Christians like to talk a lot about sacrifice, the need to make sacrifice, even the beauty of sacrifice, but the reality is, contemporary westerners in the developed world have very little real experience of sacrifice, on a cultural and communal level. We understand sacrifice as something that is occasionally asked of some people, but not something required of a community as a whole.
Our communal lifestyle is all about instant gratification, about choosing what is convenient and comfortable over what serves the common good. Being an “American” especially has to do with taking what we can get, being the biggest and strongest and richest, laboring as little as possible, not letting anyone tell us what to do. And for some reason this attitude is connected in many minds with how richly blessed we are as a nation – richly blessed, rather than outrageously selfish.
Because our way of life, our excess, our consumption, and our waste are all only possible because we are willing to sacrifice species and eco-systems, willing to sacrifice the poor to maintain our economy, willing to bomb foreign cities and topple whole civilizations, in order to keep our wealth pouring in.
Usually the things we are sacrificing, the eco-systems, the people, and the workers, are out of sight, and thus out of mind. This is reflected in the design of our cities, where the poor live alongside factories and polluted streams, while the rich perch in mansions on high hills, with beautiful rural vistas spread out beneath them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for us, as a collective, to ignore the reality of sacrifice. In order to get through this, as a society, sacrifices will have to be made, and they won’t all be out of sight, in impoverished neighborhoods, or abroad in developing nations filled with people who do not look or speak like us. Sacrifice is no longer demanded only of the poor women who are expected to risk their jobs, security, health, and even life, for the sake of childbearing. The kind of heroism we have demanded of others may now be demanded of all of us.
But the question is, what are we going to sacrifice, to get through this?
Will we be willing to sacrifice some of the pleasures of our precious “American” way of life – our vacations, our concerts, our cruises? Can we handle a few months of staying in more, modifying our behavior, taking necessary measures for the sake of public health, being more cautious with resources – even when uncomfortable and inconvenient? Can we ask that the rich give up some of their excess wealth, in order to alleviate the unfair burdens carried by the poor and working class, in this time?
Or are we going to continue, selfishly, to pursue these pleasures even if it means risking spreading the disease further, killing more people, overloading more health systems, and – ultimately – putting an even greater strain on our creaking economic system than our recent lockdowns have caused?
More people are gardening this summer, in a trend reminiscent of the “Victory Gardens” of the World War II era. This is a good thing. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that “greatest generation” who kept calm and carried on, who sacrificed their comforts and their pleasures, who did what needed to be done, communally, to support the war effort against the Nazis and the Fascists. There is a lot about that generation that was not admirable: racism, sexism, bigoted attitudes in general. But it seems they were at least able to come together soberly and give up certain privileges for the sake of communal survival.
The MAGA crowd – which is, of course, the same group that is refusing to wear masks, terrorizing local governments, and spreading misinformation – loves to talk about those good old days of the World War II vets and the Greatest Generation, but as far as I can see they are incapable of emulating any of the admirable qualities of our parents and grandparents. Because none of these restrictions and limitations that are being asked of us are new. These sacrifices are not oppression, not totalitarianism, but simply the same measures that have been asked of us before, during previous crises. But the gun-waving protesters who pretend to laud the better virtues of earlier times are not really interested in doing the work of attaining these virtues. They just want that good old-timey racism back. They love the idea of sacrifice, it seems, so long as it means they get to sacrifice someone else.