Sacrifice as Justification: Downton Abbey

Branson and Sibyl in Downton Abbey, Season 2, Episode 5 (Carnival Film and Television, 2011)

The idea of sacrifice is put to many uses today. It is used to honor heroic soldiers, to motivate athletes, and to accuse those who have hurt us or don’t appreciate us. It is a means for assuaging our grief, making sense of tragic and senseless losses. As we will see in this post, it is also a way of consoling our consciences, providing justification for some harm we have caused or, at least, supported.

Branson’s Sacrificial Justification

This sense of sacrifice as justification is illustrated in a scene from the television series Downton Abbey (Season 2, Episode 5): Lady Sibyl Crawley, third daughter of the Earl of Grantham, walks into the estate’s garage and finds their chauffeur, Tom Branson, sitting with a newspaper in his hand and a look of consternation on his face. “What is it?” she asks, and he replies, “They shot the Tsar and all of his family.” Lady Sibyl looks sad and responds, “How terrible.” But Branson isn’t merely shaken with grief.

Branson is an Irish nationalist and a socialist. He is a revolutionary at heart, deeply committed to freeing Ireland from British control and elevating the working class from oppressive subservience to the upper classes. However, he is also a deeply moral man, with sympathy even for the oppressors. He supported the Russian Revolution and was glad to hear of the Bolsheviks’ rise to power, yet the cold-blooded murder of the Tsar’s entire family clearly offended his sense of morality and humanity, leaving him in the difficult position of supporting a cause advanced by means he could not condone.

Branson goes on, “I’m sorry—I’ll not deny it. I never thought they’d do it, but sometimes the future needs terrible sacrifices.” To calm his conscience and make sense of this conundrum, he has reached for the idea of sacrifice, that modern Swiss Army knife for rationalizing losses and suffering. Yet the sacrifice described here is strange and precarious. The Tsar and his family did not offer themselves like heroic soldiers, and their deaths advanced not their own values (as when martyrs are killed by their opponents) but the values of their killers. Calling their murder a sacrifice is Branson’s attempt to vindicate it, exalting their suffering as a contribution to the greater good. However, doing so when they had no choice in the matter denies their humanity; far from ennobling them (like heroic soldiers or martyrs), it reduces them to the status of objects used by others for their own ends. The veneer of piety afforded by the term sacrifice is too thin to last. You can see on his face that Branson is clearly not satisfied with his own answer—he’s too moral for that.

However, as his conversation with Lady Sibyl proceeds, he seems to double down on this rationalization of perpetrated violence as sacrifice. He challenges Sibyl for abandoning her earlier progressive fervor—her socialist and feminist leanings before the war. Yet, as is clear to the dedicated viewer, the subtext of this moral criticism is his frustration with her indecision about their relationship. He had earlier secretly expressed his love for her and his desire to marry her, something that would violate the social code and might fracture her family. So far Sibyl has hedged and refused to take this leap, so he now presses her on this subject through words ostensibly aimed at her political hesitations: “Sometimes a hard sacrifice must be made for a future that’s worth having.” She takes his meaning and nearly succumbs as she drifts toward him for a kiss, but then she pulls away and leaves. She is not yet ready to make such a sacrifice, not prepared to make her family suffer in order to advance her own agenda.

Using the idea of sacrifice as a self-justifying rhetorical ploy reminds me of a quote from the animated movie Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa: “Men, there is no sacrifice greater than someone else’s.” How convenient it is to shift the burden of sacrifice to others! Yet to do so makes a mockery of the whole idea. In the end, the Tsar and his family were not sacrifices for the Bolshevik cause; Branson was just trying to still his uneasy conscience. And just as he had attempted to repaint the Russian royal family as giving their lives for the coming socialist utopia, he now suggests that the Crawley family ought to give up their happiness for the sake of his love. Instead of facing his disappointment and reevaluating his politics or plans, he shifts the burden of cost onto the shoulders of others. But these flimsy self-justifications are far to easy to be satisfying.

Justification and Christ’s Sacrifice

We find a similar sort of justification on the part of the Jewish rulers in the Gospel of John. As the Pharisees fret over the growing influence of Jesus Christ, Caiaphas resolves the dilemma by shifting the burden of responsibility for the Pharisees’ predicament onto Him, saying, “Do you not see that it is better for you that one man die for the sake of the people, so that the whole nation might not perish” (John 11:50). The High Priest is already working out the rulers’ justification for killing the Savior. “For the sake of the people” is his justification for slaughtering someone who preaches good news, stands by the downtrodden, and heals the suffering. Even a child can see through this rationalization; it is obviously for his own welfare and that of his fellow rulers that he wants Jesus to pay the ultimate price.

Although Caiaphas’s words were shamelessly immoral, St. John (the author of the Gospel) saw in them an unintended prophecy: “He said this not from himself, but, because he was High Priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to be killed for the sake of the nation, and not for that nation only but so that the children of God scattered throughout the world might also be gathered into one” (John 11:51–52). Anointed with the grace of the Levitical priesthood, despite his unworthiness, Caiaphas was made to give a hint of the glorious significance of the Lord’s Cross.

In comparing Caiaphas’s and Branson’s self-justifications, we see at first great commonalities: others must suffer for the greater good, whether they like it or not, and a self-serving act of violence is disguised as philanthropy. Yet there is one glaring difference: what Branson calls a “sacrifice” could not conceivably have been described as such by the Jewish leaders. Look closely and you will see that none of them suggests Jesus should be “sacrificed.” Why? Because sacrifice meant something very specific for them, as for all ancient people: the offering of animal meat or some other food to God as a gesture of hospitality and an invitation to friendship.

Yet Caiaphas’s justified violence would—again, in spite of his intentions—become a true sacrifice. Christ’s sufferings would become a welcoming gift that reunites mankind to God and to one another in holy fellowship. As He persisted in love for God and mankind to the bitter end, His Cross would be transformed into something beautiful and precious, imbued with His perfect faithfulness. Rather than justifying the rulers’ self-serving machinations, it would justify (literally “make righteous”) all who put their faith in Him, drawing them into a right relationship with God and thus restoring that communion with our Creator for which we were created. So, finally, we see in the Cross how sacrifice can justify: not, as Branson would have it, by reframing others’ suffering in a self-serving manner, but by restoring mankind into a right relationship with God.

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