In the Marvel television series Hawkeye (a spinoff of the Avengers movies), a young woman named Kate Bishop is drawn by fate to meet her idol, Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye. As a child she had witnessed him repel an alien assault from the roof of a New York City skyscraper armed only with a bow and arrows (as improbable as that may sound). Since then, she trained to be like him, acquiring a mastery of archery to rival his own. When, as the series unfolds, she accidentally stumbles into Hawkeye’s longstanding quarrel with the Tracksuit Mafia (yes, that’s what they’re called), he is forced to accept her as a sidekick despite his reluctance.
In episode 3, “Echoes,” Kate tells Hawkeye how she has trained since childhood in order to dedicate her life to helping others. From the vantage of his long experience pursuing such a calling, the hero then offers a dose of realism to temper her youthful enthusiasm, saying:
It comes with a price, this life you wanna live. To really help people—I mean, try to help people, anyway—comes with a lot of sacrifices. And some things you’ll lose. . . forever.
Foremost in the well-versed viewer’s mind is Hawkeye’s loss of his friend Natasha, the Black Widow, in Avengers: Endgame—a so-called sacrifice I’ve discussed in a previous post.
Indeed, loss is the inevitable cost of opposing evil and trying to do good. This has led to the pessimistic proverb, “No good deed goes unpunished.” For proof of this proverb, Christians need look no further than the gospels. In them, we see the absolutely good Son of God persecuted, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross by the very people He was trying to rescue from sin, death, and the devil—humanity’s ultimate villains. Sometimes our own attempts to help people involve similar costs of rejection and opposition by those we are trying to help. Even when this is not the case, they always involve costs in time, money, resources, blood, sweat, and tears.
The pessimist focuses on these costs, sees in them a punishment, and winks with a suggestion that they might not be worth it. Hawkeye himself might seem to be on the brink of such negativity after all he has seen and endured. In the end, however, his realism does not tip into pessimism. He simply wants Kate to see what she’s getting into, that no heroic life comes without costs. And, if we pull our heads out of the clouds and face life squarely, we all know this to be true.
Hawkeye, however, specifically calls these costs “sacrifices.” For him sacrifices are the things one loses in pursuit of the greater good: the relationships neglected, the injuries sustained, the friends killed. This is what the word sacrifice often means for us in secular contexts. It is the cost of trying to do something significant, and sometimes this can feel like an undue burden—even a “punishment” for doing good.
This way of speaking would have perplexed ancient people. Consider the contrast between Hawkeye’s warning and that of the Greek philosopher Plato, who was anxious about too much sacrifice in ancient Athens:
Naturally, fear came upon me as I contemplated what one is to do for such a city [as Athens], where young men and women are well fed yet free from heavy and menial labors (which best quench willfulness), and where sacrifices, feasts, and dances are everyone’s main concern throughout their lives. How, in this city, will they possibly abstain from the desires that too often cast many to the lowest depths, those desires from which Reason might command abstinence? (Laws 835d–e)
Both Hawkeye and Plato warn of the dangers of a life with too many sacrifices, yet their meaning couldn’t be more different. Hawkeye warns of a life that might be too hard; Plato warns of a life that might be too soft. Hawkeye’s sacrifices threaten to drain the enjoyment from life for the sake of discipline and focus; Plato’s threaten to take the discipline and focus out of life for the sake of enjoyment. They are obviously using the same word (sacrifice) to mean very different things.
Plato is referring to ancient ritual sacrifices, which went hand in hand with “feasts and dances.” For him, these were joyful celebrations, pauses in the mundane duties of life when people gathered to share fellowship and lift their eyes and minds toward the transcendent. Food offerings were made to the gods and shared out among the participants. Drinking and even carousing were common. Paintings of sacrifices on ancient Greek pottery look like parties! Ancient Israelite sacrifices were intended to be more dignified affairs, but even these could be hijacked by wantonness—for example, in the adulteress’s invitation in Proverbs 7:13–15:
Taking hold of him, she kisses him,
and with shameless face she speaks to him:
“I have a sacrifice of peace;
today I am repaying my vows.
For this reason, I came out to meet you;
desiring your face, I found you.”
Ancient sacrifices did have costs: animals and other offerings were expensive commodities, and preparation for sacrificing required much work and time. However, ancients did not consider the idea of sacrifice to be defined by these costs, anymore than we see a party as defined by the work and expense that goes into it. Their focus was on the joyful goal of the work, rather than on the work itself.
We, on the contrary, have completely lost the joy of sacrifice in our obsession with its costs. Hawkeye is not wrong to point out the costs of heroism, but he (along with the rest of us) unnecessarily gives sacrifice a bad name. When the Bible and the ancient Church Fathers call us to sacrifice, they are not imposing heroic burdens upon us. No, they are inviting us to set aside mundane, worldly pursuits in order to engage God and our neighbors in holy fellowship.