Teresa at Flesh and Spirit writes from a Girardian perspective about sacrifice. She begins in this post by critiquing Eve Tushnet, a converted Catholic lesbian who has apparently given up sexual relationships as a form of self-sacrifice. Teresa comments on this sacrifice, and on Tushnet’s wariness of interpreting her own experience correctly:
“Tushnet has chosen to make a sacrifice of her lesbian sexuality, but maybe God wants her to sacrifice her attachment to a patriarchal tradition. I would say only she knows the answer to that. She would say the Church knows better than she does.”
I too question self-sacrifice on the grounds that it seems, to me, to sometimes be a disingenuous way to experience a sense of moral superiority, a two-fold way to reap the cultural rewards of conformity, and yet I can imagine saying (probably have said) what Tushnet says about experience:
“Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? … To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots.”
Likely it’s a bias borne of my manifold personal experiences that leads me to this wariness of bias in general, and to this wariness of self-sacrifice.
Speaking then of James Alison, Teresa writes:
“But I find discomfort with any idea of sacrifice. Claiming that Christianity breaks the cycle of escalating sacrificial violence by having us make sacrifices of ourselves is seeming less true to me all the time. I’ve never really seen the difference between sacrificing someone else as a scapegoat versus sacrificing ourselves.”
She elaborates more on this in the comments. (And a commenter explains the difference s/he sees between scapegoating and sacrifice, and scapegoating others and sacrificing self.)
Teresa continues in the post:
“There must be some place post-sacrificial that we’re heading. But is post-sacrificial also post-human? The most important item in Alison’s thought, to me, is the emphasis on living beyond resentment. That, too, may be post-human.”
These are the thoughts on my mind as well. If violent mimesis and scapegoating are essential to human culture, where do we go from here? Jesus was human, and most Girardians would say that he underwent scapegoating at the hands of humans, and that he sacrificed himself (simultaneously and at the same time?) in order to reveal that this is the very mechanism or process at the heart of human culture.
In theory, humans can choose to pacifically imitate Jesus, whose identity was so deeply located in God that he wanted what God wanted, and there was no envy, jealousy, enmity, conflict, or rivalry between them — but what does that look like in our culture, in the ‘old world order’ we live in?
Does it mean, for instance, that we voluntarily undergo violence, and if so, why?
For the purpose of showing others what they’re doing? That’s been done, 2000+ years ago, and anyway, holding a mirror up to others doesn’t generally transform those particular people; it generally leads to anger, denial, and resentment among those in the mirror, though others may see things differently.
For the purpose of simply not returning violence with violence? Like Teresa, I tend to see self-sacrifice as violence, or at least as a way to perpetuate violence and power in others. I guess one question is, does letting someone enact violence reinforce the mechanism of violence or contribute to its end? Thinking about the U.S. civil rights fight, and then thinking about domestic abuse and mob violence, I come up with different answers.
For the purpose of imitating Jesus? I don’t think imitating Jesus is necessarily about doing just what Jesus did. I think (and I’m pretty sure I got this from Alison originally) that imitating Jesus = imitating Jesus’s sense of his own identity, founded completely and eternally in a fully alive and fully loving God. Jesus knew who he was. And he knew he was loved. That may seem simple, but if we have no anxiety about our identity, our ego, our worth, our value, whether we are liked and respected, whether we are good and right, and so on, we won’t feel the urge to rivalry, envy, jealousy, hate, and all the other things that lead us to violence.
For the purpose of enacting heartfelt love and compassion? Yes. But how hard that is to do, cleanly, when the world is so ready to name heroes (and villains), to find another ‘Mother Teresa’ (and another Hitler).
Resentment seems key to me. When I look around at the people I know and know of, including myself, I see that when people feel punished, victimised, unfairly burdened — and consequently resentful, we seem most prone to the urge to sacrifice ourselves and others, and which option we choose — sacrifice of others or sacrifice of self — seems to spring from the voices we listen to inside our heads, the experiences that most formed us, the narrative we adopt to explain our life, the biases we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating.
Because I feel as Tushnet, that our bias makes us imperfect interpreters of our own experience and everything else, I agree with Teresa that sacrifice may well be just another form of violence, perpetrated in the misbegotten belief that it will bring us the peace we lack.