In his 2012 book, On Sacrifice, Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal discusses the widespread conviction that morality is founded upon self-transcendence, our capacity to lay aside self-interest and sacrifice for a greater good or principle.
This conviction is often attended by the mistaken assumption that “our capacity to restrain our self-interest puts a check on our tendencies toward violence.” (67). Against this assumption stands the reality of war, in which the greatest brutality can arise from our impulse to sacrifice ourselves—and others—for some greater cause. “Human beings,’ Halbertal avers, ‘are the only species that kills for principle rather than for self-interest.”(68)
Halbertal explores the dark and twisted logic whereby sacrifice can propel, justify, and even “purify” acts of violence. The logic of sacrifice can render criminals martyrs.
Through a perverse reversal, acts of sacrifice can give worth to the most debased of ideologies, polities, or principles; the sacrifice is deemed to render its object worthy, rather than vice versa. Past sacrifices can bind us in the present, calling us to honor false ideas or corrupt systems for which people once gave their lives. The soldier’s surrender of his life to the jeopardy of the battlefield justifies his taking of others’ lives.
The logic of sacrifice can even be employed to suspend the ethical and engage in the most evil of acts for some supposed greater purpose. A chilling instance of this logic is Himmler’s rationalization of the Final Solution to his SS officers, in which he suggested they were called to the sacrificial act of being “superhumanly inhuman” for the sake of humanity’s greater good. (70-71) Halbertal concludes that “misguided self-transcendence is morally more problematic and lethal than a disproportionate attachment to self-interest.” (78)
Yet, for all of its susceptibility to perversion and distortion, the human impulse to self-transcendence remains essential to morality. The appeal of its perversions lies precisely in their simulation of this appeal. (78) Sacrifice is also essential to forming human solidarities. Nations, as Paul Kahn has argued, are bound together—and sacralised—by acts of sacrifice.
Here, I believe, we find a helpful place to begin a discussion of the association between religion and violence. Religions directly concern themselves with the sphere of self-transcendence and sacrifice, with all of its elevating and destructive potential. They neither create nor monopolize this realm, but they are peculiarly focused upon it, sensitive to it, and active in the formation and confirmation of people within it.
That is one of the reasons why the task of political theology is such an important one: it unearths the forgotten and dissembled roots of the state in the soil of sacrifice and exposes them to the light of critical examination. As Halbertal remarks, it is in religion that we discover means by which to challenge misguided self-transcendence: “idolatry … is the utmost sacrifice to a cause that is not worthy of the corresponding sacrifice.’” (78)
Misguided sacrificial violence in the name of various religions is sadly a familiar phenomenon in our own world, provoking our horror more than violence in the name of nation states or political ideologies, which seldom profess the same sort of absolute commitment to righteousness and goodness in their visions of self-transcendence. In studying the relationship between religion and such violence, attention often focuses upon religions as the specific causes for which people sacrifice.
The various ways in which churches sacralise the state and its wars have also received extensive comment in the writings of Stanley Hauerwas and others. What can be less fully appreciated are some of the more subtle yet no less powerful ways that religions mould and shape the sacrificial realm more broadly, through the sacrifices that they validate and encourage.
One of the most immediate and fundamental, yet greatly underappreciated, forces in shaping our sacrificial culture is the institution and practice of marriage. The manner and principles by which marriage partners are selected within a given society can be profoundly revelatory of the specific form of its sacrificial realm, of its deepest loyalties, and of the sorts of violence to which it is most prone.
Through their management of degrees and forms of exogamy and endogamy and the extent to which they recognize or institute a stake of past and future generations in a couple’s union, religions can exert considerable influence here, strengthening or eroding solidarities, either encouraging sacrifices or leaving them unvalidated.
For instance, the Roman Catholic tradition’s prohibition of consanguineous and arranged marriages undermined the power of patriarchal clans, tribes, and powerful families and the—frequently violent and intensely socially divisive—sacrificial loyalties that they commanded, loyalties that are very much still in evidence in other parts of the world.
Such prohibitions led to a “breakdown” of the clan into the extended family and then to the nuclear family that predominates in the West today, clearing the ground for new loyalties and forms of self-transcendence to take their place. On the other hand, restrictions placed upon marriage to non-Catholics privileged Catholicism as a site of self-transcendence and as a source of social solidarity.
Their preoccupation with and proximity to the sacrificial impulses that animate a society for good or ill leave religions prone both to co-option as sanctifying entities for social violence, or as convenient scapegoats for it. However, religious worship involves attention to the appropriate attribution of worth, both in its manner and its measure, and to the enduring threat of idolatry. It provides us with a hermeneutics of self-transcendence and sacrifice and an affinity with their logic that better equip us to understand, tame, and direct them, whether in relation to their objects—such as the state—or in their formative structures—such as marriage.
Leavened by a penetrating critique of idolatry, religion, oft marked by the unsettling ambivalence of human self-transcendence, can become a means of orienting us towards its proper goal.
Alastair Roberts is a Contributin Editor for Political Theology Today.