The practice of sacrifice has been around as long as human civilization. In fact, according to René Girard, civilization is necessitated by it. Archaeologically, we see evidence of this in humanity’s most ancient sites (see Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük). And even the Bible, which is much more recent, understands that sacrifice is presupposed (Genesis 4:3).
But this practice is not confined to the Bronze Age and prior. Nor is it confined to those bloodthirsty gods from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Molech, Ba’al, and the like). In fact, as recent as the 16th century, the Aztecs were in the business of offering human hearts to all sorts of different gods—sometimes by the tens of thousands per day even! Disgusting, right? Barbaric. Sick. Twisted. All sorts of adjectives, I get it.
But here’s the crux of things—we’re still doing the same thing today. It just manifests in different forms.
Allow me to explain.
You see, the kings and priests of the 16th century Aztec empire were nothing if not future victims of sacrifice themselves. They even embraced this. It was an honor to be chosen for sacrifice (of course, not in every instance, like those who were captured in war). But for many, it was revered. The people recognized that the sacrifice—even self-sacrifice—is what spared them from wrath, what “kept peace.”
Today, however, we sort of do the same thing. That is what I have noticed anyway. What we do though is recruit teenagers at their schools, telling them about what a great future the armed forces ensures, if only they would sign on the dotted line. Here, they will find who they truly are! And boy do they, when they are sent overseas—all too often to regions with plenty of oil!—to be sacrificed to the black gold gods. We even use the appropriate language: “they paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”
And to be honest, they did. It is their sacrifice that keeps us “free,” that keeps us “at peace,” that keeps us “safe and secure.”
Like the Aztecs, we are privy to this. So we too immortalize the victims this sacrificial mechanism produces, turning them—and their American-flag-draped caskets—into a sort of god, who had just been slain on the altar of war.Now, I don’t say that to cause offense. We should honor them. We should grieve their loss. But their victimage should not be what is used to “make peace.” That is no different than how the Aztecs made peace. And frankly, that is no different than how Bronze Age “barbarians” made peace.
Are we no better than this?
Well, we should be.
After all, we are “enlightened.” We are “modern.” O, how civilized we are!
Well no, actually, we are not these things.
We have just become more subtle in our sacrificing. Instead of carving open the abdomens and chests of one of our warriors, we send them off to war, to “fight the good fight” (or, in other words, to do the bidding of the world’s most powerful and elite). In my country, we adorn it in red, white, and blue. In other countries, the colors may be different, but the mechanism is the same. Do it for national pride! Do it for glory! Make the sacrifice!
It’s a bloody shame.
All this being said, I’m not sure I have the best answer to this problem humanity is in. In fact, the answer I provide indeed seems to be, as poet Wilfred Owen puts it, “an ignominious principle.” And he’s probably right, especially when thinking of such entities as ISIS! But I still think the answer is found in following Jesus, in denouncing violence in all forms, in forgiving thine enemies, in giving one’s self in love to the other.
Like I said, it isn’t a “great” answer—not by human standards anyway—but it is the answer the True Human gave. So perhaps this is what it means to have faith. In spite of this answer being fairly illogical and frankly absurd, have faith that it indeed is the answer. Have faith that there need not be any more sacrifices made to the gods of our mind, whether gods with specific names like Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, or gods with generic names like “religion” or “nationalism.”
I do have faith that this will one day “work.” I dare not think Jesus believed peace was only some sort of pipe-dream that would never become a reality. After all, he really did die a real human death because of this dream. So if it was that important to him, and if I am going to try to follow him—as uncomfortable as that sounds—I am going to have to make it important to me.
So try to have faith with me, even if your faith is just like mine—no bigger than a mustard seed.
Shalom and salaam and in the words of our risen Lord: “Peace be with you.”