In today’s paper alone, hundreds of deaths as a result of human violence were reported. Several hundred were killed in a coup attempt in Turkey, and over a hundred killed by a man ramming a truck into a crowd. A man walks into a hospital and shoots an 88-year-old woman and her nurse. Two men shoot it out in a parking lot, and a man with an assault rifle gunned down 3 police officers. In the local op-ed section of the paper, one man advocates that the only way to be safe is to be “strong” and therefore every citizen ought to carry a gun.
Here is the ancient secret to shielding ourselves against such danger. I will collect my neighbors, and together we will select one of our pets to be “laid down.” We’ll make a nice ceremony out of the slaughter and erect a memorial that serves as a prophylactic against a contagion of violence. If this doesn’t work, we perhaps will need to up the ante and sacrifice one of our children or perhaps even a spouse. If this doesn’t work, perhaps we will have to institute a steady stream of sacrificial victims. The important thing, however, is that for the rest of the neighborhood, we can live in relative peace and security.
Why sacrifice? There is a rage, an anger, a fear that must be appeased somehow. Whose anger? We are not sure. It could be God’s or the system’s or justice’s or our own. It is probably all of these congealed together into a horrifying monster that must be vanquished. What we are confident about, although we don’t know why, is that sacrifice is the fix.
Rightly would we outright reject such an absurd proposition only because it is way too obvious what is going on. Besides, it is highly doubtful that we would get people to voluntarily hand over their loved ones. Put in terms of ancient societies, sacrifice like cutting out the hearts of victims while they are still alive in order to reverse a famine as the ancient Mayans did appears wildly barbaric and grossly ineffective. Yet, in the face of a steady barrage of violence in our own day the language of sacrifice only heightens.
In America, sacrifice is held up as nearly the most fundamental of virtues. Indeed, one pundit recently wrote that moral authority is only achieved through sacrifice.
Nothing betrays our double-mindedness about our violence toward one another as the use of the word hero. A hero, whether dead or alive, is our dressed up, socially acceptable version of a sacrificial victim, someone who’s death buffers us from our own violence and removes the cancer of violence from us.
We have all kinds of sacrifices that we pay no attention to at all. They are so common that we don’t even bother with a hero label: those in poverty, people without health care, immigrant workers, those working grueling and demeaning jobs for wages that do not even approximate living wages, the unemployed, the marginally employed, and the mass of humanity imprisoned. These people, sacrificed to the “fluctuations of the market” are discarded along with our massive piles of waste filling landfills and oceans, choking out animal life. One third of the world’s urban population lives in abject poverty and squalor.
We don’t even give these a sacrificial label let alone a hero one. They are simply discards, trash, and disposables. They are the necessary waste of the economy’s insatiable desire for growth. Nonetheless, their lives are “given up” for the sake of the whole, for the peace and prosperity of the rest of us.
The hero label is especially reserved for the victim whose death best reinforces the official storyline. The sanctioned sacrifice in America goes something like this: We live in a free country, but our freedom is always threatened presumably by those who don’t want freedom. It is necessary or at least unfortunate that lives be “given up” in order to preserve and protect us.
One may object to the way I just phrased this last statement because it is devoid of choice. A hero, after all, is one who voluntarily offered to give up his life for the sake of others. This sounds entirely noble and very Christian. After all Jesus gave himself up for others. It hardly matters, however, whether the victim volunteers or not. What makes the death of a hero effective is that the loss of life ingeniously conceals our collective violence. We can memorialize the sacrifice with ritual and edifices. It keeps the storyline going, especially the part where we convince ourselves that the only way to preserve and protect our (fill in the blank __________) is by sacrifice, by a life being relinquished for the good of the rest of us.
Even more so, the critical sacrificial factor of a loss of life is that the victim is silent. The participant (for those who may object to my use of victim) does not object or protest the loss of her life. She simply acquiesces. It doesn’t mean that she likes losing her life or that she really disagrees with the official storyline. It simply means that she did not resist.
Both the cop who is gunned down while on duty and the black man who is gunned down for pulling out his car registration are sacrificial victims. They both keep the storyline going that someone’s loss of life somehow preserves the rest of us and keeps violence (now mysteriously transformed into an entity outside of us) away.
Why is the policeman extolled as a “hero” while the black man is designated either an unfortunate mishap or a “thug?" The “hero” designation powerfully reinforces the storyline. He makes the essential storyline that victims are necessary for protection sacred, revered, unapproachable and unquestioned. Both the sacrificial victim and the storyline a given a divine aura. The black man shot by police after being pulled over for a broken tail light revealed the ugly underpinnings of our demand that violence fix violence. He did not object. He couldn’t. But his girlfriend video taped it and loudly resisted and protested his death. His perceived weakness—a broken taillight or his black skin—turned into a societal tumor that had to be removed. You know, to save the whole body from dying.
Whatever striking differences seem obvious between the policeman and the black man, the hidden reality Is that both function as sacrificial victims. Both lives were “given over” for our sake. To repeat, what makes the policemen a hero is that the loss of his life feeds all the more the critical part of the story needed for self-preservation; sacrifice is necessary for our self- preservation, for our safety, to keep violence away from us. After all, the word hero originates from ancient Greece where its primary meaning was one who protects, one who keeps violence at bay.
My presentation here is beyond uncomfortable. For some it is infuriating. I am echoing the thought of René Girard who devoted his academic life to exploring and explaining the unique nature of our human on human violence. Even though I have been engaging Girard’s thought for over twenty years, I have been reluctant to say much about it in my writing. The main reason is this: it is profoundly disturbing the idea that our propensity toward violence is deeply engrained in every single human especially when we act collectively. It is profoundly unsettling precisely because we are so practiced in directing our internal violence away from us.
We all participate and propagate violence, mainly in our propensity to shove it off and isolate it on some “other,” precisely so I can own the sense that violence is out there and instigated by those people. Sacrificial victims, whether heroes or criminals, are an unfortunate necessity, a bi-product of prosperity and protection.
And this is why I refuse to use the word hero because it fundamentally hides our violence in a sacrificial mechanism, a social outlet that demonstrates its ineffectiveness the more we pile victims onto it.
For a lot of people, the image of a hero is modeled on the life of Jesus. After all, he laid down his life for us and for our salvation, and most importantly, his execution as a political subversive is heavily couched in the language of sacrifice.
For one, a hero is decidedly grounded in Greek and Roman mythology as a warrior in league with divinities. His primary characteristic is that he is an effective killer of enemies, and in this way, does he protect and defend. Before he in any way lays down his own life, he lays down the life of countless others. The word hero is not to be found in the Bible whether Hebrew or Greek.
The Jesus of the gospels in no way resembles such an archetypal mythological hero. For one, he killed no one and strongly admonished his followers away from using violent means.
Second, Jesus is only one among millions who have given up his life for others. Yes, he did it voluntarily—reluctantly, but nonetheless, voluntarily—and with the express reason that it was necessary to accomplish something. Unfortunately there are many who wrongly argue that God’s anger towards humanity had to be appeased and that God handed over his own child to appease his unrestrained anger. This bit of popular, yet grossly distorted theology propagates the hero label endlessly.
The uniqueness of Jesus’ execution as a mock emperor—this is exactly how Rome viewed it—is the way his death profoundly exposes Rome’s imperial dogma (and our own) to fix violence with violence. First victory then peace was their mantra. Jesus is an anti-hero in that he exposes our ingenious way of hiding our violence by means of sacrificial victims. He refuses to remain silent, quoting Scripture even on the cross and exposing the machinery of sacrifice every step of the way.
The critical factor, however, is that he forgives them even as they (and we) implement the preferred method for keeping violence away from them (and us). “Forgive them,” Jesus asks of God, “they don’t understand what they are doing.”
Jesus is spoken of in terms of a sacrifice in the Bible, but one that destroys the demands for sacrifices in order to have prosperity and security. His was a sacrifice to end sacrifice. His death condemns our mistaken notion that someone else’s death procures my life.
There are countless people who have devoted themselves to others in order to save and protect them. Their lives are truly inspirational and noble, and many of them are motivated by the life and death of Jesus. But please, let us not call them heroes, a designation which any saint would outright reject. They would surely point to the crucifixion of Jesus as condemning once and for all our misguided notion that the disposing of a life is an unfortunate necessity to getting along collectively.
Rembrandt sketch of Abraham and Isaac