Why sacrifice?

By Christine Gudorf| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology

Sacrifice was certainly a central factor in the catholic spirituality of my youth. We attended the "sacrifice of the Mass" daily. Sacrifice was not onlystrongly suggested as the appropriate response to the suffering ofothers, as in appeals for the missions or the poor; it was also taught as a good in its own right, as an important part of theprocess of following Jesus Christ. We were encouraged to veneratethose who sacrificed for others, including fathers, who sacrificed intheir jobs to provide for children, and mothers, who sacrificed oftheir time and energy to care for children.

Today most of us have been taught to be suspicious of appeals to sacrifice.Over the last few decades, countless examples have been cited wherecalls to sacrifice masked self-interest, sadism, ornaïveté, or resulted in great suffering that accomplishednothing positive. We have become especially suspicious of appeals forsacrifice aimed at socially powerless or subordinated groups.

The last 40 years in our society have destroyed popular faith in the goodness and salvific power of sacrificial suffering. Many servicemen and women who served in Vietnam and the families of those who died felt frustrated that their sacrifice fell into a void. Beginning in the 1950s, African Americans began to despair of their patient sacrificial suffering under centuries of slavery and legal oppression ever saving them. Since the '60s, American women have become suspicious of demands that women sacrifice their own aspirations to those of husbands and children and are rejecting outright the message that they should offer up to God whatever suffering they experience in domestic violence.

Suspicion of many specific appeals to sacrifice, however, has been too often oversimplified into rejection of all forms of sacrifice as masochistic, naive idealism: only chumps sacrifice, because sacrifice is unnecessary.

In the Church today, we are caught between a venerable popular spirituality of sacrifice that is problematic for Christian biblical witness (see sidebar on pages 14 and 15) and a secular world that denies any need for or importance to sacrifice. Yet there is no Christian life without some degree of sacrifice. In fact, there can be no human life without sacrifice. Sacrifice is the cost of being human, for to be human is to be social. The qualities that make us human-our ability to communicate, to reason, to love-are all qualities that we learn in community. But to live with others requires sacrifice in the interests of our relationship with them. If we want others to sometimes cede to our interests, we must also sometimes cede to theirs. And the more intimacy we desire with another person, the closer to the core of our person will be the sacrifices we make in that relationship.

There are different kinds of sacrifice. Sacrifice can be religious, when people forgo something of value in order to consciously offer it directly to God in ritual or indirectly to God through others. Sacrifice can also be simple rationality working in one's own self-interest. When my son forgoes candy and soda to save his quarters for the latest model of roller blades, he learns that sacrifice-as personal discipline-pays off. Actually, this kind of sacrifice is really not altogether different from the religious meaning of sacrifice.

What all kinds of sacrifice share is that the meaningfulness of the sacrifice depends upon the greater value of that which the sacrifice procures. When early humans burned sacrifices of grain and animal fat to their god, they understood themselves as establishing a relationship with that god. They believed their offerings pleased god, who was then disposed to act kindly toward their community. Because the sacrificers took comfort, security, and even identity from this relationship, they understood their sacrifices as well worthwhile.

If our sacrifices are to have moral and spiritual worth, they must first be made for good ends. A person may undertake great personal sacrifices-of friends, leisure, income, even freedom-in the pursuit of revenge or hate. Because hate or revenge are obstacles to moral and spiritual advancement, sacrifices made to promote them also fail to be valuable. Some parents make great sacrifices for their children but attempt to use those sacrifices to create guilt by which they can manipulate their children. Such sacrifice is not in the service of love or justice, or any other good, but rather further domination and control of others.

Even when the motivation for sacrifice is something good, we still must ask whether the good outweighs the loss to be suffered in the sacrifice. The gospels tell the story of how Jesus reached the point of willingly heading toward Jerusalem where he knew that death at the hands of the authorities awaited. Given that his only alternatives were to remain on the run or disband and give up his mission, Jesus' sacrifice was a worthwhile price to pay for the coming of the reign of God, which he understood his mission would initiate. Likewise, when we consider making a sacrifice, the most important question we need to ask is also whether the good end the sacrifice advances outweighs the cost of the sacrifice itself. This is true whether we are talking about sacrifices we make to God, sacrifices we make to other persons, or sacrifices we make in our own self-interest.

Any sacrifice that is not in favor of a good end, or whose good end does not clearly outweigh the cost of the sacrifice itself, should be rejected.

Sacrifice is not to be sought
Sacrifice in any given situation can be a rational and loving choice. Frequently in our lives we choose to sacrifice one good for the sake of some other good that is either a higher good or one more necessary in our particular situation. Couples sacrifice a great deal of personal freedom when they choose to have children-little freedoms, like travelling without diaper bags, car seats, and strollers; and big freedoms like sleep, leisure time for lovemaking, and conversation with adults. Most of us feel that this exchange is prudent, that the good obtained in parenthood outweighs the costs.

Sacrifice is not something that we should seek in our lives. Jesus did not come to earth seeking a way to suffer and die, and neither should we. God did not send Jesus to suffer and to die. Jesus is not a masochist; God is not a sadist. Martyrs do not seek martyrdom; they accept it when all the alternatives are morally deficient. Christians are called to seek actions that are loving and just, prudent, honest, and truthful.

We are not called to seek sacrificial actions, although in a world permeated by sin, reaching out in love to the unloved often entails sacrifice. Our goal is to extend ourselves in love to another because we desire the good to be had in mutual relationship. We are willing to accept the suffering that may be entailed-the suspicion, distrust, misunderstanding, and conflict within relationships-but sacrifice should not be our motivation, our intention.

My sister and her husband have, in addition to their original two children, adopted 13 children from 3 days to 16 years old, of various colors, from "crack babies" to teen victims of abuse. In none of these adoptions did they pursue sacrifice. If they characterized this path they have taken as one of sacrifice, they would have soon found themselves without the spiritual resources to pursue it. For humans are not made to pursue pain and suffering. We are made to pursue pleasure, not merely sensual pleasure but also pleasure such as that involved in personal and social relations of justice and love.

The greatest deeds of Christian love involve a great deal of sacrifice, but the sacrifice is somewhat submerged, obscured by the positive, pleasurable good that one is consciously pursuing. My sister set out to save these children from a succession of foster homes and temporary shelters, from abuse and neglect, from failure and discouragement because she found her heart was moved by these abused and abandoned children.

She and her husband are rewarded for their sacrifices in the victoriesthat they have helped bring to these children: the health and healingof those who were sick and abused, the literacy, pride, andconfidence of those who were neglected, and the zest for life andfamily commitment that develop in children who have learned tolove. Thosevictories enrich the whole family. The more successful each childis-the happier and more independent each child becomes-theless needful that child is of adult help and the more able to helpand enrich others.

My sister and her husband have made and still make a great many sacrifices for these children-months of sleeplessness until thecrack babies stopped crying, many years of spending their eveningstutoring one child after another with homework, their afternoons andweekends at doctors, dentists, psychologists, psychiatrists, andcarpooling sports teams and church groups. This is not to mention thecomfortable lifestyle they gave up and retirement savings that beganto dwindle visibly sometime midway through their adoptions. Ifself-sacrifice had been their intention, they could have lost money,sleep, and time in numerous ways without taking on 13 additionalhigh-needs children. But their intention was for these neglected andabused children to thrive; their joy is in the children's thrivingbecause a part of all of us thrives when those we love thrive.

Voluntary but not freely chosen
To be worthwhile, sacrifice must have some degree of voluntariness, but freely chosensacrifices are the exception, not the rule. Sometimes sacrifices seem to choose us.

My Aunt Sis, a youthful octogenarian, has been caring for herwheelchair-bound older sister for five years at tremendous personalcost in energy, tears, and emotional strength, not to mention privacyand independence. But Sis is resolved to continue so long as she isable because her sister desperately wants to remain in her home ofmany years. Sis' love for her sister costs personal sacrifice. Sishas always lived alone, valuing her privacy and even needingsolitude; I know no one for whom living on call 24 hours a day withanother person would be more difficult. But she did agree to this wayof loving her sister. It was the best of the less-than-desirableoptions facing her and her sister.

To value Aunt Sis' sacrifice for her sister does not legitimate anydemands for similar sacrifice from another. A person who refuses todevote 24-hour-a-day care to a disabled relative is not necessarilyselfish or less than loving. The options available, and the costs ofthe options, differ from situation to situation, from person toperson. My sister who can raise 15 kids could no more stay sanecaring for one invalid parent than Aunt Sis would have been able toraise 15 kids.

We all have responsibility to families, friends, and neighbors, and thatresponsibility entails seeing to their well-being-as well as toour own. Only we as individuals can choose howto contribute to their well-being, to which of the needy among themto assign priority, and what weight to give our own well-beingcompared to theirs.

Sometimes we seem to have no choices about sacrifices. And yet choice is not truly absent. Most of our personal sacrifices occur within relationships we haverepeatedly chosen to make and maintain, such as marriages,parent-child and sibling relationships, and friendships. We feelobliged to accept sacrifices in these relationships because we havechosen to be the kind of people who are faithful to those with whomwe have established loving relationships.

Oftenwhen we hear people say they have no choice but to take on somesacrificial burden, they do not mean they are physically coerced uponpain of death to make the sacrifice; they really mean they feelinternally obliged, as by conscience, or externally obliged by theopinion of those whom they respect. We need to claim these feelingsof obligation, to acknowledge them as part of us, and reject theimplication that our true selves only impel us toward what is eithereasy or enjoyable.

Obligationsto others are necessary in human society. It is the obligations thatparents have to children, that adult children have to elderlyparents, and that all adults have to the weak and helpless, thatprovide the security humans need in order to form communities, togrow and mature as persons. When we feel overburdened by obligationsthat are not fairly shared in our families or society, we are easilyseduced by secular notions of human persons as autonomous, freebeings endowed with a variety of rights and no responsibilities. Muchof modernity urges us to act as if there could be rights withoutcorresponding responsibilities, as if humans were not always bound byfinitude, as if the material riches and abundance of developedsocieties had eliminated all forms of scarcity, need, and obligationbetween persons.

Weall know of situations where the needs of children or the poor healthof adult family members create such heavy burdens, and continue forso many years that individuals are gradually and tragically grounddown. Where obligation destroys individuals, we almost always find aserious failure of human community. Most sacrifices are meant to beshared in order that no one be obliged to lose their very self in thecare of others. When refusals to be our brothers' keepers become theaccepted norm in our communities, then those who answer the call ofneedy brothers and sisters are unjustly forced to carry the burdensof all. Yet even the support of others cannot completely eliminatethe element of tragedy in great ongoing sacrifice.

When sacrifice is wrong
Unlike self-sacrifice, which means to sacrifice something that is of interest to the self,sacrifice of one's core self is contrary to the gospel. Jesus did notsacrifice his self when he died on the cross. He would havesacrificed his self-the calling which defined for him who he wasand what he was to do-if he had dropped his ministry as hisfamily intended. His family came to seize him in Capernaum (Mark3:20-35) because they feared for him. They thought he had lost hismind to be publicly speaking out and doing such dangerous things ashe was doing.

Another language for sacrifice of self might call it the sacrifice of one'ssoul, where soul refers to the core of the person, what makes ustruly ourselves. Sacrifice of self is a kind of soul-death in whichwe give away, or have taken from us, that capacity which makes ourlife human life, that capacity by which we recognize, appreciate, andcare for the dignity and integrity of our personhood. We aresupposedto love ourselves-loving ourselves is the best basis for knowinghow to love others. This is why we are taught to "love your neighboras yourself"-not insteadofyourself, but asyourself. We are not supposed to put ourselves first, but we are tocount our needs along with everyone else's needs. My minor needs donot outweigh the major needs of my neighbor, but neither do the minorneeds of the neighbor outweigh my major needs.

Thesacrifice of self that we most often see in long-term overburdenedcaregivers leaves them joyless, depressed, and focused entirely ongetting through another hour or day of tasks with no expectation ofdeliverance. They have become less of a person because theirparticularity has been obscured, even obliterated, often ofnecessity, by the work of caretaking. Their own likes and dislikes,personal habits, and their ability to relate to self, to God, to theworld, and to other persons have been obscured by the tasks ofcaretaking. The longer the obscuration or obliteration of selfcontinues, the harder it will be to rediscover the person one wasbefore.

We can all tell ourselves that we are too far away to be of help to thesister whose 4-year-old is slowly dying of inoperable brain cancer orthe uncle who takes care of grandpa as his Alzheimer's gets worse.But most of us could use our vacation time to spell them for a weekor even a weekend once or twice a year.

Inthe meantime people could send the funds to hire a nurse for a day ofrespite or organize a network of friends, relatives, and churchmembers to provide regular relief. A replacement by a relative or acheck for a weekend nurse, along with a reservation to a retreathouse, campground, or hotel, could rejuvenate a lot ofcaretakers.

There seems to me to be a strange disjunction between the real lives of most people I knowand the images of people that we receive in the media. The images ofpeople in our society reflected to us by the media are incrediblypreoccupied with self. But when I look at my family, friends,co-workers, neighbors, and students, I see people who are for themost part involved in taking care of others.

One of my uncles nursed his Parkinson's-afflicted wife for two decadesuntil her recent death. My aunt Yvonne is live-in caretaker for mydisabled 95-year-old great-aunt Nellie, on top of a full-time job asa nurse-practitioner. My sister-in-law, Rosie, as the only nearchild, has had responsibility for my semi-paralyzed mother-in-law formore than two years. My husband's cousin visits a network of elderlyrelatives and neighbors in nursing homes every week dispensingcheeriness, little homemade treats, and bits of news. One of mybrothers and his wife took in a nephew with their own children whilethe boy's divorced mother dealt with his delinquent older sister. Aneighbor takes Communion to the local nursing home every day; anotherbuilds houses on Saturdays with Habitat for Humanity. My dry cleanervolunteers five nights a week at a foster-care home for childrendying of AIDS.

I see many people doing voluntary sacrifice.

Still,there is a kernel of truth in the media depictions of this generationas self-absorbed. Some of the people in the list above carry a degreeof resentment at other family members or friends who have not helpedand whom they hear say, "Aren't you a wonderful person to be doingthis extraordinary thing? I just appreciate and admire you so much!"But most caretakers don't want appreciation or admiration; they don'twant to be put on a pedestal as people who do extraordinary feats.What they want is help.

The caretakers want all of us to realize that sacrifice is notextraordinary, it is ordinary; and allof us are called to do it. We are called to sacrifice some degree ofour time, our energy, our money, our privacy, and our vacations tohold together the ties that connect and support us all. For many ofus, adding such sacrificial help into our schedules requires aserious rethinking of the structure of our lives, for there is noopen time.

Suffering is never good in itself
Much of the above thinking about sacrifice and the suffering entailed in it originated in mydiscomfort, often even anger, at what seemed to me shocking attitudesexpressed by persons near me concerning suffering and sacrifice. Twoyears ago my oldest son caught a terrible virus and spent five monthscompletely paralyzed on a ventilator and a pacemaker, with tubefeedings through a series of holes in his belly. Due to complicationsfrom a chronic medical condition of his, for four months there waslittle medical hope for his survival, much less full recovery.

Ashe began to recover movement between his fifth and his tenth month inthe hospital, a relative visited and heard him croak through aspeaking tube his satisfaction and gratitude at simply being alive.She turned to me and remarked: "Well, his sacrifice-the wholeordeal-was really a good thing, because it made him grow up andgave him such a mature, spiritual attitude."

Icannot express the rage I felt at hearing this glib judgment. I, too,marveled at his lack of anger, his acceptance of what would be farless than full recovery, and his wonder and gratitude at simply beingalive. Nevertheless, I had to restrain myself from screaming at her.I had a number of objections, but what especially enraged me was theidea that any good consequence can render suffering "good."

Myhusband and I had been through family deaths, life-threateningsurgeries and illnesses, a kidney transplant, and near-fatal caraccidents involving our children. None of these compared to the agonyof month after month of submerging our own pain in order to try tohelp this son bear his severe neurological pain as well as his terrorand despair at his absolutely total helplessness and immobility;there was nothing reassuring we could tell him. To blithely refer tothis as "a good thing" was akin to telling Jewish survivors that theHolocaust was a good thing because it brought about the nation ofIsrael or saying that Hiroshima was a good thing because it led toresearch into the effects of radiation.

Thereare some real moral problems hidden in this well-intended but cruellyflip comment. Our culture has become so dominated by the instrumentalrationality of the economy that we have learned to focus on utilityand efficiency and to evaluate things by looking at a very narrowrange of consequences. But no favorable consequence can makesomething repugnant to God "good."

Many things that are not good in themselves sometimes do produce a good thing-alongsidetragedy and suffering. Families with problems sometimes work outthose problems in the aftermath of violent deaths in the family;societies sometimes address serious health and sanitation conditionsin the wake of epidemics. These good consequences do not make violentdeaths or epidemics morally good. Suffering is negative, if onlybecause it is not what God wants for us.

The God of Israel, who delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, and theJesus of the gospels, who exhibited and demanded compassion for thesick, the poor, children, women, and those considered sinners, demandfrom us a love of neighbor which is incompatible with acceptance ofunnecessary suffering. God does not want suffering for us: sufferingcan deform both body and soul. When we hear suffering connected withnobility and dignity, it is not the suffering and pain itself that isnoble and dignified, but the person who is resistingthe suffering and pain.

Tomeet unavoidable suffering and pain with dignity and nobilityrequires a resistance that is costly in terms of energy and hope.When suffering is extended over long periods, hope and energyfrequently run out, leaving persons open to self-hatred and despair.Fighting the temptation to feel defined by one's suffering, even tofeel that one deserves such suffering, eats away at human dignity,leaving the sufferer vulnerable to despair. This is why suffering isacceptable to God as sacrifice only when it is a means to somethinggood in itself.

"Offeringsuffering up to God" ought to be akin to making "pain management"deals: it entails accepting the pain as in some way ours, as havingsome control over us, but limiting the control pain has, refusing tolet it cut us off from our relationships with God, our deepestselves, and others. Even here there is a calculus at work: "If Icannot get rid of the pain, I will accept what I have to, withoutletting it obliterate who I am." Of course, it would be wrong toimply that, if a person's will is strong enough, any degree of painand suffering can be held at bay indefinitely. We cannot hold offdeath and disease forever, and various types of madness (or mentalillness) are other ways of being overwhelmed by the pain andsuffering in our lives.

A reappraisal of religious asceticism
For some years now, theologians, liturgists, ethicists, and those in religious educationhave begun to encourage Catholics away from ascetical practices thathave no demonstrable benefits and involve only a verticalrelationship between God and the individual. Instead of being urgedto fast for the spiritual discipline and closeness to God that bodilysuffering has been assumed to produce, reduced Lenten fasts andabstinence, for example, have increasingly been linked to helping usidentify with the sufferings of the hungry, donate our missed mealsand meat to their advantage, and generally commit us to theirwelfare. In this way our spiritual practice integrates our verticalrelationship with the divine and our horizontal relationship with therest of creation.

Similarly,most religious orders no longer encourage their members to flagellatethemselves as punishment for sin but instead urge forms of penancethat redress the damage done to victims of sin or natural tragedy.Since the Second Vatican Council, the Sunday Mass has increasinglybeen taught as the celebration of the community of the Body ofChrist, and not as the reenactment of Calvary (in the "sacrifice ofthe Mass"). Both are traditional themes, although they are difficultto ritualize together. Though one occasionally still hears the poorand oppressed sermonically urged to be grateful for theirsuffering-for it saves them a place in heaven-the morecommon message is that the church supports them in their afflictionby working for the social justice that will grant themrelease.

Increasingly the Church is teaching that because sacrifice acceptable to God must bevoluntary, the only suffering appropriate for sacrifice to God isthat which is either unavoidable-as in the chronic, untreatablepain of the seriously ill or aged-or necessary in order tosecure some greater good-as the pain of childbirth or thesuffering encountered in working for racial justice in a racistsociety. God values the suffering we undergo in doing God'swork-in participation in the life and redemption of the world.No other suffering is acceptable to God.

We should not allow some good consequence of suffering to convince us ofthe goodness of suffering itself. It is inappropriate to deliberatelychoose to inflict suffering on ourselves or others and justify it asgood moral discipline. When we look at the history of asceticalpractices in the development of Catholic spiritualities, it isundeniable that unnecessary, self-inflicted suffering was often avalued aid in the spiritual journeys of saints who achieved realcloseness to God. But such practices carry with them the dangers ofcallousness to human suffering, isolation from the Body of Christ,and scandal to others. Moreover, we do not need this kind of practiceto learn virtue. Every step in the direction of the reign of Godrequires some degree of sacrifice from us. In our friendships, ourfamilies, our work, our neighborhoods, our parish, our city, and ournation, we are constantly called upon to make large and smallsacrifices to protect the dignity and welfare of other persons whoare also obligated to make similar sacrifices for us and oursociety.

The imposition of unnecessary suffering on another is torture. When we doit to ourselves we are masochists. God takes no pleasure inunnecessary pain; there is nothing to be learned from it butcallousness to pain, whether to ourselves or others. If we want toteach children discipline, we are best advised to point them toward aclear good that will entail sacrifice-such as building upmuscles or caring for a garden-and urge them to achieve thegood. Even when disciplining them for misbehavior, giving childrentasks that connect them to others and produce some real benefit toself or others are much better penalties than giving time-outs,paddling, or grounding.

Finally,we are constantly making decisions about the relative value ofalternative uses of our energy, time, and material resources. When weconsider whether specific sacrifices promote greater good, we shouldremember that God's preferential option for the poor, as repeatedlyexpressed in the Bible, suggests that God sees these decisions notfrom on high, removed from the particularities of human life. Godrather sees these decisions from the perspective of the children andyouth who need parenting and mentoring, of the elderly who needvisits, of the sick who need human as well as technical care. Godalso sees our evaluations of the need for sacrifice from theperspective of those disciples whose ongoing sacrifices for love ofthe needy has been so unsupported that they, too, now fall underGod's preferential option for the poor.


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