As Americans and Canadians prepare in November to recognize and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in battle for their country, it is appropriate to reflect upon the ethics of sacrifice. There are several levels of ethical concern: the nature of self-sacrifice, being sacrificed for the ideals of a nation or political state, and the retrospective sense of sacrifice that surviving families hold on to in changing political circumstances.
Giving one’s life voluntarily is the purest form of sacrifice. Paul’s great letter to the Philippian Christians reminds us that this was the nature of the mission of Jesus. He emptied himself, took on the role of a servant and humbled himself voluntarily (Philippians 2:7-8). Far from the bizarre accusations of contemporary non-theist critics who ethically opine that Jesus was cruelly sacrificed by another god, his was a knowing, willing self-sacrifice. At its very essence, the Christian ideal of sacrifice is a knowing self-sacrifice.
In ethical terms, self-sacrifice brings up the issue of self-worth. How much does one value one’s own life as a gift or opportunity to be given for another? The words of Jesus come to mind, “you shall love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (Matthew 22:39). To say the obvious, each of us has only one life, and it therefore can only be sacrificed once. Before one makes the ultimate sacrifice, self-love demands that one consider most carefully the potential of a life not yet fully lived, one’s own responsibility for one’s life, and the impact that giving away one’s life would ultimately have.
Paul perceived the issue of self-sacrifice clearly when he wrote to the Romans: “It is not likely that one would die for a righteous person; maybe some might give their lives for a good person” (Romans 5:7). Self-sacrifice is never an easy decision. Ethically speaking, righteous people in Paul’s time (as under the Law) needed no one to sacrifice for them; good people, frail and sometimes sinful, could well appropriate the sacrifice of another. And to push the categories to their boundary: bad, wretched people could stand to benefit the most from someone else’s sacrifice, but who was likely to do that? There’s much irony in the apostle’s logic.
Anyone who has walked among the sacred places where those who have died in the service of their country are laid to rest sees the posthumous connection that eulogists and historians place upon sacrifice. Setting aside all ancient barbaric forms of tribal human sacrifice, our monuments suggest that it is fitting that some lives are given so that other lives might be protected or sustained in their values.
Cenotaphs and walls and inscriptions help us to interpret the death of a loved one or a hero in the overall picture of the destiny of a people or an ideal that overarches any individual, transient life. Memorial services likewise enable worshipers to create a sacrifice hermeneutic of “some for the many.”
One does wonder, upon reflection, if those who were said to be sacrificed in the cause of a nation would have done so as easily as the epitaphs suggest, if given the choice to make for themselves. Might they have wanted to seek another alternative before giving up the only life they had? We will never know and must honor them for the choices they did make in placing themselves in harm’s way where the possibility of self-sacrifice was a real and constant option.
What makes the ethics of self-sacrifice even more challenging at times like Remembrance Day or Veterans Day is the changing interpretation that one generation may place upon events after the fact. The “justness” of causes elicits people initially to give themselves, possibly their lives, to the defense and perpetuity of those causes.
Individuals and their families are likewise persuaded by the moving rhetoric of “service” and “sacrifice,” as families are consoled by posthumous honors and acts of remembrance. But what of the consolation for those left behind if a cause is later re-interpreted as being unjust? Is the sacrifice any less? Is the validity of one’s sacrifice determined by the circumstances or someone else’s later interpretation?
If, as we suggested at the beginning, Jesus’ understanding of sacrifice is a model at least for the Christian community, then the true character of a sacrifice lies in the decision of the one making the sacrifice: it is, in the end, his or her life to sacrifice. It is not to be solely found in national causes, overarching ideals and doctrines, or changing circumstances and interpretations. As we gather to remember with the deepest of gratitude those who lost their lives in the service of their respective countries, let us reckon their sacrifices in light of the life of Jesus.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.