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Sacrifice: Bad Math, Bad Grammar
Ivan Strenski
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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.
Why Politics Can't Be Freed from Religion
Author: Ivan Strenski Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405176482
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.
For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.
A 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?

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 acts 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.

The question is how and why Civic sacrifice is about a kind giving to the community—that in turn produces moral obligation to give further and more broadly. This thesis can be tested empirically in the instances of so-called ‘suicide bombing.’

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.

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.

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.