Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Little Rant About Human Sacrifice and Christianity

Colleen "Coke" Nakamoto's questions about sacrifice stirred up a lot of dust for me. (Her performance piece will be part of a three-woman, Asian American triptych, called "Incarnate" that will show at the Noh theatre space in San Francisco, 2840 Mariposa, on October 28 at 8 p.m.)

Or rather, her question about "sacrificial love," combined with another Wing It! friend who is becoming ordained as a minister writing to ask my help in editing her sermon on women giving Communion, and my responses to Theresa's writing as artist-as-mystic, are all whirring around inside me.

Theresa first. Because a lot of the creative work I do is communal, I experience conflict when everything--almost everything, it feels like, happens on a Friday night or a Saturday. I do not even make half-assed attempts to celebrate Shabbat. Once in a blue moon it happens because a jewish friend has me over for dinner and we "do Shabbat"; i.e. candles and wine and singing and praying, but as for devoting the next day to God alone? Forget it.

To participate in every important organization in my life: California poets in the schools, SUN workshops, Interplay, New College, Writing Salon, and on and on and on, means that I violate observance of the Sabbath, not just once in a while, but every week. It would be very difficult to participate fully as a writer, a teacher, and a player in the communities in which I am a member and also to follow Jewish laws. And personally, I doubt very much that I would have the self-discipline (or the will, or the desire,) to refrain from writing, handling money, or driving on Saturday. I know I wouldn't. So my spiritual life is definitely affected by the busy and hectic pace of my "other" life, the life of activity with others.

Now to rant about sacrificial love; sacrifice is a beautiful and necessary thing. Imagine how horrible the world would be if no one made any sacrifices on behalf of anyone else. But I view the Christian theology of "Jesus died to save the world from sin" as a giant step backwards.

It seems to me that in the Old Testament, "God" stepped in to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. This is a primal story for us; the moral of the story is God doesn't want you to kill your children anymore. Stop. Historically, maybe it's the move away from worship based on violent bloody human sacrifice to a more agrarian worship of sacrificing measures of grain, or farm animals.

Then Christianity comes along with "This is my body you eat, this is my blood you drink," and we're back to worshipping human sacrifice again. Back to the blood and guts and scapegoating.

Not that Jews don't have our own mishegas. God knows we do. But the idea that there's virtue in being tortured and executed is not a precept I can get behind. Bring back the corn-god, who sacrificed himself at the height of summer so the community could eat! That was literal, that had meaning, that was free of political motives. Take and eat. The woman gives her breast to the child, the child literally feeds off her flesh and blood and the human race continues. But she doesn't have to die to do it, and her body isn't hung up on a bloody cross somewhere.

Okay, I'm done ranting for now. Now I've got to get myself together to give a presentation on Jewish Women in the Arts; Camoflage and Representation at University of San Francisco tomorrow.



Alison said...

Yes, I know, this is something I struggle with.

I have a question. Like I said at the blog, I'm not a member of any religion (and I was sympathetic to what you said about trying to balance your creative life and your faith--I wished I'd said something about that. But hey, you erased me anyway, so there. )
I am trying to understand where religion comes from, where faith comes from, why and how we express it. I liked what the author Satanic Verses said about religion being the way we live a moral life, not an end in itself. In other words, the innate desire to be moral comes first. Then religion comes as a way of helping us to walk the right way.

But my question is: You said Buddhism has renunciation rather than sacrifice. I'm trying to understand the difference. If you renounce certain comforts, isn't this the same as sacrificing? What am I missing?

What did you think of Ursula LeGuin's take on Mother Teresa?

I do see that the Christ sacrifice is blood sacrifice, just in another set of clothes. Indeed, I don't believe anymore in the resurrection of Christ. I'm more prone to believe his followers embellished the tale, using myths and concepts people were already familiar with in order to convert them to Christianity. STILL, when I look at the Christ sacrifice metaphorically, it seems a beautiful idea and it does reinforce to me what compassion is.

A big topic, to be sure. I hope you get lots of feedback on it.

I'll try to get to your Joan poem during Fall break, which is this weekend. Right now I'm a grading machine.


Alison said...

The above comment is from Theresa, not me! I just copied it and pasted it into my blog so that there would be some comments there and we could have a discussion (Theresa had left a comment beofre, but I accidentally erased it!)

I am no expert on either Buddhist or Christian theology, but I think renunciation is done "selfishly" so as to free the aspirant from earthly ties. Sacrifice is done to free someone else at great personal cost to the sacrificer. (But then again, we often benefit from making sacrifices...)

Theresa Williams said...

So maybe renunciation goes further than sacrifice? That is:

1. I want this candy bar. But I will give it to the poor. But I still really want the candy bar. So I am sacrificing this candy bar for the poor.

2. I want this candy bar. But I will give it to the poor. Now, I don't want the candy bar anymore; moreover, I can't understand why I ever wanted the candy bar in the first place. (renunciation)

Is this right?

I read in Armstrong's book how many of the men in India became wanderers or hermits, leaving wives and children to do so.

I liked what LeGuin said about nature not being humane and to be like nature. I still have to think about that one a while before I can wrap my mind around it.

LeGuin: "Nature is definitely not humane. And Lao Tzu says we should be like nature. We should not be humane, either, in the sense that we should not sacrifice ourselves for others. Now that's going to be very hard for Christian readers to accept, because they're taught that self-sacrifice is a good thing. Lao Tzu says it's a lousy thing. This is perhaps the most radical thing he says to a Western ear. Don't buy into self-sacrifice. Any more than you would ask somebody to sacrifice themselves for you. There's a sort of reciprocity--that's the only way I can understand it.

"I've been thinking about this since Mother Teresa's recent death. I have never been comfortable with her or with any extreme altruism. It makes me feel inferior, like I ought to be like that, but I'm not. And if I tried to be, it would be the most horrible hypocrisy. But why, what is it that I'm uncomfortable with? And I think maybe Lao Tzu gives me a little handle on that. In a sense, this kind of self-sacrifice occurs only in a society that is so sick that only somebody going too far can make up for the cruelty of the society."

Alison said...

I think you said a magic word for me when you used the term "self-sacrifice." Because the word sacrifice itself is not a bad word to me. I think it means "to make sacred." So you pour a little liquor on the earth in libation before you drink as an offering to the ancestors; you kill the fatted calf when an honored guest comes. And you do that with joy, to show that you value the spirit that animates the precious gifts of food and wine, even more than you value the food and wine itself. I can get behind that.

"Self-sacrifice"--to make an offering of yourself, (in order to make yourself holy?)--that feels a little more problematic. Like, do you think you are unholy, so you need to offer your body to be burned at the stake in order to be good enough for God? Or are you doing it in the same spirit of joyful generosity?

As far as the difference between sacrifice and renunciation goes, I think renunciation is: I want this candy bar so I give it away or throw it away in order to free my mind from sense-cravings so that I can reswt in the hugeness of the Universe. I know that five minutes after I satisfy the craving for a candy bar I will be craving something else, and all that is a big distraction which never truly fulfills me, so I just stopnow in order to attain true freedom.

Theresa Williams said...

Oh, very well explained, Alison. Thank you very much. This has been most enlightening! These words from LeGuin are really starting to make sense to me:
"Don't buy into self-sacrifice. Any more than you would ask somebody to sacrifice themselves for you. There's a sort of reciprocity--that's the only way I can understand it."