Sacrifice (verb): to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else.
Origin: 1225–75; (noun) Middle English < Old French < Latin sacrificium, equivalent to sacri- (combining form of sacer holy) + -fic-,combining form of facere to make, do1 + -ium ; (v.) Dictionary.com
To sacrifice originally meant to make holy or sacred. But Western culture has lost all sense of what is sacred and sacrifice came to mean diminishing our needs/desires in order to meet the needs/desires of others, especially those in power. Self-sacrifice requires the belief that something outside of ourselves is superior to our own needs/desires and we must offer up the best of who we are to serve it – whether family, king, cause or god. The myth of self-sacrifice believes in the value of caring and serving those in power regardless of personal cost (which non-coincidentally characterizes attitudes toward women’s work). It is often in the name of sacrifice that we diminish who we are, who/what/how we love, or what we stand for. Instead of honoring our own holiness/sacredness, we give our light away and call it noble (which is also a questionable concept that requires sacrifice for one’s role in the family and/or superior class in order to maintain one’s privilege).
Sacrifice and belonging go hand in hand. Humans have a deep need for belonging. If we refuse to sacrifice ourselves to those who claim superiority, we may be punished and/or exiled. Refusal to sacrifice may mean we lose our belonging, so we choose to offer our bodies, hearts, and souls on the altar in exchange for our inclusion.
“Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories: stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.” Rebecca Solnit
Our cultural prison is built upon the mythology of superiority and the consequential requirement of self-sacrifice. If you look closely at our stories, from television to religious mythology, sacrifice is offered as the most important story we can live. We venerate sacrifice over sovereignty, elevating the person who gives themselves away over the person who directs their own life. We celebrate giving oneself away to god, king/country, cause, or family as if it is the greatest thing a person can do. The worst thing we can be is “selfish” and follow our own ideas rather than the script we’ve been given. To be sovereign is to be transgressive.
Why does our mythology exalt giving ourselves away and living for other people? How does this mythology profit the systems and people in power, from governments to businesses?
The Western mythology of self-sacrifice began with the Greeks, where stories tell of men giving their lives for a nation and heroes giving their lives for others to live. Then came the story of Jesus making “the greatest sacrifice” to save us from eternal damnation (and before that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on an altar simply because God told him to). Christianity, the dominant religion of the West, demands kenosis – the self-emptying of one’s own will to become entirely receptive to God’s divine will. It’s an ethic of sacrifice that requires surrender to the will of a superior being that may or may not exist, but who has plenty of intermediaries that will speak on its behalf for their own gain.
Why do we assume a divine will that is superior to our own? How does that set us up to believe in the superiority of others’ will, whether our parents, government, CEOs or religious leaders?
Why is the sacrifice of life required to appease god? Why do we believe god to be transactional? Could it simply be our way of imagining we have control over the chaos of life? Perhaps we look for salvation outside ourselves because we’ve never taken the time to imagine how it comes from inside ourselves. Or because we haven’t been allowed to look inside ourselves by an authoritarian culture that thrives on a lack of self-awareness.
How many stories do we ingest daily that involve someone sacrificing their own life/existence so that others may live/exist, as if some lives are worth continuing more than others? Or stories where someone in power chooses who is more worthy of life?
Our culture is built on the mythology of superiority and diminishing ourselves for the elevation of others. Our mythology conditions us to give our power away to someone who supposedly knows better than we do about everything, including ourselves. We have to dig deep to unravel these conditionings if we are to be liberated from them.
We need to analyze the myths we currently live by if we are to transform our culture. Right now our stories are our prison, but we can turn them into crowbars. We need new mythologies that show us what is possible beyond the stories of supremacy that we’ve been conditioned to believe are real for thousands of years. We need to recognize that all of life is story and we have a choice as to whether we live by our own story or someone else’s.
I no longer believe in the mythology of self-sacrifice. Giving myself away led me to martyrdom and breakdown. Instead, I believe in the power of choice, choosing what is sacred, or set apart, from the rest of the possibilities. I no longer believe in family-of-origin obligation, which my narcissist mother wielded as a weapon, I believe in choosing my people. I no longer believe in compromise, I believe in choosing to make agreements based on agency and intimacy that allow a relationship to work for all involved. Choice and agreement honor sovereignty in a way that self-sacrifice and compromise do not.
I want to rid us of the practice of sacrificing ourselves for others. Instead, I want to identify what is sacred to each of us and what our devotion to the sacred looks like. For example, because honoring my children’s wholeness was sacred to me I devoted much of my life to them. It was never sacrifice, it was an ongoing act of intentional devotion. Because writing as an act of self and communal awareness is sacred to me I set apart sacred time and space for the practice of writing. Because community is sacred to me I set apart time, space, and labor to build and nurture community. I am not giving anything up by choosing these things, I am taking a stand for what I am devoted to.
I want us to make our lives full of the sacred instead of relegating the sacred to religious/spiritual places and rites. This is a big piece of what inspires my theology of the God-Between-Us. If God is in the space between us where relationship plays out, then relationship is sacred. If God is in the space between me and the earth (the force of gravity), and between me and the natural world (the sun, plants, animals, etc. generously giving themselves to my subsistence), then my relationship to All of Life is sacred. In my relational practices, from god to plants, no one is superior and sacrifice is unnecessary.
Western culture has got it all backward. When we honor each other as we are in our complex humanity, and when we are free to follow our hearts (without causing harm), then we experience thriving together. Right now we are more disconnected than ever, partly because we are exhausted by the mythology of self-sacrifice and how it plays out in our daily lives – our work, our activism, our relationships. We are tired of sacrificing our work and livelihood on the altar of capitalism. We are sick of sacrificing our own well-being to make others comfortable. We are overwhelmed by sacrificing our needs for the community because the structures for community care are missing. We are isolating ourselves because we want the space to be authentic to our needs and desires and we believe we can only do that by staying away from humans that may try to place further demands on us. We are afraid of each other and how we might be diminished if we relate.
If we are to come back to each other and create the community bonds necessary for long term survival in a world on fire, then we need to work out new ways of being together where no one is superior and no one is required to make sacrifices in order to belong. We need to honor the power of choice, in ourselves and in one another. We need to make communal relationship sacred again and put structures for community care in place. Most of all we need stories that show us how.
Image by kellepics at Pixabay