A few weeks ago in the UK there was an understandable outcry when the former chief schools inspector appeared to suggest that teachers should be prepared to sacrifice their lives in face of the Covid pandemic:

They’ve [health workers] gone the extra mile at great cost to themselves and their families, their health – they have sacrificed their lives in some cases. We need a similar commitment from the teaching profession over the next academic year.”

What struck me about the suggestion, apart from its inappropriateness, was the way in which it was couched in religious language.  I wonder how many people who speak of “going the extra mile” are aware of its very specific context in the Sermon on the Mount and of Walter Wink’s persuasive interpretation of its meaning ?  

Similarly, “sacrifice” is an essentially religious concept.  Twice in the lectionary readings for the weeks after Easter this year we hear about laying down one’s life.   In John 10 we hear that “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11 NRSV). Then a few weeks later in John 15 we hear that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13 NRSV). 

Photo: Peter King

In both these readings Jesus is presented as speaking about himself.  Tragically, however, all too often throughout history the idea of sacrifice, of giving oneself for others, has been used to justify unsought suffering. Whether in reference to combatants in war or to women or to the poor, the rhetoric of sacrifice has been used to justify and commend their unchosen suffering. 

The language of sacrifice very easily conceals a dynamic of oppression and powerlessness.   Women involuntarily sacrifice careers for partner and family; young men and women are propelled involuntarily into war at the behest of those for whom international conflict provides a convenient distraction from more pressing matters of justice and equality; more generally, the language of “sacrifice” very often serves as a response to those who are merely asking for what is due to them.

In the case of Jesus, the language of sacrifice can serve to conceal the fact that his death was a result of his teachings and lifestyle – that he was executed as a social, political and religious subversive.   The language of sacrifice can also lead to a neglect of the ethical imperatives posed by Jesus’ life and teaching in favour of an essentially passive reception of his sacrifice and a vague and general commitment to “sacrificial living” which fails to connect with the very specific social and political implications of Jesus’ life and teaching.  In the end, the simple fact of “sacrifice” can become more important than the reasons for which one is sacrificing as if the “sacrifice” were somehow virtuous in itself.

It is one thing to decide that Jesus’ life of self-giving love is a model for one’s own life but quite another to impose that choice on others.  It is also one thing to choose sacrifice for the sake of a specific good, as Jesus did, but another to choose sacrifice for its own sake.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote around the time he began his involvement with the conspiracy against Hitler which would ultimately lead to his execution at the hands of the Nazis:

Human beings have freedom towards death and the right to death, in the sense of sacrifice, but only when the good sought through sacrifice, and not the destruction of one’s own life, is the reason for risking one’s life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life” (1940), in Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 6, Augsburg Fortress, 2005), p. 197

This is not necessarily to say that we should abandon the language of sacrifice.   But it is to suggest that we should be careful in its use and discerning about its abuse.  It may be that reflection on these Johannine texts offer us an opportunity to begin to do just that.

Revd Peter King is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. 

“Greater love … ?”
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