On Sacrifice and Modern Sensibilities

The irreverent Rabbi Rami Shapiro notes the strangeness of sacrifice for us moderns.

I find the idea that someone has to die for my sins repugnant. I don’t want a cow to die for my sins either, so I am not into the whole Temple thing. I don’t eat cows (I’m not a carnavore), and I don’t eat Jesus (I’m not a Catholic); and no one should suffer because of me (though I know many who do). And I can’t believe in a god who needs sacrifice.

The sacrificial underpinning of Judaism and Christianity reflects an ancient mindset that I hope I have long since abandoned. The only way God can control His anger is to have us kill His Son? Does that make sense to anyone? Of course it makes sense to millions of people, but not to me. If this is what God is about, I’ll take atheism anytime.

There’s another way to view the necessity of sacrifice. Rather then seeing it as something ancient which we moderns have progressed beyond, perhaps it can be something painfully universal (across time and space).


In Rene Girard’s challenging analysis, social peace is formed through the “sacred” sacrifice of a scapegoat — unanimity minus one. The logic of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, accordingly, is the uncovering of the scapegoat mechanisms, this perverse yet pervasive “sacred” violence. Exposing the logic of “sacred” sacrifice is achieved Biblical texts by seemingly odd, detailed descriptions of violence that accompanies the breakdown of social peace and the inability of ritual or authority to re-establish peace. (see Korach, Pinchas, Suffering Servant is Isaiah, Job, Jesus’ passion) Often a more prestigious or greater number of victims is then required.

We moderns can observe the 20th Century’s verification of this dynamic. More prestigious victims (Jews, God’s Chosen People) and the masses (in Russia, Cambodia, China, etc) were demanded in societies where the previous rituals and authorities now longer held power.

In the present age of economic globalization and democratic governance, as Marx wrote, “All that is solid melts into air.” Religious and nationalistic violence increase. God doesn’t require sacrifice (see Micah 6:8 and Matt 12:7) but humans do. The best elements of all cultures, especially Girard’s reading of Christianity, expose our propensity for scapegoating and try to innoculates us from joining the mob.

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2 Responses to “On Sacrifice and Modern Sensibilities”

  1. Doug Floyd Says:

    Never having read Girard, I appreciate what you’ve said but realize I may not have a great grasp of his way of thinking. But it seems Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s challenge that sacrfice creates the future might have an interesting overlap with Girard. What do you think?

  2. Scott Says:

    Doug, I was considering drawing in Rosenstock on this post but decided to keep it simple and relocate his thoughts on sacrifice for a later post. Where do you think they are –Christian Future?

    I’ve corresponded with Feico Howling in Netherlands about Girard and Rosenstock. It’s possible to read the attraction of the primitive sacred (Girard’s sacrifice) as one of the distorted forces in Rosenstock’s Cross or Grammar of Reality. In particular I’d see the force of the past and/or the inner force relate to the violent sacred on Girard.

    It is only self-less sacrifice, and not vicious sacrifice, that creates the future. Glad to have you keeping me thinking!

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