The Ideology of Sacrifice Conditioning Us Must End
Reverend Joe Haward explores how the political narrative of struggle and fear, enforced through market-driven ideology, needs to be replaced with one placing humanity at the centre again
Mary Wakefield’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day last month should have come as no great shock as her husband, the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings, understands how to manipulate the masses.
Wakefield, praying for a sick Boris Johnson and reflecting on the ubiquity and neutrality of the Coronavirus, furthers the rhetoric that the powerful are as vulnerable as anyone. Underlying this was a tone that, all that could be done, was done in response to COVID-19. It played the nostalgic tune of religion and national pride, subtly calling people to disregard all the evidence of Government failure and get behind it for the sake of national unity. Disagreement or critique is thus regarded as unpatriotic.
Last year’s General Election was won on a Conservative rhetoric of national pride and reclaiming the country, alongside its status and purpose within the world. The force of such language – framed within nationalism, economic struggle, a decade of austerity and a fear of immigrants – is powerful. History rhymes. The same kind of language and ideology has worked in the past and will continue to work again.
Religion is important to nationalistic rhetoric. Ancient creeds and ideas are often used to further pride, status and goals. From Constantine in the 4th Century to Donald Trump in the 21st, Christianity has often been combined with nationalism to great effect by those in power. The language and practice, therefore, of religious sacrifice, is vital to consider.
Sacrifice plays an important role in our market-driven ideology. While neoliberalism – in theory more than practice – aims to emancipate the individual from webs of state regulation and intervention, it enfolds and binds that same being into every neoliberalised sphere and institution with which they engage.
The human person becomes a means of capital; the totality of life is economised, ensuring that each individual becomes a potential source of profit. From NHS staff to Amazon employees, the gods of the market demand sacrifice – and people are regularly sacrificed upon the altar of such economic ideology. Human beings are welded to an economic project, their existence easily sacrificed to and by that very project.
Martin Luther King Jr implored each and every person to have a deep belief in their own value, worth and somebodiness. Today, that human somebodiness has been replaced by human capital. The contemporary era features a replacement of the person as one who possesses meaning and purpose – a human in their own right – with one who must engage in continual self-investment. Such investment has but one end: to enhance an individual’s value as human capital and to self-invest in ways that are financially advantageous.
Not only has the human image been replaced, but such replacement has changed the idea of nation. Rather than representing a diversity of concern, it is immovable, bound together by the continual pursuit of credit worthiness and economic growth.
Human life and culture is merely a sacrificial offering.
The French anthropologist René Girard developed the theory of the ‘scapegoat’, the idea that all violence can be traced back to the system of mimesis (imitation) and mimetic conflict (I desire and want what you desire and want). The only way humanity did not wipe itself out was through the discovery of the scapegoat.
Chosen, usually at random, but based upon their oddness within society, the community unites in its condemnation of the scapegoat, murdered by the community in what Girard calls “the founding murder”. He argues how this is the origin of the gods of religion, myth, sacrifice and ritual. Continual sacrifices of a random scapegoat are offered in light of the original victim, but now in strictly controlled scenarios involving prohibitions and laws. Religion thus endows violence with an aura of necessity and divine ordination, disguising its cost to the victims.
One of the most significant and controversial episodes within the life of Jesus of Nazareth was the so-called “clearing of the Temple”. Jesus enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers, stopping people from carrying “containers” or “vessels” (skeuos in Greek) through the Temple. In the Greek translation of Leviticus 6 in the Old Testament, the word skeuos is used about earthenware vessels that carried sacrificial offerings. Jesus then drives the animals out of the Temple using a stockwhip (phragellion), a braided or tied cord that was used specifically and only to herd animals.
Jesus was shutting down the sacrificial system. By stopping sacrificial offerings and animals coming into the Temple, Jesus made an outrageous and dangerous declaration within his own cultural setting – that sacrifice needed to stop: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” His actions resulted in the powerful looking for a way to kill him.
The system we are living in demands continual sacrificial offerings, brought daily to the temple of the Market by loyal worshippers. Those in power seek to maintain the system, increasing their wealth and exploiting the vulnerable. What is needed now, more than ever, is mercy – not sacrifice.
Mercy desires freedom for the oppressed from a system that destroys them. It is a calling for the cancelling of debts and the pursuit of justice. Mercy leads with compassion. Each and every person is shown dignity and respect; their own somebodiness celebrated.
The moment is coming for those who have the courage to shut down our sacrificial system, ushering in a radical change to the ideology and practices we have been conditioned to believe are the only way.
Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain