Sacrifice: Out of Vogue?

One of the prerequisites for a civic reality is self-sacrifice. I don’t mean martyrdom, but the ability to put the needs of the community over one’s own, if even only temporarily. The reason the rock lobsters survive on their dangerous single-file trek across the ocean floors is that any one of them is willing to draw a would-be attacker away from the line, at the risk of its own life.

One of the downsides of American consumer messaging is the implied notion that “you deserve it.” A better house, a tastier gum, a bigger portion. After all, we’re into freedom here in America and, unlike the founding fathers who may have understood freedom in a more dimensionalized way, today we understand freedom as “free to be me.” It’s the freedom to be an individual – personal freedom. Singular autonomy.

But freedom, like evolution, is not an individual affair. It’s a team sport. Unless everyone is free, no one is free. And to keep everyone free, everyone must be willing to sacrifice. Living in a free society with democratic principles means being willing – even looking forward – to participating actively, not simply receiving benefits passively. The latter aren’t really any fun, anyway. Whatever we may think of Kennedy today, he was right when he told us to ask what we can do for our country, rather than the other way around.

The danger of literalist Christian fundamentalism in this country, as I see it, is not that people believe in the sanctity of Jesus Christ; it’s that they accept the notion that Jesus’s sacrifice was less an example than a proxy. As in, “Jesus made the supreme sacrifice so that we don’t have to.” Now, that’s a bastardization even of the Pauline interpretation of the crucifixion – though it may not be inconsistent with Mel Gibson’s more recent effort at literalizing the passion. And, of course, there are also those who would point to the suffering of millions in the Shoah as proof that the necessity for self-sacrifice was already paid in more than full, so that this is now the season to reap the bounty that God has bestowed.

Both of these conceits dovetail frighteningly well with the underlying premise of marketing – which is probably why religious fundamentalism and the marketplace have made such compatible bedfellows in American politics. Sacrifice nothing, give yourself everything. You are the only individual who matters – maybe you and your nuclear family – so buy everything you need for yourselves, share nothing, get tax relief, and hire Africans to fight your wars.

I’m not sorry to say it doesn’t work that way. In fact, a world in which you are ready to make sacrifices is a much more fun place to live. Just as a relationship that doesn’t make you more vulnerable is hardly worth having, a community with no presumption of individual sacrifice for the greater good, is not a community at all.