The idea of sacrifice is often used today as a kind of consolation for loss, a way of giving meaning to something senseless and valorizing it. The recently released sixth season of The Expanse, a sci-fi series, provides us with an ironically down-to-earth and relatable example of this.
At the beginning of episode 4 (“Redoubt”), a family is grieving the tragic death of their young son, Xan, who was hit by a vehicle while at play. Although the setting is a distant planet, the scene is close to home: a wake, where the boy’s lifeless body lies in repose as friends and neighbors come to offer condolences to the family. One of the visitors is the military commander of this human colony: Admiral Winston Duarte. He had been in the military of the human civilization on Mars, which gained independence from Earth some time ago and formed a futuristic Spartan society, completely focused on military preparedness in order to defend its independence. But as Martian society began to change and soften, Admiral Duarte and others felt it had lost its way, and they left in order to pursue their Martian ideals elsewhere.
At this wake, Admiral Duarte approaches Cara, the sister of the dead boy, and kindly (very sweetly, really) opens up a heart-to-heart with her about the experience of grief. After acknowledging all the complex emotions involved, he comes to one of its hardest aspects—the insecurity grief provokes when we realize how vulnerable our loved ones are. Here’s that portion of the dialogue:
Admiral Duarte: Having something you love that you can’t protect—it’s terrifying.
Cara: Did you have a kid who died?
Admiral Duarte: No, no. I lost a place. It was a place that mattered to me, and I thought it would go on forever. Well, that’s not true. I assumed it would, like you assumed Alexander would always be here. I never thought it would fall apart, and then it did. It made me very sad and very, very angry and frightened. When I was where you are now, I needed something to make it more than just death. I needed to make it a sacrifice. You know what a sacrifice means?
Cara: To give something up.
Admiral Duarte: Yeah. But it’s more than that; it’s. . . it’s to give something up and make it sacred. When you think about it like that, it doesn’t fix anything, but it makes losin’ ’em hurt less. Your brother, Mars—the dream of Mars—they still matter. We’re doing something good here. It’s important. And if we win, it’ll make all of this worth it, even the parts we had to give up along the way.
This dialogue sheds light on a coping mechanism we sometimes employ, often unconsciously. In order to feel better about tragic and meaningless losses, we sometimes reframe them as sacrifices. We create a narrative in which that suffering or death will serve a higher purpose, and through this new sacrificial myth we turn the sufferer into a hero and make their suffering sacred. As Duarte says, it doesn’t fix anything—it doesn’t change reality—but it alleviates the insecurity provoked by our grief. The suffering is given meaning, and all is right with the world.
This dynamic is so common that relics of it are deeply imbedded in how we speak about suffering today. One of the most prevalent examples is the word victim. Most people don’t know that this was originally a specifically sacrificial term. It comes from the Latin victima, and from ancient times until the 1700s, this word really only referred to things (mainly animals) being ritually sacrificed—a victim was something offered to a god. Since the 1700s, however, the word victim has come to refer pervasively to all innocent sufferers, in any context. The dynamic described above is the driving force behind this shift, along with our modern equation of sacrifice with meaningful suffering. By being designated as victims, these sufferers are elevated to the status of sacrifices, and their suffering becomes an object of reverence.
Another example of this phenomenon is the term holocaust, which comes from the Greek word for “whole-burnt offering” (a kind of sacrifice). This word now automatically conjures up the terrible suffering endured by Jews and others in Nazi concentration camps. By calling this a holocaust, these sufferers are elevated to the status of sacrifices and their suffering is endowed with reverence and meaning. This is just one particular instance of sacrificializing innocent suffering.
It’s worth noting again that reframing suffering as sacrifice does not change the facts—“it doesn’t fix anything,” as Duarte says in the above dialogue. Those people are dead and their suffering remains senseless. Likewise, there was nothing heroic about Xan’s (Cara’s brother’s) death; he was just a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Admiral Duarte’s abandonment of Mars was no act of piety—he committed treason when he stole military equipment and abandoned his homeland.
Reframing suffering as sacrifice is a way we try to cope with loss, and perhaps it helps us endure what might otherwise be unendurable. I cannot fault those who have struggled to survive loss and restore a sense of meaning to their world—especially in the case of the unimaginable horror of the concentration camps. But I do think it is important for us to step back and be honest about what we are doing—merely calling someone a victim or reframing their actions as sacrifice does not make it so. And we especially need to be clear that this whole dynamic is based on a flawed idea of sacrifice.
In the ancient world sacrifice was not about violence or death or suffering. It was about giving gifts to God (or the gods, in the case of pagans), which thus became sacred as divine possessions. Duarte was right about sacrifice making something sacred, but wrong about nearly everything else. The sufferings he seeks to ennoble had nothing to do with God and weren’t intended as gifts. They were just sad things that happened in people’s lives.