I've been thinking about human sacrifice lately. A lot. It's not a pleasant subject, but there seems to be a lot of it going around so it's hard to not talk about it, especially with the the Anzac centenary celebrations still ringing in my ears. On the day after Anzac Day we even had the subject mentioned from our church pulpit. It was a long time since I had felt so let down by my church.
It was the Australian poet Les Murray who first made me aware of the place of human sacrifice in Australian religious attitudes. His essay, 'Some Religious Stuff I Know About Australia', was published in 1982 in a book called The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today although I probably first read it some years later. Here's what he had to say.
Since the spiritual dimension universally exists in human beings, it has to be dealt with by them in some way or other; a sacramentally-minded Christian would say that it has to be fed. It can be wrongly fed, though, with dreadful results for the world.... An example of what I mean would be human sacrifice.
Wait on! Human sacrifice? Surely that's an archaic horror that survives only very marginally in a few Third World groups that anthropologists write about? Surely the holocausts of this century in what we call 'our' civilisation can only be called human sacrifices in a very metaphorical sort of way? Surely there's a distinction to be made here between the literal and the metaphorical?
My answer is, there may be, but I don't know of one watertight enough to prevent the blood from seeping through it. When I hear someone say, as I did yet again the other day, that this country needs a war to restore and cement its sense of community, I recognise that as a call to literal human sacrifice, to be performed for one of the classic archaic reasons. When I am told that thousands of Australian men died in the First World War so as to prove their country's worth to the world and make it 'come of age', I don't know whether that was in fact their motive (I strongly doubt it), but I see the assertion as one which makes their death into a post-facto human sacrifice, and accepts it as such.
And this despite not only the Enlightenment we used to praise as our deliverance from such archaic nonsenses, but also despite the much earlier action of Christ in consciously taking the whole deeply ancient human motif of sacrifice on Himself and as it were completing and sealing it, so that henceforth we might refer the whole complex impulse to His action and never again enact it literally on a human victim....
With the decline of traditional Christian observance, things formerly bound have a way of being loosed again on mankind....
This idea has stayed with me through the years and if anything has grown stronger as time has passed. I think about it every Anzac Day. People who otherwise believe they are not religious attend dawn services and daylight commemorations. Thousands even make the pilgrimage to the site of the original sacrifice. These events are highly liturgical - the 'Last Post' is played, a high status male (usually a dignitary from the RSL) recites part of Laurence Binyon's 'Ode', someone may give a short homily, there will be a minute's silence. They are not explicitly honouring any god, but they are honouring the young men who sacrificed their lives "for us" or "for our freedom". The ceremonies are engaging and moving. It is hard not to weep.
I think of it whenever I pass Anzac Square in Brisbane's central city and see the plaque which is headed "For God, King and Empire". Which god, I want to know, aligned him or her self with the King and Empire of Britain and demanded the deaths of these young people? Why would we worship such a monstrous god?
The thing is that we don't notice the deeply religious nature of these sacrifices because we have screened the subject out of our lives. Even devout Christians fail to notice that when you celebrate a sacrifice you are celebrating a religious act. A sacrifice is an offering you make to a god. It involves taking a living thing and killing it in a very public, ritualistic way in order to appease that god or buy his or her favour.
Human sacrifice is a big subject. I keep meaning to write about it, but hesitate because I feel unequal to the task. It is so serious, so complex, and I feel unqualified to perform it. But no-one else is either. Yet despite our collective silence human sacrifice pervades the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. It pervades our history, and its dark presence is with us every day. Millions of lives are sacrificed across the globe each year to the god of progress, the god of prosperity, the idol of Western culture. They may not look like the sort of gods that the ancients sacrificed to, but the results are the same. Vulnerable people die - children, foreigners, the poor - and the gods are indeed appeased and continue to bless their worshipers, at least for a time.
The thing is, should we continue to accept this sacrifice passively? It is hard to give it up, because these gods are not phantoms, they are very real. If we stop sacrificing to them, they may well turn on us. Their wrath will not be pleasant. On the other hand, they are fickle, and they are not as powerful as we believe them to be. Ultimately they will let us down no matter what we do. Can we escape their clutches, or will we in our turn be sacrificed before the end?
These are not pretty thoughts. They may seem cryptic to many of you, but to explain them will take some time. I suspect I will need to sit down at my desk for extended periods writing about it and thinking it through, rather than shooting from the lip like I usually do. In the meantime, bear with me, and when you hear someone using the word 'sacrifice' listen closely and ask yourself, 'What is being sacrificed here, and to which god?'