Human sacrifice is generally contemned. People regard the Aztec practice of plucking a heart from a victim’s chest and offering it to the sun god to maintain cosmic order as barbarous. But humans clearly have a taste for it. Today’s news tells that in two Baghdad elementary schools militants broke in and slaughtered teachers in front of their students.
War is human sacrifice, as is capital punishment. Basically human sacrifice is simply killing for a socially justified reason.
That socially justified reason is what ‘sacrifice’ signals: making holy, organizing the killing as something good not bad. The Aztec priest, the militant, the nation, the state, act as agents of their societies. They organize the deaths into sacred stories which supposedly transcend sadism, terror, and vengeance.
The same person who rejects Aztec sacrifice might well accept Abrahamic. In Genesis a story sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam has Abraham obey God by binding his son for sacrifice and raising the cleaver to kill him. (In Jewish and Christian tradition this is Isaac, son of Sarah; in Islamic tradition this is Ishmael, firstborn of Abraham and son of Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant.) God prevents the killing but blesses Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son to God.
The major monotheisms have human sacrifice as foundation texts. The follower must be willing to kill even family for God. People who piously send their sons to war sometimes take comfort in the story: this is what God/country asks; this is a test of belief; this is ultimate sacrifice.
The stories in Jewish and Islamic versions are the same: the father is told to kill the beloved son and he raises his hand to obey; God rescinds the command and substitutes an animal.
In Christianity that story is importantly amended by Christ who is seen on the pattern of Isaac and Ishmael as the beloved son of God the Father, who is willing to give his son to death for the sake of the people. Christ, however, is not a child at the time of sacrifice, he accepts sacrificial destiny, and he does die. Christ freely consents where Isaac and Ishmael are bound. The noble act in the Christ version becomes the victim’s, not the willing killer father’s. And the agency of the father is just permissive not active—God doesn’t strike, he allows the Romans to crucify. Christ in the Passion story also explicitly chooses not to strike to save himself. He accepts human sacrifice and reveals it as perverse. The shift from noble would-be killer to noble-killed is significant. The story transforms the central noble action: it is not killing but refusing to kill.
Compare the Oedipus story. Father Laertes and mother Jocaste decide to kill son Oedipus because the oracle predicts that he will destroy them—he will kill his father and marry his mother. They attempt to kill the child to save themselves. Abraham’s motive is not overtly self-preservation. It is presented simply as obedience—God commanded him to kill his son. In both narratives the child survives—Oedipus to fulfill his fate, and kill his father and marry his mother, Isaac and Ishmael to father the Jewish and Arab peoples. The Greek story is not told as a religious story until Freud makes the Oedipus complex psychoanalytic doctrine, but the Genesis story is foundational for the great monotheisms. Because the God orders the sacrifice, Abraham’s willingness to kill is transformed from guilt-incurring to righteous.
So, usually, the acceptability of human sacrifice turns on authority. How does Abraham differ from the schizophrenic who hears a voice saying to kill the baby, from the dictator/leader who sends troops to conquer enemies, from the priest who believes blood must be offered to the sun to keep the world alive, from the militant who believes terror is the tool to compel social comity?
The authority to kill is currently under attack by civilized societies. Nations cannot join the European Union if they allow capital punishment. If religion or national custom legitimize human sacrifice, all other-believers and nationalities are in jeopardy. Human coexistence depends on rejecting human sacrifice.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org