Coming forward from the last post in which I made the case, “that selfishness, not sacrifice, seems to have become the driving force in the nation,” there are three propositions we need to address:
a) In that last post I asserted, “We do hear of it [ed note: sacrifice for the common good]when someone wants to take money from us, but even then money is the easiest sacrifice to make and enforced sacrifice is no sacrifice at all, its just brute force. Which proves that this ethos is not something that government can build – it must exist culturally.” We need to examine this in more detail.
b) I asserted that religion, and specifically Christian religion, is unique in being able to shape such a sacrificial ethos in our culture.
c) Finally, I have asserted that religion in America has abandoned it’s culture shaping role and the creation of a sacrificial ethos.
After examining these propositions in detail, we can move on to where we go from this point in history to help recreate the sacrificial ethos that has been lost.
Starting with the first proposition. Last week on Hannity, Rick Warren made what should be, but does not seem to be, an obvious statement, “Politics is downstream of culture.” He went on to say, “If I thought you could change people’s behavior by laws, I would have become a politician.” Those are pretty astounding statements, but they are ever so true in a free democracy, and they are analogous to the oft quoted, and generally attributed to Tocqueville, “Democracy can survive only so long as….”
The survival of our democracy relies on a culture that is compatible with democracy. That is why democracy often fails in other places. That is why education has been considered a government function almost since the founding of our nation. Education is mandatory to the maintenance of a democracy, because education is one of the ways that a culture that supports democracy is built. This is also why the founders protected religion in the constitution. The idea was to keep religion, another culture forming instrument, from being co-opted by government, and thus keep our democratic form of government accountable to our culture and not have the government in the business of forming our culture. The idea was, as is the case in so many places in our governmental and cultural structures, that religion and education would serve as checks and balances to each other.
Looking at it from a slightly different angle, in the November issue of “Imprimus,” Edward Erler quotes James Madison and writes:
James Madison frequently remarked that “all just and free government derives from social compact.” Indeed, this is the basis of government in the Declaration of Independence, which specifies that the “just powers” of government derive from the “consent of the governed.” Because “all men are created equal”—because, that is, no one by nature has the right to rule anyone else—the only legitimate source of rule is the consent of those who are to be ruled, and the only legitimate reason for consent is for the “safety and happiness” of those who agree to be ruled. In agreeing to join civil society, each individual freely accepts the obligation [ed note: sacrifice? think about 'the other?'] to protect the rights of fellow citizens in return for the protection of his own rights.
Government is not an independent power, it is a power “of, by and for” the people. If the people are good, the government is good, and vice versa. Thus if we want our government to pass laws that look out for the common good, even at the expense of some individuals desires and benefit – that is to say if we are a nation of people that are willing to make individual sacrifices for the good of all, then we must be a nation of people that think beyond ourselves and about that common good.
Moving onto the second proposition, why is religion unique in the forming a sacrificial ethos and why is Christianity unique among religion in doing so?
Religion, for the most part and certainly all western religion, teaches us uniquely that there is something bigger and greater than ourselves that we are somehow accountable to. It is from this concept that laws were originally codified. Furthermore, sacrifice has been a part of such acknowledgement from the very beginning. Typically such accountability involved sacrifice as a quid pro quo sort of thing. One sacrificed to that larger thing to obtain something in return, often fertility or crops, or something of that sort, but also “forgiveness and mercy” for our transgressions of the codified law.
Judaism took this understanding to a new level. Judaism brought us not just monotheism, but omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience – that is to say an all-powerful God. With such a God there was no real quid pro quo in sacrifice, for what could we possible offer such a God that He cold not supply for Himself?
(Before I go any farther, a brief aside. Many believers such as myself will be uncomfortable with this discussion to this point because it treats what I believe to be bedrock truth as if it is simply some sociological concept. We are discussing how our religion functions sociologically, specifically as an apologetic argument for our faith. That does not change the essential truth of our faith. To make an argument for the truth of our faith we must start from a place where that truth is not assumed. It is also interesting to note that Judaism is not a “derived” religion that developed from some earlier understanding. It sprang up of its own accord and parallel to other religions.)
Thus in the sacrificial schema of Judaism, grace becomes the order of the day. The deity grants us boon far beyond what our sacrifice warrants. Now our sacrifice is not merely a quid pro quo, but is rather an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the boon that has been granted to us, and testament to the power and authority to the deity – even if such gratitude remains mandatory in order to receive the boon.
But Christianity turns even this understanding on its head. In Christianity, God no longer accepts our sacrifice, but rather becomes our sacrifice. As the apostle Paul said:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
And now our understanding of sacrifice is an entirely different matter. No longer quid pro quo, or even merely and act of thanks (though that aspect remains) – now, with Christianity, sacrifice is something that we do to “join with.” We join with the deity, Christ, in His sacrifice by likewise sacrificing for the good of the other – the community. We do not sacrifice to the deity, for He has sacrificed Himself for that purpose, but we sacrifice for the sake of the community that the Deity has established.
Christianity stands alone in this understanding of sacrifice for the good of the community. It seems apparent that it was this common understanding of sacrifice, even if not deeply rooted in a personal faith, that made the United States unique in its establishment and operation of democracy and why it has succeeded here like no other place. It is this understanding of sacrifice that made the United States a “Christian” nation.
And again we have reached a point where this seems enough for one post. In the next post in this series, we will look at the third proposition that Christianity in America has largely given up its role of maintaining this cultural ethos of sacrifice for the common good before turning our attention to how to get it back.