Sacrificing our Humanity to Change the World (Part 2 of 3)

Sacrificing our Humanity to Change the World (Part 2 of 3) February 22, 2023

Sacrificing Our Humanity


As we continue considering the topic of sacrificing our humanity to change the world, the second temptation may be harder for us to draw present societal applications for. It’s hard for me to get my head around the devil taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and tempting him to place God in a position to perform a miracle to save Jesus’ life. One thing that helps here is not to think of the temple as solely religious. It was the center of the Jewish religion, but it was also the seat of the temple state, so with this temptation, it’s more helpful to think of the temple as a state capital.

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(Read this series from its beginning here.)

These verses ultimately speak to me of the temptation to sacrifice oneself for the cause, to put oneself at risk, assuming that good will ultimately result from that sacrifice. Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle in the hopes that God would intervene. How many times since then have people in justice movements been inspired to put their own wellbeing in jeopardy and sacrifice themselves to try and awaken the consciences of their oppressors? I think there is a place for certain types of sacrifice for specific causes, but what I’m referring to here is the way that some movement leaders call others to become sacrificial lambs to reach the “hearts and minds” of those harming them.

I think of how pastors have pled with some of my Christian LGBTQ friends to keep showing up in unsafe religious environments each week to model something (I don’t know what) for bigoted Christians in the hopes that their hearts will be changed. This doesn’t take into account the real life harms these spaces impose on these LGBTQ Christians. As a dear friend of mine used to say in Ben Kenobi tones, “These aren’t the sacrificial lambs you’re looking for.”

My friends have callings and dreams and hopes for their lives and shouldn’t have to waste their years simply justifying their existence. They exist. They are here. The question for straight , cisgender Christians is how will we choose to relate to our fellow Christians whether they are different from us or not?

I think of the critiques of feminist scholars like Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, who have spent a lot of energy critiquing certain expressions of self-sacrifice, taught by well-meaning Christians, that prioritize and center oppressors and abusers to the detriment of survivors and victims.

I will be quoting at length here from Brown’s and Parker’s classic essay “For God So Loved the World?” It’s in dialogue with statements made by Martin Luther King, Jr. Again, it’s lengthy, and worth the extended read:

“In liberation and critical theologies the suffering of Jesus becomes a symbol for the conflicts that occur when people fight for new and more just social forms. The old must pass away before the new comes, and in its death throes the old lashes out against the new.”

I agree. But as Brown and Parker go on to explain, this concept often then turns into unhealthy passive acceptance and unhealthy forms of self-sacrifice having a greater purpose and meaning.

“The martyrs of the revolution are the sign that the beast is dying. Their blood gives hope, because it reveals the crisis that is at hand. Furthermore, violence against the vanguards of a new age is to be accepted. Acceptance witnesses against the perpetrator of violence and ennobles the victim. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, accepted the inevitability of the violence directed against the civil rights movement and saw it as the responsibility of people in the movement to bear the suffering in order to transform the situation. [Italics added for emphasis]

‘Suffering can be a most creative and powerful social force…. The nonviolent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the nonviolent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.’ (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted. in A Testament of Hope, ed. James Washington (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 47)

King’s view is similar to the “moral influence” theory of the atonement: unjust suffering has the power to move the hearts of perpetrators of violence. The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?, p. 14-15)

This teaching has proven not only harmful but also lethal for victims of abuse.

Another source worth listening to on this point is womanist scholar Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness. We’ll listen to her, next.

(Read Part 3)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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