing to the most serious examples in the modern world where we are being challenged. Here let me simply cite the way in which we practise blood sports and take them for granted. The few who protest are often treated as cranks and extremists, like the Jains. l have read that, as recently as 100 years ago in the Australian outback, it was not uncommon for the Aboriginals to be hunted and shot by European settlers as a kind of sport suitable for boring Sunday afternoons. That would not be tolerated today. We find it hard to believe that it ever occurred. Perhaps in the same way the time will come when wild game hunting, duck shooting and similar sports will be more than the sensitivity of our descendants will be able to tolerate.

For similar reasons, the time is coming when vegetarianism may well come to replace the eating of flesh. Certainly the eating of human flesh fills us all with revulsion, even though it was practised in this country and in Polynesia less than 200 years ago. Up until that time in those cultures it was not only accepted as right and proper, but the eating of human flesh was believed to be a way of absorbing hidden spiritual values. In other words it had a religious dimension. It reflected those ancient times in which the flesh of the animal sacrifice was shared as a sacred communion meal. The way in which this is symbolically, and even verbally, preserved to this day in the highest act of Christian worship is altogether quite remarkable.

I mention these things only that we may be reminded that we are much closer to the phenomenon of animal sacrifice, and even human sacrifice, than we usually realise. We may take some pride in the degree of human sensitivity which we have already developed, but there is no room for any easy optimism. What we call civilization sometimes appears to be only a thin and fragile veneer hiding a strong residue of our primitive past, in what we may call our unconscious corporate psyche.

In the late 15th century there was a dramatic encounter between an ancient type of civilization and what was fast becoming modern civilization. It occurred in Central America, with the Spanish invasion. Today there is considerable criticism of the Conquistadores because of the way they destroyed the Aztec civilization, partly by force, but even more by the diseases such as smallpox, which they inadvertently brought with them.

But however much we may want to admire the Aztec building achievements and certain aspects of their culture, none of us would deplore the fact that the Spanish brought to an end the ritual of human sacrifice which was such a central feature of their religious practices. In the last rebuilding of their great temple in 1487, it has been reckoned, as a conservative estimate, that no less than 20,000 people were sacrificed in the space of four days. This may have been partly due to the fact that a series of military expeditions had led to the buildup of an immense concentration of prisoners of war, These could have constituted a threat to their captors if steps were not taken to reduce their numbers. On the other hand, one of the reasons for making war on their neighbours in the first place was to provide a continuous supply of living human hearts to be sacrificed to the sun god in the appropriate ritual. According to the Aztec view of reality, all life depended on the sun. In order to keep the sun in the sky it had to be fed a diet of living human hearts. In their view there seems to have been nothing crude or cruel about this ritual, as there is for us. They believed they were bestowing a religious honour on the sacrificial victims, for they were destined to become stars in the sky. To us, of course, such religious ritual not only appears to be magical hocus pocus, but it displays a lamentable lack of sensitivity in the treatment of fellow humans.

Although such practices cannot be condemned too strongly, we must nevertheless try to appreciate the religious motivations which lay behind them. I shall try to do this by going back to the one or two examples of human sacrifice which have survived in the biblical tradition, for here we are on more familiar ground.

Take, for example, the well known story of how Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Of course, in this case a ram was eventually sacrificed in place of Isaac and modern readers of the Bible heave a sigh of relief. Even the biblical storyteller shows some sensitivity on the matter and tries to make excuses for God. Right at the very beginning he says God was only testing Abraham and implies that God did not really intend the sacrifice to take place. In today’s intellectual climate we cannot morally defend even a God who puts people through this kind of test, let alone one who calls for human sacrifice.

To understand this ancient biblical story, however, we must not jump in and pass judgement too quickly. In one sense the phenomenon of human sacrifice is only incidental to this story. The real point of this narrative is to portray, in the most vivid form possible, what it means to be committed in obedient faith to the divine will. Abraham finds himself in a most frightening dilemma. Is he to obey God, even though it means sacrificing his son? Is he to save his son, even though it means flying in the face of God?

The kind of dilemma so starkly portrayed here is by no means absent from our world, particularly where the lives of others are dependent on the decisions we make. We sometimes speak of this dilemma as a choice between two evils. But where the lesser of these two evils involves the death of at least one person, it can never be taken easily. Now if we were really to believe in God in the way in which Abraham did, and in the way Abraham’s storyteller did, then the choice Abraham made, viz. to proceed as divinely commanded, was the only possible choice.

That is why this particular biblical story fascinated Soren Kierkegaard. that tragic Danish thinker of the early 19th century, who is often termed the ‘father of existentialism’. One of his best and shortest books, Fear and Trembling, is a series of penetrating reflections on this story of Abraham. Kierkegaard calls the theme of this story ‘the teleological suspension of ethics’. It poses this question: Are there not times when we face critical decisions which call for the suspension of ethics? It occurs on those rare occasions when the highest end we seek to reach (we may call it the doing of the will of God) conflicts with the highest known ethical demand. Then that ethical demand must be temporarily suspended it must take second place to the call of God. That is ultimate. and that according to Kierkegaard, is the very stuff of which religious faith is made. It is an act of obedience by personal decision which is prepared to transcend, if necessary, conventional morality.

Of course, to appreciate to the full what Kierkegaard was getting at, we need to remember that he lived at a time when the most influential philosophers of his day, Immanuel Kant and Johann Fichte, appeared to be reducing the eternal truth of religion to a set of ethical requirements. Kierkegaard was reacting against their reductionism and was doing his best to salvage religious devotion as something which is independent of, and beyond, any set of moral imperatives.

In our world today, an increasing number of people would probably agree with those philosophers of 200 years ago, that the highest demands made upon us are moral ones; that the religions imperative is none other than the moral imperative. Our problem is trying to decide whether or not, with Kierkegaard, there is a religious imperative to be distinguished from the moral one in this. We cannot readily conceive. as the ancient biblical storyteller could, any situation in which the divine will of God would demand a human sacrifice, as it did of Abraham.

So let me take another biblical story of human sacrifice, much less well known than that of Abraham. In this, the sacrifice did take place. The prophet Samuel sent King Saul to quell the Amalekites. They are described as a marauding nomad people who kept making terrorist raids into Israelite territory. The prophet called Saul to a holy war. It was to be an ancient jihad fought in the name of God. This meant that all prisoners taken and all booty captured belonged to God and had to be delivered to God as a great sacrifice. Hebrew had a special word for this kind of wholesale slaughter and destruction which makes it clear it was seen as an act of religious devotion. Saul was successful, but he did not follow the prescriptions. He spared the life of Agag, the King of the Amalekites. He also kept for Israelite use the best of the domestic animals they captured. Then Samuel arrived on the scene. He was furious. He denounced Saul as a man unworthy to be the Lord’s anointed king because he had not fulfilled the requirements of holy war. Samuel called for the captured king to be brought to them. Then – the Bible tells us with brutal simplicity – ‘Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord’.

What is our reaction to this story? We are repelled by the action of the holy priest. Our sympathies are with Saul. At least he showed a little humanity. From our moral view he did the right thing in sparing Agag. But he did the right thing for the wrong reasons! From the point of view of our morality Samuel did a dreadful thing. But he did the wrong thing for the right reasons! This story helps us to distinguish between religious motivation and morality.

It serves to underline Kierkegaard’s point. Morality varies from time to time and from culture to culture. There are no unchangeable moral laws. Moral laws are simply the conventions of behaviour universally accepted at a particular time.

That is why there is something higher – the religious imperative. It is only by means of the religious imperative that the moral conventions can themselves be held up to judgement. It was the religious imperative which gave the ancient prophets the power to question the conventional morality of blood sacrifice. The religious imperative is the highest we know. In our tradition we commonly call it the will of God.

Because we live in a different moral context from the ancient biblical storyteller, we are better able to appreciate the very real dilemma he was portraying in Abraham by translating the situation into one of our own current problems. Let us consider the case of a newly pregnant woman who has unintentionally conceived and in undesirable circumstances. Is she to have an abortion? Or is she to bring to birth a child which will face from the beginning more than the usual number of handicaps?

Let me make clear that l am not an anti-abortionist. l believe it begs the question to refer to the foetus as an ‘unborn child’. It is only by the process of birth that we can at last speak of the existence of a child. The simplistic arguments and absolute dogmatism of many anti-abortionists hide the real issue.

But neither am I happy with some of the arguments and attitudes of the pro-abortion lobby. A foetus is not a child, but it is a child-in-the-making. The present occurrence in western society of large-scale legal abortion does mean that there is only a very thin line between our society and those ancient societies which regularly disposed of unwanted children. They were prepared to do it immediately after birth. We are only prepared to do it soon after conception. The parallel should make us very uncomfortable.

Yet there is a line of difference, though a thin one. And there are circumstances in which a pregnant mother faces a dilemma very close to that of Abraham. In that dilemma a choice has to be made. It is a choice which is not for the community as a whole to make by imposing its prohibition. Only the individual can adequately make that choice. That was the point Kierkegaard kept making. The most that society can do is to emphasize the holy, sacred character of that choice, to give guidance and counsel, and to respect the sincerity and integrity of the person making the choice.

Our ongoing moral concern with the phenomenon of abortion is only the first of three examples I want to take to show that human sacrifice remains a tragic reality in the modern world. We delude ourselves if we think human sacrifice was a practice which belonged to the crude primitive cultures and that it has long since been stamped out. Easily the most shocking example of human sacrifice ever conceived and executed in all human history took place not in the ancient world, but in the 20th century. It makes the Azteclook complete amateurs. I refer to the Nazi extermination of their enemies and unwanted citizens in the gas ovens and concentration camps of Auschwitz, Belsen and so on. The Jews know it as the sacrifice of the six million – the approximate number of their fellow Jews who perished. But of course communists, homosexuals and others also lost their lives. A total of 13 million has been claimed. It is significant that the term Holocaust has come to be used for this gross act of inhumanity, for that term comes from the ancient sacrifices. It is the Greek equivalent of the biblical word for ‘whole burnt offering’.

One of the most moving moments of my life was to visit – some 20 years ago – the Memorial to the Six Million, which had then been recently built on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It is a very simple but impressively designed monument. From afar it looks like a giant concrete slab. As one comes closer one sees that the walls beneath the slab are made of round stone boulders. They look like human bodies, heaped together, being crushed to death by an immense weight. One enters through giant doors into an almost empty space, dimly lit. As one becomes accustomed to the light, one sees on the floor a stylized map of Eastern Europe. There, are marked and named the death and concentration camps where the Holocaust took place.

Why did it ever occur? Today it is as hard for us to believe as the shooting of Aboriginals for sport. It simply shows the devilish wickedness of the Nazis, we say. Of course that’s true, but its not the whole truth. The Holocaust was only the frightful climax of a long, drawn out process of anti-Semitic hatred in which the whole Christian world has been involved.

That is why, in 1985, the 40th anniversary of the cessation of the Holocaust, the Bishop of Salisbury called upon Christians to abrogate and disown the anti-Semitic elements in the New Testament. Many Christians are not even aware that they are there – but they are. And out of them grew the Christian anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, which caused the Jews to be hounded and persecuted as God killers.

It was only because anti-Semitism had a long history in European Christendom that the Nazis were able to seize upon it and use it to whip up emotional support for their programme.

The Jews became the scapegoat on which was heaped the blame for all the ills which had befallen the Christian Aryan race. Dealing with the ‘Jewish problem’ became the way to solve all problems. And the only way to deal with the Jewish problem was to exterminate them, to offer them as a sacrifice to God (who was conceived as a pure Aryan). As this entered ever more deeply into Nazi ideology it became a fanatical obsession, a form of social psychosis. It is said that even in his last days in his bunker in Berlin, Hitler was still giving his attention to the way in which the Holocaust could be perfected. And even if he was to lose the war and soon to die, he would go down in history as the new saviour of mankind. That’s madness for you!  Let us not think it is a madness in which we have clean hands, a madness in which we would never allow ourselves to become implicated. Many of the Germans who got caught up in the web of Nazi ideology were people just like you and me, people just like the millions who are today being sucked into a madness which is still gathering momentum. It is the madness by which we are constructing implements to destroy the world. It is significant that we have also given the name holocaust to the possible coming global disaster – the Nuclear Holocaust. If this ever happens, as pray God it may not, it will be a disaster which completely overshadows the Nazi Holocaust. It would be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the sacrifice of the human species and of planet Earth itself.

Now all agree this would be the final unthinkable disaster. Nobody wants it. But how plausible are the arguments being used to support the construction of the ever greater arsenals which will make that dreadful possibility come closer! We find it hard to counter the arguments of self defence and deterrence, and to realise the utter madness of the direction in which we are going. Perhaps Sigmund Freud was right. Hidden in the unconscious psyche of us all is a death wish. If we cannot be immortal but must die, then, unconsciously, we shall see to it that the whole world dies with us.

Or perhaps, to understand this current madness, we should go back and search for the reasons why primitive man, for no clearly rational reasons, obeyed a deep psychological urge to  sacrifice. Since those days we have thankfully become more sensitive to the human condition. Our moral values have changed. Yet we have not been able to rid ourselves of this deep urge to sacrifice.

For what all the plausible arguments about deterrents and self defence amount to is this. Unless the arms race is simply a bit of bluff – which I believe it is not – then we are ready to justify an action in which we shall sacrifice millions of our so called enemies in order that we may have one last chance to live. vain though it may be. Because of what has already happened in this 20th century, because of what is happening, because of what yet may happen, we moderns are in no position to criticize primitive peoples for their practice of human sacrifice.  We have already done it, and we contemplate yet doing it on a much grander scale. We may perfect it!

What is the answer to this most serious malady of ours – the urge to sacrifice others? This I shall try to deal with in the final chapter, examining the concept of self sacrifice.