Querying sacrifice

Over 32 years of ministry, I have found leading congregations through Good Friday and Easter Sunday the most demanding, problematic, and rewarding moments of the Christian year.

I say ‘problematic’ because so much Christian theology and spirituality crystallise the meaning of Easter as ‘sacrifice.’ This year, in which Anzac Day quickly followed Easter, has only intensified this dilemma.

Sacrifice is a powerful theme. It reaches deep into the human psyche in holding up death, for others or for country, as a form of giving without parallel.

But there is more to it: it triggers our deepest feelings while covering up and misdirecting our thinking. It manages to reveal as it obfuscates.

Above, you can see two grieving figures at Vladslo German war cemetery in Belgium. They were carved by Kathe Kollwitz, an artist of note. Peter, her son, was killed at the Battle of Langemark in 1914. He was 18 years old.

Kathe was devastated and endeavoured to find solace in the notion of sacrifice. It failed, and she plunged into a deep depression.

Carving sculptures was one way she dealt with her suffering. The statues in Vladslo of a bereaved mother and father speak of a grief so profound that it threatens to tear them apart. They fold their arms across their chests to keep their bodies intact, and both remain isolated in their grief.

There is nothing uplifting or noble about these statues. They offer no higher ideal to gaze upon. (They are looking down.) They represent the raw truth of war – its loss and suffering – and demand to be engaged at that level.

When I visited Vladslo, they transfixed me.

Notions of sacrifice, however, function to relieve us of such realism.

These statues speak of a braver way of engaging life and, I would suggest, point to a pathway of faith rarely commended.

It’s a faith that faces reality squarely, never seeking to avoid it.

It’s a faith that engages life slowly and purposefully. It leads us on a pathway without shortcuts. It’s hard going, and the destination is rarely visible. There are few instructions or maps. You can’t appeal to the heavens to jump ahead; doing so takes you off the track.

Who will take the time needed to walk this path? Who will bear witness to what emerges?

Kathe Kollwitz is one of very few role models.

Sacrifice distracts people from walking this pathway by promising shortcuts. It turns our gaze upwards and risks glorifying the very things it purports to deplore – violence, suffering, loss, devastation.

Sacrifice determines that if lives have been sacrificed, the cause must be noble. It cordons off questioning and reassessment.

In the first two centuries of Christianity, followers of Jesus refused to depict the crucifixion because it was too gruesome. Their reticence is an example of walking the slow path I mentioned above.

Now crosses are everywhere, accompanied by theologically sophisticated notions of sacrifice.

We should rediscover the slow path and reject whatever takes our focus away from it.

Let me conclude with an account of the charge at The Nek, Gallipoli, in August 1915:

Three waves of Australian Light Horsemen ‘jumped the bags’ to be mown down by Turkish machine gunfire. Some called it a ‘heroic sacrifice.’

However, a sergeant in the last wave took a young, 18-year-old soldier under his wing. Together, they jumped the bags, and immediately the sergeant pulled the 18-year-old down to the ground.

They did not run into the Turkish machine gunfire, and they survived.