Sacrifice, Self-Sacrifice and Oppression, Self-Oppression

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.


5 thoughts on “Sacrifice, Self-Sacrifice and Oppression, Self-Oppression

  1. …consequently resentful, we seem most prone to the urge to sacrifice ourselves and 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.

    Yes. Yes. And I I found her thoughts about our experience as our “best and sturdiest guide” provocative and on some level I think this is why I have been enjoying art so very much these days. It is a constant reminder that my perception is just that , my perception, further shaking the “sturdiness” of any kind of conclusion, assumption, judgement.

    As far as the self sacrifice as violence, I’d sort of put together in a recovery oriented approach that self sacrifice that enables hurts people…but I’ll have to think more about self sacrifice as sacrificial violence in and of itself. The heroism, the moral superiority, yes I see that, but what about unnamed, unspoken, unrecognized anonymous acts of self sacrifice?

  2. There is a crucial but subtle difference between sacrifice (thusia/thuo) and self-giving/sacrifice (phero/diaphero/anaphero). The Epistle to the Hebrews makes this clear in it’s preference for the latter verbs, rather than the former. Thuo recalls the sacrifical act of sacrificing another whereas phero and it’s cognates (at least in the Epistle to the Hebrews) denotes not so much the sacrifice as the offering of one’s self. Girard in the 70’s and early 80’s repudiated the notion of sacrifce as applicable to Christian thought but has since realized that he was ‘scapegoating sacrifice.’

    I refer you to my essay on ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews’ in Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley for a longer discussion of this.

  3. I appreciate both comments.

    Michael, I have read your essay — it was the first one I turned to when I got _Violence Renounced_! And of course I reading Preaching Peace regularly.

    I know Girard has changed his analysis a bit concerning sacrifice (as well as mimesis), yet I struggle with these things nonetheless. I think self-sacrifice is possible in human culture and yet I think it’s rare and fraught. It is for me, anyway, and I observe that it is for others. How easy it is for me to justify ‘sacrifice’ as something Christlike, as true kenosis, when it’s really a way to avoid conflict or evoke praise or earn God’s love.

    And the internal logic of Teresa’s position that self-sacrifice is still sacrifice reminds me of the Girardian logic that violence by any other name (like peace, justice, ritual, sacred violence, etc.) is still violence.

    Michael, you say in your essay that for a Christian community, sacrifice consists in self-giving such as “praise, sharing, and deeds that benefit others” (Heb 13:15-16). That I can affirm, though in actuality I think it’s _still_ very fraught territory, even in these _relatively_ easy forms, as, in my experience and observation, they tend to lead us back to ‘tit for tat’ sorts of computations (‘I made her two casseroles when her father died but when I needed help, she didn’t return the favour!’); but that it’s difficult to enact makes it none the less what we imagine as the imitation of Christ and the fullness of life.

    It’s self-sacrifice in _other_ ways that begins to me to look violent, twisted, complicit, and as Renee says in her comment, enabling: as a domestic partner who stays with the spouse who threatens or beats her, in the hope or belief that her forgiveness of him and her loving sacrifice for him will reveal his actions to him for what they are and help him to turn away from violence. Or the man who allows his boss to verbally abuse him, the husband who sacrifices himself to meet the desires of his never-satisfied wife, and so on, all for the sake of love, hope, faith.

    You say, in the same essay, that “acts which lead to death” (Heb 6:1) might mean that not caring for “those who have been scapegoated, to expose them to further victimage, would be to commit ‘an act leading to the death [of another].” What if the person scapegoated and victimised is oneself? Does the idea not apply? I’m thinking about Jesus’s commandment, to love other as self — and self as other?

    Again, thanks much to both of you for adding your thoughts and voices. This blog is nothing if not a ‘work in travail’…

  4. I think the language of “sacrifice” very often conceals violence/violation behind religious rhetoric such that I’m not convinced the word is actually very helpful – at least whilst it is viewed as in any way god-demanded. In practise the notion of “sacrifice” can be like giving a blank check to god / church or their representative to demand of you whatever is expedient to them.

    With regard to self-sacrifice in face of violence to oneself – perhaps the difference between nonviolent resistance and nonresistance is relevant here. The latter would I think characterise inappropriate self-sacrifice whereas the former would refuse to continue the spiral of violence either through responding in kind or continuing unquestioningly to accept violation.

    In the end I am concerned about the difference between religious language which reveals the social, political, inter-personal dynamics at work in a scenario and religious language that conceals these. I think much talk of sacrifice falls into the latter category.

    I’m very grateful to have come across this post and comments. I’m currently reading / writing on sacrifice and am disturbed by how much unquestioned sacrificial rhetoric there is in our traditions and liturgies.

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