The Dark Side of Sacrifice

The Dark Side of Sacrifice

Many of us are thinking a lot about sacrifice right now.

Every American has just determined exactly how much of their hard-earned income has gone to the United States Government. In the Jewish world, the Torah readings are all in the book of Leviticus, and outline how many bulls, doves or grains the ancient Israelites had to give up to the priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Catholics have just ended Lent, a stretch when people forgo many of their favorite pleasures.

So our minds are focused on all the things we give up, and yet we value sacrifice, because it inherently involves surrendering something we hold dear in the service of something larger.

Yes, we like the money we make, but we realize that we need to support infrastructure, schools, and police and fire departments, so we give up some of our income to strengthen our society. For the ancient Israelites, yes, they deeply valued the livestock and the produce they helped create, but this was how they experienced the Divine, and maintained the Temple and the priesthood.

Sacrifice, then, necessarily implies a level of altruism towards others, a commitment to a larger organization, and devotion to a greater cause. But there can be a dark side to these values, as well.

In Aeon Magazine, Luba Ostashevsky recently wrote a piece called “Sacrificial States,” exploring how and why suicide bombers take their own lives. And it turns out that those same ideals many of us hold when it comes to sacrifice — altruism, community and cause — are often the same drivers behind martyrdom.

She explains a new study led by Jocelyn Belanger to help understand suicide bombers and martyrs. It’s called the “Self-Sacrifice scale,” and as she notes,

Former martyrdom profiling, based chiefly on demographics, focused on young men with poor education alienated from mainstream society. Some painted would-be suicide terrorists as mentally unstable…[but] outward markers such as race, age, level of employment, even emotional health, mean little compared with the individual proclivity to “attribute greater importance to their cause than [to] their own lives, even the lives of others”…

The Self-Sacrifice scale creates an unprecedented psychological test of the degree to which individuals are willing to give up their wealth, their important personal relationships, and then their life for something they value more highly. As the researchers point out, such traits can have intensely pro-social outcomes as well as destructive ones. Contrary to the idea that martyrs don’t value their life and are depressed, the study found that these individuals were usually constructive and motivated. Still, they were simply willing to sacrifice their closest relationships for something that mattered more – their cause.

We often think of sacrifice as something unpleasant in the short-term, but deeply rewarding in the long-term. Yet we forget that a sense of sacrifice can be used both for good and for evil. Indeed, it’s important to remember that very rarely do people view themselves or their actions as evil. Rather, most people see themselves as righteous and good human beings.

So it can be hard to recognize or accept that in many ways, suicide bombings and making tax payments are driven by the same ideals. But it is crucially important that we don’t think of evil people or evil actions as alien to our nature. After all, the difference between us and ISIS is not truly in the values, since both we and they are devoted to community, celebrate altruism, and join together in greater causes.

Instead, we need to understand how they themselves live out those values. And at the same time, we need to ask, What is the cause we are working so hard for, and are so willing to sacrifice for? Who is part of the community we care about? It is those questions that truly separate us from them.

But if we keep asking the wrong questions, and keep viewing evil as something totally foreign, then we will simply be fighting the same losing battle over and over and over again.

(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?”).


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