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An ambiguous sacrifice

 Oikonomia/ 10 - The claim to repay God and that veil that does not hide exploitation

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 14/03/2020

 "One of the reasons for killing a god is to preserve him from aging"

R. Money-Kyrle, The meaning of sacrifice

Businesses today are increasingly using the language of sacrifice, while theology instead is abandoning it. A complex word, especially in Christianity, which easily runs the risk of lending itself to manipulation.

Sacrifice is a word associated with religion, with the economy, with every crisis there is. Sacrifices are born or developed during great collective crises - wars, famines, plagues. In the ancient world, when life became harder and evil threatened communities, our ancestors began to think that offering something of value to the divinities could be an essential tool for managing catastrophes and crises. The sacrifice to the gods of animals and, in certain cases, of children and virgins, became a language for binding heaven to earth, the collective hope of being able to act upon invisible enemies. Sacrifices feed on hope and fear, on life and death. It is radically a community experience, which heals, recreates and nourishes the bonds within the community and between the community and its gods.

Sacrifice is both light and darkness added together. The light is clear. Communities are not born, and do not last, nor grow, without sacrifices - we keep finding this out, but it is never enough. We have learned to practice the gift and generosity during millennia of sacrificial offerings. Each true gift intrinsically carries a dimension of sacrifice (in the most common sense of the word). Those gifts that cost us nothing are also worth nothing - one of the most ancient social laws there is - because a true gift is always the gift of life. We love gifts very much, especially when they come from our loved ones, because they are sacraments of their love for us. These days of pandemic that we are now experiencing, between the winter and spring of 2020, could also prove to be a wonderful time for our children, to learn about the mysterious and definitive relationship between sacrifice, gift, and life.

When it comes to their dark side, sacrifices have an intrinsic vertical and asymmetrical dimension. One does not offer or sacrifice something as an exact equal, but to an entity one sees as being superior. Sacrificial communities are always hierarchical, because the man-god relationship involved immediately becomes a paradigm of political and social relationships, and therefore of power. The community that offers sacrifices and gifts to the gods must also offer sacrifices and gifts to the powerful and the king - who in certain religions is divine in nature as well. The gift given to a king is a gift (regalo from rex: re, king), which is given because you cannot not offer it.

If we then take the same words that we have just used to describe the light side of sacrifices ("they cost", "they are worth", "they are dear"), we immediately find ourselves facing another of their dark aspects, linked to an even greater and more direct extent to the economy. A sacrifice or offering is not an isolated act, but a process that takes place over time. At the beginning, there is generally an expectation of return that far too easily can turn into a claim. The grace, which is the objective of any sacrifice, becomes an object of trade. Typically, we would find sacrifice before grace. Moreover, even when the sacrifice arrives later, when we return to the temple to make another sacrificial offering, we are already well into a commercial relationship with the god in question. It is possible that many communities began the practice of today's sacrifice as a token of gratitude for a gift received yesterday by the gods, and from the second sacrifice onwards, the commercial register prevailed, and the sacrifice became the price paid in advance to gain a new slice of grace. What is lacking (or which is strongly challenged) in sacrifices is precisely the concept of gratuity.

Through the mediation of Christianity, sacrifice entered directly into the medieval economy and then into capitalism, becoming one of its ethical pillars. The economy and sacrifices are both linked to the material dimension of life. When it comes to sacrifices and offerings, it is not enough to offer prayers and psalms of praise: one also has to offer something material, sacrificing objects or lives assimilated to things. The first economic goods in human history were the offerings of animals, the first markets those with the gods, the first trade that between heaven and earth, and the first merchants the priests in the temples.

Today, we find the concept of sacrifice in the many places occupied by capitalism. And not only in the most evident phenomena, such as the increasing sacrifices requested by large companies from their employees, which today often take the form of actual holocausts (with a total destruction of the offer) of their entire lives, because they are often useless for the productivity of the company, but as pure signs of total and unconditional devotion.

However, the most interesting way in which sacrifice is present in capitalism, is the least evident one. In religions, sacrifice does not just want things: it wants living things that die as we offer them. Sacrifices consist precisely in transforming what lives into something that dies because it is alive (only living things can die: objects do not die because they are not alive). Coins, for example, are found in shrines all around the world, but are not used as objects of sacrifice - they are used as a means to buy the animals to be offered, or are left as complementary accessories to the living sacrifice. Those animals or (vegetable) libations, which like all living things would necessarily and naturally eventually be destined to death, paradoxically manage to defeat death, and acquire a dimension that takes them away from the natural rhythm of life, precisely thanks to the sacrifice involved. Because, if on the one hand, the lamb dies prematurely as it is sacrificed while still alive, when it dies on the altar it becomes something different, overcoming the natural laws of the world, entering another order and acquiring a different value. By not dying naturally, in a certain way, it becomes immortal.

The economy also lives and grows by transforming things destined for death into goods that acquire value, precisely through this kind of transformation. Every day businesses take living things (raw materials, animals, wheat, cotton, our energy supplies...), destined as living things to eventually die, creating added value by making them "die" and transforming them into goods. That value that is added to things while transforming them is very similar to the value that animals and plants used to acquire while they were offered on an altar.

The interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection has also often been seen from this perspective: his "sacrifice" defeats the natural order of death and, through the resurrection, makes him immortal. Martyrdom, and later virginity, were also seen in Christianity as an alchemy of death into a different and superior kind of life.

However, the relationship between Christianity and sacrifice is full of misunderstandings. Even if the life and words of Jesus move within an anti-sacrificial logic («I desire Mercy, not Sacrifice» Matthew 9,13), Christianity immediately interpreted the passion and death of Jesus as a sacrifice, as the «Lamb of God» which, with his death, definitively removed all sin from the world. A new and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10), which replaced the ancient and repeated sacrifices of the temple. The sacrifice of Jesus, of the Son, would have been the price paid to God the Father to pay off the enormous debt that humanity had contracted. Jesus, the new high priest, who offers not animals but himself in sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

Sacrificial theology ran across and marked the entire Middle Ages, reaffirmed by the Counter-Reformation, and is still deeply rooted in Christian practice today. The sacrificial idea informs a lot of Christian liturgy, transmitting the hierarchical vision typical of sacrifice to Christianity as well. Throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond) the culture of sacrifice was in fact expressed in social practices of sacrifice and offerings where subjects, children, women, servants, poor people, had to sacrifice themselves for their superiors, for the leaders, for their priests, for their fathers and husbands. Sacrificing and offering to God easily became sacrificing yourself for other men who, like God, were above and beyond those making the sacrifices. The theological context of sacrifices offered asymmetric and feudal power relations a spiritual justification, calling what was simply exploitation, a sacrifice.

The concept of sacrifice is finally leaving more recent theology, (thanks to a more biblical understanding of the mystery of the Passion), but it is increasingly entering and becoming part of the new capitalist religion. In fact, the creative process of living things that die, increasing their value while "dying", has become particularly strong and central in the capitalism of the 21st century, where, unlike in the past, the first living things that acquire value by dying have now become the workers. Marx explained to us that only people are capable of creating added value in economics – machines are not enough. This ancient truth has recently undergone an important transformation. Until a few decades ago, the "sacrifice" required by factories was not excessive, much less complete in its nature: it was merely the one defined in each worker’s employment contract and managed by the unions. The sacrifice of life was reserved only to faith, to the family, to one’s homeland. The religious mutation of capitalism and the eclipse of other "sacrificial" spheres in life meant that large companies have now become our new places for total sacrifice. This capitalism is no longer enough, nor is it interested in consuming our work force. It is the workers, who have to volunteer and offer themselves on the altar. Its worship needs whole people - in every religion, the most welcome offers are those that are whole, young, and spotless. The greater their sacrifice, the more they are worth. For example, the number of single or childless managers in the top positions of large companies is impressive and growing, a number that keeps increasing, especially in the great capitals of capitalism (from Singapore to Milan). A new form of celibacy and vow of chastity, essential to this new religion. And, as in the Middle Ages, that beautiful word sacrifice is now covering that other bad word, exploitation. This capitalism is really manipulating too many words.

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