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Sacrifice: Bad Math, Bad Grammar

by Ivan Strenski
About the Author

Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Author of fifteen books and over 75 articles, he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sociology of religion. In his writings on myth, gift and sacrifice, Strenski lays the foundation for a theory locating religion within the social and political contexts of modern European life.


Why Politics Can't Be Freed from Religion

Author: Ivan Strenski

Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405176482
ISBN-13: 978-1405176484

In this thought-provoking book, Ivan Strenski unpacks the central concepts of religion, politics, and power, and provides a new theoretical framework to think about what they mean in today’s society. In addition to offering radical critiques of the perspectives of thinkers such as Talal Asad and Michel Foucault, Strenski moves beyond the theory in applying his intellectual framework to a variety of real-world issues, including insights into suicide bombers in the Middle East.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

Abstract: A confounding dilemma sits at the center of sacrificial discourse. Sacrifice means loss, giving up, destruction and death. But, much talk about sacrifice carries on as if this loss, this subtraction, actually achieves addition. Soldiers sacrifice themselves in battle, but this doesn’t count as diminishment. It actually adds to whatever social body of reference is in play. So, the question is why and how can sacrifice add to the social whole, when, in the fact of destruction and death, it subtracts from the social whole, by removing one of its members from the body of the living? The resolution I shall propose to this dilemma, will, at the same time, attempt to urge more care about the use of the word ‘sacrifice,’ than is often the practice.


I argue that sacrifice defeats many attempts to think about ‘it’ because ‘it’ is fraught with ironies and conceptual confusions. (I shall explain my placing the word, sacrifice, within inverted commas, shortly.) The ironies concerns the ‘math’ of sacrifice; the confusions; its ‘bad grammar.’ Underlying both these is the even more fundamental lack of clarity between kinds of sacrifice.

I count at least two broad kinds of sacrifice. First, is ritual sacrifice: there, sheep, literally, are led to slaughter. Second, is civic sacrifice: there figurative ‘sheep’ (soldiers?) are led either to figurative or real ‘slaughter.’ The shortcomings (‘bad math’) of utilitarian calculus emerge once we delve into the social policy framing civic sacrifice. The ‘bad grammar’ of sacrifice shows itself in our inability to make up our minds what we should think ‘sacrifice’ is. Let me start by showing how our American value-system eventuates in the ‘bad math’ of “sacrifice”—here, civic sacrifice.

By any account, the age of nationalism and the nation-state have produced not only the loudest calls for sacrifice, but also the greatest quantity of sacrificial deaths, notably in warfare. Even allowing for the proportionally greater populations of humanity since the 17th century, a betting person could feel fairly confident of a safe wager, were they to accept my proposition.

Irony emerges, however, once we accept the thesis proposed by Louis Dumont: that nationalism generates individualism, and thus puts sacrifice of the nation into tension with the desire to enhance the individual person. A nation, in the modern sense, is by definition a nation of individuals.

Nicely capturing this exquisitely painful fact is France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man—the individual—and Citizen—the integral member of the collectivity known as the nation-state.  The nation-state thus pulls us in two opposed directions simultaneously. On the one side, we are defined by a vision of the human being as singular and equal, equipped with an assemblage of “rights” : privacy, autonomy, self-development, self-realization, etc.  On the other side, the nation demands submission of body and soul to the collectivity, and demands ‘sacrificial’ death to defend its integrity. Its laws against treason punish departures from ‘correct’ thinking about national loyalties. 

Yet, somehow we have become used to being pulled in two directions. We expect that collective nation-state policies may regularly contradict all those celebrated things we feel as individuals about our personal rights and freedoms. We have come to expect the major value shaping modern Western society—individualism—to be negated whenever the nation-state feels it is at risk. We have become socialized into the central contradiction in the deep structure of life in the modern nation-state.

How else to explain the lack of popular consternation over the cognitive dissonance of George W. Bush’s conception of ‘sacrifice’ in response to the 9-11 attacks—namely, a flat refusal to demand it? Bush’s conception of national (sacrificial?) duty urged Americans to go shopping! Head for the nearest mall and spend the massive Bush tax cuts coming our way, instead of lining up at the enlistment centers to help fight a now decade-long, off-budget, “War on Terror.”

However, there is no such thing as sacrifice by ‘remote control.’ Nor does singing praises to the troops while raiding the Apple Store really count either. Carried out by an elite corps of professional military, far from our shores in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, most Americans were insulated from experiencing the sacrifices of our much bally-hood, but emotionally inaccessible, military!

The Bush painless—no sacrifice—war policies seemed puzzling, weird and dissonant to careful observers, because they were! They denied the ironic nation-individualism linkage, by effectively denying the individual any part in the national character of these conflicts. Bush hardly paid a price for saving Americans from a cut by the sacrificial knife. Yet, in our hearts, we know there is no such thing as (civic) sacrifice ‘on the cheap.’

This bizarre and self-conflicted state of public values eventuates in what I call the ‘bad math’ of sacrifice.  Sacrifice means loss, giving up or at least giving ‘of,’ destruction and, in many cases, death. But, characteristically, most talk promoting sacrifice talks as if these losses are in reality gains—a paradigm case of ‘addition by subtraction.’

Proponents of civic sacrifice in war, for example, routinely argue how the loss of lives in heroic combat actually counts as gain. So, the question is how and why we can send addition by subtraction. Utility might resolve this dilemma in two ways for someone who may die in order that others may live. The death is not classified as a ‘suicide,’ since it is not limited by self-involvement. One willingly dies for the sake of others and not simply because one is weary with living, or burdened with one’s own problems.

Calculating from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the sacrificial death in some sense can be argued to prevent loss, even while sustaining a single loss. The ‘others’ are saved at the cost of one member. Toting up costs and benefits, that single loss may be the small rice worth paying for maintaining the whole intact. At worst, the loss of a few for the sake of a sufficiently large number could even be seen as maintaining something close to steady state.

From the social point of view, those who die for the sake of others are typically embraced and honored with titles such as hero, savior, brave, devoted, unselfish, valiant and such. Even those who appear to die as suicides may often be reinterpreted as sacrifices once certain extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration. Is the person who took their own life so that their impoverished heirs may benefit from a general life insurance policy a ‘suicide’ or ‘sacrifice’? A debatable point.

Suicides, on the other hand, cause confused anger, dismay, despair or embarrassment for the survivors. The suicide has been ‘selfish’ in taking his or her own life, only to leave others to ‘clean up’ afterwards. By contrast, people readily ‘clean up’ after heroes, or sacrificial deaths. The remains of sacrifice are carefully collected, and memorialized as relics or to enshrine in a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier.

By contrast, suicides cause others to shun memory, or worse yet to lose faith in a future, and to find their courage sapped for continuing with struggles that life demands. In Lithuania today, the nation holds the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate on earth. Add that to a negative population growth, near bottoms in birth rate—203 out of 229, and in population growth—211 of 229 rate, and a general pall of gloom hangs over the population.

The nation is haunted by the fear of its own disappearance. And so suicides are effectively shunned or, at the very least, considered sad or pathetic cases, for good reasons. As Durkheim argued generations ago, suicide’s origins and pathology is profoundly social. Suicides, at best, are quietly forgotten. They have only recently been memorialized.

And, here the memorials serve not to memorialize the suicides, as to feel compassion for the survivors. Consider the home page of Suicide Monument/Memorial Gardens, which begins

Welcome to the Suicide Monument/Memorial Gardens. Here is where you will find the cyber cemetery, numerous links for support, stories, and many inspirational pages. I am truly sorry you have had to find this site as it means you have lost someone you love to suicide. {Anon, 2012 #3854}

Or, World Wide Cemetery's Suicide Memorial: “ It is our hope that the World Wide Cemetery's Suicide Memorial might help people who have been through a similar experience to get in contact with each other and thereby reduce their feelings of isolation.” {Anon, 2012 #3855} Catholics, of course, traditionally denied burial to suicides, at all, and thus refused them memorialization.

The Church effectively erased them from memory because they refused suicides official occasions to be remembered collectively. Not so for those who have died what are considered sacrificial deaths. Unless, the ‘others’ show themselves to be ungrateful, those sacrificed are remembered. Or, unless, the cause is considered futile, fraudulent or empty, they are memorialized.

These references to solidarity also bring out a second utilitarian rationale for civic sacrifice—for seeing loss of an individual to the group as really a kind of addition to the group. On this view, in the same way that sacrifices are not suicides, because they both add to the whole as well as being celebrated by the whole, so also might they be construed as not masochistic  either. One dies for others, not for the sake of the maximization of the pleasure of pain. Doing so functions for higher order pleasure-maximization.

In the first example of utilitarian calculation, one balances the utilities for larger numbers who are saved by one’s sacrifice against the loss of a single life. But in the second sort of utilitarian, one reckons maximizing the higher-order pleasure value of adhering to or reinforcing a norm. If one dies for the sake of preserving the group, then a norm may be established for others to follow suit. Establishing such a norm may constitute a higher-order pleasure for the actor. Put in reverse, because others would die—sacrifice—for you, you are willing to die—sacrifice—for them.

At least one weakness in the utilitarian conception of civic sacrifice is its fore-shortened vision. Social acts have consequences that exceed simple reference to local or immediate group membership in the examples above. It is simpleminded in the extreme to expect an allegedly civic sacrificial act to produce a one-for-one utility. Would we limit the wider and deeper consequences of a child kidnapping to the local school ground from which the unfortunate was abducted? Of course not.

The effects of certain social acts ripple out, often subtly, far beyond the immediate local circle where and when they took place. At least some civic sacrifices—one thinks of the NYFD first responders on 9-11—are like that. In that light, how would one calculate utilities with any degree of accuracy without the limiting devices provided by a simple one-for-one scenario?

Or, given the long-term and widespread consequences of many social acts, such as some of those classified as ‘sacrifice,‘ how do we calculate utilities in any meaningful sense at all?! But the failure of utilitarian constructions of civic sacrifice only means that we need other theories of understanding the social efficacy of sacrifice. I have argued that gift and exchange theories can serve as productive models of understanding civic sacrifice.

Civic sacrifice is, in brief, about a kind giving to the community that in turn produces moral obligation to give further and more broadly.  This thesis can be tested in empirical cases, such as I have provided, in the instances of so-called ‘suicide bombing.’ There, the data support the view that these deaths are regarded, both by the actors and their communities of reference, as ‘gifts’ to the community, requiring meaningful action in response. They are not meaningless suicides or mere acts of warfare.

Ignoring such longer and wider trajectories of human actions makes it too easy for us to speak uncritically about the term, sacrifice. In everyday street-talk, ‘sacrifice’ means little more than a kind of intentional killing, dying, death, destruction, and such. In this discourse, sacrifice approaches ‘suicide’ but veers away from it at the last moment, so to speak. Are the soldiers volunteering for a ‘suicide mission’ really ‘suicides,’ in our ordinary use of the term, or are they ‘sacrifices’?

They may be seen as ‘victims.’ But, given the ambiguous context of the word, ’victim,’ their act could settle more firmly into the sacrificial mode, or instead be seen as the result of cynical exploitation. Would the retort that the soldiers are ‘sacrifices,’ because ‘everybody knows what sacrifice is!’(Sic) get a pass? Possibly, but not surely.

The speaker just hopes that no one will quiz them about the reason for their use of the term. Ironically, sometime this evasion works in the best of social science. Max Weber operated like this about the term ‘religion’ in his classic Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. There, he labored painfully over getting his definition of ‘capitalism’ just right.  He gave the term, ‘capitalism’ a good deal of ‘trouble.’ He argued extensively to persuade readers to accept his own original definition of capitalism, and one that was hardly prevalent in his time.

‘Religion,’ however, Weber took from ‘off the shelf,’ so to speak. Weber never bothers to define “religion.” Indeed, there is no indication that he thought he needed to do so. Like many social scientists, even today, he assumed that ‘everybody knows what religion is!’ While having to justify the use of only one key term instead of two in Protestant Ethic, certainly made Weber’s task easier in his great work, it left conceptual work undone.

In a way, although Weber was not stuck with having to solve an equation with two variables, he nonetheless was left with an extra variable to define—‘religion.’ So, his failure to be as critical about the term ‘religion’ doesn’t absolve him of neglecting the critical task, any more than it would have had he passed over ‘capitalism’ in the same way. This is why slipping into simplistic utilitarian modes of thinking about ‘sacrifice’ masks the simultaneous move of  brushing critical thinking about the term ‘under the rug.’ Failure to be critical about ‘sacrifice’ results in a ‘bad grammar’ of ‘sacrifice’—because it fails to establish a defensible usage of the term.

All very well, then. What happens though when we try to clarify the logical grammar of sacrifice in the explicitly ritual domain first? Doubtless because of their history of association in the religious traditions of the West, we find it compelling to collocate offering, consecration, immolation, and communal eating into an institution which we have called ‘sacrifice’.

This indicates that sacrifice is what might be better called a syndrome, rather than an objective 'thing' with its name written on it. But why should we 'see' this syndrome as a thing, an institution? Why should we not see the sacrificial syndrome—like other syndromes--conventional, provisional, and constructed for particular purposes?

What I recommend is questioning the actual solidity of the particular collocations which we call by the name 'sacrifice'. Yes, maybe all the bits are there; but are they all there in equal portion? Are some parts central and others peripheral, or even merely coincidental? Are they there for the folk we study, or only for us?

We know people like to kill, that they like to give gifts, cook and eat communally, and that they like to raise things out of the everyday and promote them into a special or sacred domain. But do people who like to kill ritually, equally well enjoy raising what they kill to some higher level--a level of sacredness? Is the only way to 'consecrate' something, conversely, to kill it ritually?

Or further, is what is killed ritually always cooked and eaten, or offered as a gift to a divine or mundane being? Such considerations were behind my protests that the discourse on sacrifice had become only a gussied up way to obsess on ritual killing. If such connections do not obtain in various cases, perhaps we should then be more candid in our conceptualization of those cases, and just forget the whole notion and terminology of sacrifice which supposes links where there may be none?

Perhaps we should just admit that we are interested in ritual killing or even ritual murder as significant practices in and for themselves—as conceivably having nothing to do really with rites called 'sacrifice'. The same case could be made for gift-giving or cooking as significant in and for themselves, not requiring linkage with some sort of sacrificial syndrome.

This is also to say that after injecting this measure of frankness into our deliberations, we could then return to those cases where the peculiar collocation of offering, consecration, immolation, communal eating occurs and is thought to be vital. These we could judge accord­ingly. We know some people like to kill, that some like to give gifts, cook and eat communally, and that some even like to consecrate things.

But what is it then when people like to do all these things—ritually kill, offer, cook, consecrate etc.—together? What is it when they see all these things as intimately related to each other, and believe that this unity persists over periods of time? If we knew that, and if we still wanted to apply the term ‘sacrifice’ to such a ritual syndrome, then we would really have something to talk about.

Can this schema be exported to cases of civic sacrifice, such a sacrificial death in warfare? Perhaps no exporting from the ritual domain to the civic is required, since sacrificial death in warfare is already ritual, or at least ritualized. I do not dispute this entirely, although I would urge readers to consider evidence for a distinction. The rhetoric of civic sacrifice often trades on appeals to the domain of ritual. It seems hardly necessary to substantiate this, but consider these cases.

Soldiers on the battlefield are seen as being led like ‘lambs to the slaughter’—a clear suggestion of analogies with ritual sacrificial killing. Or, soldiers may be seen as offering their lives on the analogy of Jesus winning salvation for the nation. Similarly, sacrificial death for Israel has as well always been held in high regard and likened to temple ritual.

In the famous Israeli nationalistic poem, Natan Altermann’s “The Silver Platter,” we meet a young couple—significantly pure and innocent as sacrificial victims are classically represented in ritual sacrificial representations—confronting the nation with the sacrificial price which must be paid for the continued existence of Israeli nationhood itself. 

The poem concludes with their final words:

“We are the silver platter
On which the Jewish state has been given you.”

That the civic (implicitly religious) domain looks to the ritual (explicitly religious) domain for justification indicates that those making such legitimating moves see the two realms as different—or at least different enough—to resort to these analogies for rhetorical support.

What I find remarkable is how close to ritual senses of sacrifice the civic ones can become. If the sacrificial ritual ‘syndrome’ involves killing or destruction, giving gifts, cooking/transforming and eating/consuming communally, and finally consecration, do we find their analogies in civic sacrifice? I think so. For example, even when civic sacrifices are only partial —a ‘giving of’ rather than a total ‘giving up’ of a life, career etc., the ritual model seems to brood over the civic realm. 

In terms of the civic sacrifice—a dying for country, or even paying one’s taxes—gift discourse seems prominent. Soldiers give up their lives for/to their country; good citizens give of themselves in paying their taxes or supporting the United Fund, for example. Similarly, in dying for country, the soldier, or at least their memory, becomes ‘sacred.’ A consecration occurs. They become heroes to us all, have their names inscribed in immortal stone, lend their names to public places and institutions, and so on.

As ‘victims,’ they become blameless and without taint. A kind of primal innocence is restored to them, just as the image of the ‘lamb of God’ tells us from the ritual context.  But, after these correspondences with ritual sacrifice, the analogy between civic and ritual sacrifice seems to break down. Is there a sense, for example, in which what is sacrificed in warfare (the life of a soldier) is shared and eaten—even figuratively? I don’t know. But, those wanting to see such deaths in warfare as ‘sacrifices’ might want to see how far the analogy with ritual sacrifice can be extended.

‘Sacrifice’ is thus a powerful notion, fraught with complexities that need untangling. If we wish to keep our thinking straight about the political rhetoric of ‘sacrifice,’ we might pay special heed to the traps that await us in resorting to sacrificial discourse. In this essay, I have tried to shed some light on at least a few places where sacrificial talk can trap the unwary thinker.