Not long ago I wrote an article on sacrifice exploring the idea that to sacrifice is to offer to the gods some thing of value to be made holy in an act of exchange where the divine and profane trade with each other. Those offering the sacrifice hope to receive something useful from the divine, while the divinity receives something valuable from the profane. In other words, it’s hoped the gods will find their gift so pleasing that they will grant a boon to those who offer it.
Sacrifice is not easy to explain or understand, but we do have limits about what kinds are permissible. For instance, we no longer tolerate human sacrifice, with a special abhorrence of child sacrifice. Or do we? Throughout the world, even in our own nation, we have and continue to engage in massive acts of human sacrifice. But to what gods? To the gods of our own hubris, lust for power, greed, fear, and ignorance. What do we want in exchange for the sacrifices we offer? Security, safety, preservation of privilege, the usual suspects. Do we ever get them? Not often. The gods we have made from our own desires are not reliable. Indeed, they have little power to do anything because, as it turns out, they’re illusions, chimeras, figments of our own delusional imaginations.
Christian worship, as celebrated in my tradition, understands that there is no god other than the Lord God, and pleasing God with a bribe is out of the question. For us, in response to an offering of bread and wine with thanksgiving, God returns it as holy food an drink to nourish us for holy work. We’re not very good at it, which is one reason we repeat it each week. Why would God do that? Because God loves us, and for no other reason. It may not make sense in human terms, but that’s the way it is. Other Christian traditions have other understandings about sacrifice, yet all agree that God cannot be bribed, and that God’s gift of love cannot be bought, only accepted.
So why? Why do so many self professed Christians continue to celebrate the legitimacy of wholesale human sacrifice to the gods of human hubris in the name of national or tribal loyalty?
It may have something to do with the common understanding of sacrifice as recorded in scripture, and in the history of our own times. Sacrifice is so infused with the idea of destroying something of great value that it’s hard to think of it in any other way. What do we say we sacrifice? Friendships, family, moral integrity, wealth, health, the lives of soldiers in battle, and for what? Careers, libidos, income, power, popularity, status, recognition, safety, national pride. As gods go, they are made of flimsy stuff.
It’s an old, old problem. Scripture records an abundance of human sacrifice over thousands of years, sometimes in God’s name. But throughout the biblical record, God’s progressive self revelation has leaned against it. The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac boggles our minds, but it turns out that it was a common practice to sacrifice first born children to various gods, in hopes of better things to come. That kind of thinking has been true throughout the world in many cultures. It’s so horrifying that we make bad jokes out of throwing virgins into volcanoes as a way to laugh at what is pure evil. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Lord ordered a stop to that way of thinking.
It took a long time to fully understand God’s condemnation of human sacrifice, indeed the sacrifice of any living creature. It has taken an even longer time to understand that the slaughter of peoples for political purposes is a form of human sacrifice that is as fully condemned by God as was the sacrifice of Isaac. Christians should have understood it at the foot of the cross, and at the empty grave, but we didn’t. We still don’t because we have deluded ourselves into thinking that, just because a human sacrifice doesn’t happen on an altar, under the hand of a knife wielding priest, it’s not a sacrifice to false gods when we offer up the lives of young men and women for no defensible purpose other than the political aspirations of political leaders and the nations they serve. And it’s certainly not human sacrifice when civilians are slaughtered by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the name of collateral damage that is an unintentional cost of offerings to the gods of war.
What can we offer in defense of our world wide practice of human sacrifice? Do we not have a right to self defense? Do we not have a right to combat insurrection? Shouldn’t we intervene with deadly force when victims of egregious acts of injustice and terror reach out to us for help? Are we to become doormats for anyone to tromp on? Do we not have to answer the patriotic call of those who gave their lives in battle? Consider the closing lines of Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous 1915 poem, “In Flander’s Fields.” It’s the voice of the dead calling to those yet alive.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The call to human sacrifice is strong, even as we deny that such a thing is still done, at least not by us, whoever us may be.
Is that to say there is never a time when deadly force resulting in massive human death is justified? No. But those times are few, and our history of engaging in human sacrifice is rife with many that cannot be justified. Even when they are, it’s a tragedy of sinful proportions for which confession and repentance is demanded. The god’s disagree. They want glorifying celebration. The Lord God is not amused by them. Christians are called to pay more attention to the Lord God than to the gods we have created out of human hubris.