By David Weddle
David L. Weddle is Professor Emeritus at Colorado College. He served as chair of the Department of Religion from 2001 to 2008 and was named the David and Lucile Packard Professor of Religion for 2009-2012.
Book by David Weddle
Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions

NYU Press (2010)

This essay addresses the question of how the high ideal of sacrifice becomes implicated in the abysmal depth of violence: Why—in the name of God—do religious believers cause terrible suffering to themselves and to others? Does the notion that sacrifice brings salvation encourage believers to act as if violence were sacred—or could make them sacred?

Scholars call this notion the “myth of redemptive violence.” It is central to Christian teaching that the death of Christ was a sacrifice offered to God for the forgiveness of the sins of humanity (at least of that portion of humanity who accept Christian faith). But the idea that redemption comes through violence does not belong exclusively to Christians.

We find it in the Hebrew Bible story of the patriarch Abraham, who binds his son in compliance with divine command and raises a knife to slaughter him as a sacrifice to the Lord. An angel stays his hand, but otherwise the father would have killed his own son. The shocking narrative ends with God’s promise that—because Abraham obeyed the command to sacrifice—his offspring would conquer their enemies and become a channel of blessing to all other nations.

The myth of redemptive violence also plays out in stories of the past lives of Buddha, in which he sacrifices himself in order to fulfill the vow to save all sentient beings. In one such tale, the Buddha-to-be throws himself over a cliff so that a starving tigress will feed on his broken body rather than devour her own cubs. Through such heroic acts of sacrifice, he pursues his quest of liberation from attachment to self. The notion that sacrifice brings salvation also informs Islamic tales of martyrdom.

Shiite Muslims interpret the story of the death of Husayn, grandson of Muhammad, at the hands of his rivals as a tale of sacrifice for the sake of their community. Over centuries, minority Shi’is have been inspired in conditions of persecution by majority Sunnis by re-enacting the death of Husayn in bloody processions. In these cases, suffering is said to purify the soul—and sacrifice believed to “make sacred,” as its Latin root indicates.

The positive value of sacrifice as a moral ideal is that it encourages individuals to forfeit personal interests for common human good. Without that willingness it would be impossible to sustain social co-operation and altruistic actions. But sacrifice as a religious ideal serves a sacred cause—often a utopian vision for humanity that may not be shared by others, and even may be opposed by them. Then, conflict is inevitable.

When that conflict escalates into full-scale violence, those who die in pursuit of their vision are sanctified for offering themselves as “sacrifices”; and others join the violence in order to assure their sacrifices were not made “in vain.” The logic of sacrifice is thus self-perpetuating. This is how sacrifice as religious ideal contributes to the problem of violence.

Sadly, all religions have a history of violence—a fact that stands in stark contrast to their central teachings. They emphasize love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and humility. Why then do societies and traditions based on those teachings often promote hatred, cruelty, revenge, and arrogance? That is the question that Professor Charles Kimball explores in two insightful books: When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (2008) and, if that title weren’t scary enough, When Religion Becomes Lethal (2011). He subtitled that book, The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Kimball argues that it is possible to spot religious movements that are heading toward violence by “five warning signs”: claims to absolute truth, demands for unquestioning obedience, nostalgia for an “ideal” time, belief that the end justifies the means, and declarations of holy war.

Let me add another warning sign to the list: call to sacrifice. When religious leaders begin urging followers to sacrifice to demonstrate their faith, to give up their lives and take the lives of others in its defense, we are on the road to catastrophe. It should not escape notice that Christian militias murder Muslims in the Central African Republic by swinging machetes, and that fighters for an Islamic State often execute Christians in the way animals are sacrificed.

How is it possible for humans to kill each other with no regard for their common humanity? I believe that religious sacrifice is implicated in such violence because it demands that believers cast aside natural affections and concrete human sympathies to confirm their faith in an abstract sacred cause.

Let us return to the story of Abraham binding his son Isaac for sacrifice. According to Jewish tradition, the story ended with a death after all, the death of the boy’s mother, Sarah. In rabbinic midrash, or commentary on the Bible, when Sarah heard what nearly happened to her son, she wailed six times and died. Her screams provide the tones sounded from the shofar or ram’s horn in synagogues on High Holy Days. Why did Sarah die?

Suppose she dies of horror at the power of Abraham’s will by which he overcame his natural affection as a father. Abraham appears to her as a new kind of being at this moment: a human in whom spirit overcomes nature. Abraham made himself spiritual by the decision to sacrifice his son to satisfy the conditions of an abstract idea: the covenant with God. In my reading, Sarah is terrified by a man who chooses to transgress natural restraints to destroy the life they made together.

The story illustrates what is true of every religious sacrifice: the triumph of idea over instinct, spirit over nature, violence over compassion. If, as Georges Bataille insisted, religious sacrifice reveals the “truth of a scream,” my midrash poses the question: would you scream with Sarah? Would you add your voice to her prophetic protest against Abraham’s moral outrage? In that alternative reading the text challenges us to call out the evil of sacrifice rather than insist on its righteous necessity.