Review Essay of Blood Sacrifice and the Nation
CAROLYN MARVIN, an award-winning author, is the Frances Yates Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania. Her book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, reveals the central dynamic underlying violence performed in the name of the nation-state
Read online at no charge: Chapter IV of Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, “The Totem Myth: Sacrifice and Transformation”
Marvin and Ingle define religion as a “system of cosmological propositions” grounded in a belief in a transcendent power—expressed through a “cult of a divine being” that gives rise to a set of ethical propositions. Nationalism, the authors say, is the “most powerful religion in the United States, perhaps in many other countries.”
What is “really true in any community,” Marvin and Ingle claim, is “what its members can agree is worth killing for,” or what they can be compelled to “sacrifice their lives for.” Thus, what is “sacred” within a given society is easily recognized. It is “that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood.” Rituals that celebrate blood sacrifice “give expression and witness to faith.” Warfare constitutes the central ritual allowing societies to enact or demonstrate faith in the nation.
People speak of violence undertaken in the name of religion. This is confusing. In the past, Christianity could kill and ask others to die in the name of its particular god. However, in the West today, Marvin and Ingle note, the power to compel believers to die has passed “from Christianity to the nation-state.” For the past one hundred years, people have been “dying for the country.” Only the “true god,” the nation-state, may kill.
Why do we deny that nationalism is a religion? Because, the authors say, what is obligatory for group members must be “separated, as holy things are, from what is contestable.” If we were to acknowledge nationalism is a religion, the idea of the country would be exposed to challenge.
By explicitly denying that our national symbols and duties are sacred, we “shield them from competition with sectarian symbols.” In doing so, Marvin and Ingle say, we embrace the ancient command “not to speak the sacred, ineffable name of god.” Our god—our nation—must be “inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable, beyond language.” But this god may “not be refused when it calls for sacrifice.” When the god commands it, we must perform the “ritual sacrifice—war—that sustains the group.”
The continued existence of any societal group, according to the authors, depends at least partly on the willingness of its members to sacrifice themselves for it. Yet, the creation of national sentiment requires that members remain unaware of the mechanism that maintains the group. The knowledge that the “underlying cost of society is the violent death of some portion of its members” must remain secret.
In order to endure as a sacred object, the nation requires that people kill and die in its name. However, for the ritual of war to remain effective, societies must remain unconscious of the relationship between the institution of warfare and the maintenance of the idea of the nation. Our deepest secret, the authors claim—the “collective group taboo”—is the knowledge that society depends for its existence on “violent, sacrificial death at the hands of the group itself.”
Marvin and Ingle describe the tension between the “violent sacrificial mechanism that sustains enduring groups” and the “reluctance of group members to accept responsibility for enacting it” as a taboo. To protect ourselves from acknowledging that sacrificial death is the source of group unity, citizens “render totem violence and its symbols sacred.” The fundamental “secret” that maintains the group—is knowledge that it must sacrifice its own.
In order to avoid knowing that killing—sacrificial death—lies at the core of the ideology of nationalism, we treat violence as if primitive and morally suspect: a “failure of social structure rather than an elemental component.” When violence occurs it is presented as a “last resort:” a “challenge to civilized modernity.” We prefer not to say that violence is inherent in the nature of the nation-state.
It is not difficult to acknowledge that the purpose of warfare is to kill the enemy. The profound point of Marvin and Ingle’s work is that what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the death of the enemy, but the “sacrifice of our own.” If the ritual purpose of war were merely to kill the enemy, the deaths of some 40,000+ Iraqis during the first Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) would have made a lasting contribution to American unity.
However, during the first Gulf War—notable for the ephemerality of its unifying effect—only 147 Americans died, a “poor totem sacrifice.” The two most unifying blood-lettings in American history—the Civil War and World War II—sacrificed the largest number of the nation’s own, both absolutely and in proportion to the total population. We construct our national identity from the bodies of group members.
Blood sacrifice, the authors say, is the “holiest ritual of the nation-state.” Warfare is the institution that enacts this holy ritual. What constitutes the nation at any moment is the memory of the “last successful blood sacrifice that counts for living group members.” In the United States, the last great unifier was World War II.
However, not all wars are unifiers—successful blood sacrifice rituals. Specific wars may be more or less successful in consolidating group unity. The blood sacrifice rituals that are genuinely successful, according to Marvin and Ingle, satisfy several conditions.
First, blood sacrifice must touch (or seem to touch) every member of the group. The sacrifice must be large enough for group members to recognize the cost to the group, and to feel the pain of loss at a personal level. Second, wars are more successful when the sacriﬁces are made willingly. Thus, we say that soldiers “gave” their lives for their country.
Perhaps most significantly, a nation must believe that the enemy represents a real, significant threat. In order to sacrifice our own, the members of a nation must believe that the enemy constitutes a genuine, existential challenge to the way of life and endurance of one’s group.
In the contemporary world, mass-media perform, for the ideology of nationalism, the “same function that sacred and priestly texts perform in other religious systems.” They recall central moments of group identity, rehearse ritual and mythic structures for believers, and “pull from the flux of daily life what is grist for the mill of religious nationalism.”
Marvin and Ingle state that their analysis is “not a brief in favor of violence or against it.” Rather, they seek to illuminate the “structural role of violence in organizing and maintaining enduring groups.” In short—within the framework of the religion of nationalism—it’s not a question of fighting this or that war, or of defeating this or that enemy. Rather, violent acts performed by society are inherent to the nature of the nation-state.
The authors conclude that cohesion in enduring groups requires violence as a “structural rather than contingent social force.” Contained within each nation is a sacred idea or ideal. The truth of this sacred ideal is established when members of society die (or are maimed) for it. Warfare constitutes a “representation of society to itself.” Sacred truth comes into being through a “blood sacrifice ritual performed on the bodies of supplicants.”