Friday, April 18, 2014

Sacrificial Deaths

Glowing neon hands in a dark tunnel

It is Good Friday, and for many believers, Easter is a time to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice one can make, namely one's life. Although there are a number of variations and discrepancies concerning the matter, many hold the belief that God decided to lead his only begotten son Jesus to be crucified. The crucifixion being one of the most excruciating and painful types of execution is considered the ultimate form of sacrifice. As to possible reasons why Jesus sacrificed himself, those may vary according to one's belief system, but generally the suffering of Jesus is said to have cleansed us of our sins (whatever that may be).

Put differently, Jesus willingly embraced his fate (although he had his doubts) and deemed his death as necessary and, in fact, as fruitful for the next generations, if not to say, the rest of humanity to come. If we look upon as Jesus as a human and not a godlike or divine being, then he has given his own life for a specific cause, be it the propagation of his beliefs, a sense of revolution against occupying forces, or the creation of a mystical spiritual rebirth, i.e. a new-found bond between humans and the divine world. Be it as it may, I would like to focus on the sacrificial aspect of such an act and its consequences.

To do so I would like to take a brief detour and showcase a well-written and interesting article published recently on the Boston Review by Oded Na'aman entitled “The Possibility of Self-Sacrifice” (which was kindly brought to my attention by Caitlin). To briefly summarize the article (though I recommend it to be read in its entirety), we find that sacrifice can be done with different intentions and results. Oded Na'aman looks at three sacrificial deaths, that of Socrates, then Yukio Mishima and finally, Emily Wilding Davison.

The author claims that Socrates did not sacrifice his life for a specific cause, but he merely and indifferently accepted his fate of abstract and “blind” justice. Socrates had a choice, to either stay and drink the cup of poisoned hemlock or to escape and live a (considering his age not a very long) life in exile. Although his friend Crito tries his best to convince the great philosopher to escape, the latter does not budge but manages, in turn, to persuade his friend that there is no other option than death (a foolish idea to think that anyone can possibly outwit the inventor of the Socratic method!).

We must keep in mind that Socrates was acting on principles, but he did not think much about nor heed what others might have thought of him or his philosophy after his death. Indeed, if it had not been for Plato, Socrates and his ideas (and with it Western philosophy as we know it today) might have vanished from the corners of the earth. But the philosophy of Socrates was preserved and expounded upon afterwards, that is, after his death. (Though it could be argued that his death may have so outraged and impressed his bright pupil to make him feel obliged and inspired to put it in writing thereafter.) But in the words of Oded Na'aman - or at least my interpretation of them - the death of Socrates was for no ulterior or outward cause and that Socrates may not even have considered his own death as a “terrible loss” to others.

Moving on to Yukio Mishima, we find that he committed suicide by seppuku. Although it may appear that he was rebelling against a particular cause, the loss of tradition and conservative identity, his death is said to be nothing but, ironically, an act of self-preservation. Only by dying did Mishima feel his life to be validated. In fact, his death did not achieve any other end and had no direct effects on the proceedings. The cause was not significantly touched or altered by and after his death, and hence it was not a sacrificial death, but rather a desperate attempt of liberating his soul from the corporal prison. Seen only in terms of his cause, his death would be considered a misfire since it was a futile deed that brought no change whatsoever to the cause.

The final death of Emily Wilding Davison was one that was tied with a pressing cause, the women's right to vote. In fact, the suffrage movement fought hard to bring about changes to an inflexible and misogynistic government (and world) of the times. Women's voices not being represented in the society of the times led these women to revolt in extraordinary fashion. They vandalized shops and offices, got arrested, went on hunger strikes (some of them secret so as not to be force-fed); they got beaten and bruised, were declared insane en masse, but still these women were not intimated neither by threats of violence nor of actual violent retaliation perpetrated by the British government with the express intention of silencing them.

After committing her whole life to the cause, Emily Wilding Davison tried to kill herself as a sign of protest, which did not work the first time around, but then she threw herself in front of King George V's horse at a race in full gear. She died as a result of her wounds and became a visible martyr for her cause. Finally, although she was no more, her death brought about reluctant changes, and women were gradually allowed to vote.

In the eyes of Oded Na'aman, hers was a sacrificial death because she offered her life for a clear and tangible cause, and it was not futile because it brought about its intended effects. This can be not only differentiated from the other two cases explained above, but it is also different from situations where someone might offer their life for another person's safety or where parents sacrifice themselves for their offspring. The first case, dying for a friend or even stranger, would be considered heroic, while dying for one's children would be based more on instinct and feel more natural than intentional. But to die for a cause is something that has much more at stake and demands a greater kind of sacrifice, that is to give up on one's most precious “belonging,” one's existence and to trade it for a political outcome.

Incidentally, I have recently watched the movie Hunger (2008), which was based on the life of Bobby Sands who died of a hunger strike and managed to bring attention to the dire situation of his native Ireland. I believe that Oded Na'aman would agree that this was a case of sacrifice as it occurred for political or politico-ideological reasons, which to Oded Na'aman are of more substance and value than other considerations when it comes to self-sacrifice.

But I would like to counteract with Foucault's statement that everything is indeed political. Every act of defiance may punch a hole into the political armor. Socrates died for his principles, and his death could be interpreted as an act of bravery that denounced injustice occurring anywhere around the world. The fact that he did not escape to save his hind but that he actually drank the cup that was given to him shows us his bravery and his defiance, not unlike the Messiah after him. The death of Socrates will be also remembered as a pronounced case of a mistrial, witch-hunt and slander against this formidable thinker.

Similarly, we can also interpret the death of Jesus as an act of revolt against the Romans and the priesthood. Then we have Joan of Arc who would burn as a sinner at the stake, become a martyr and later be revered by the very own Church as a saint. Although both Jesus and Joan of Arc may have failed initially in their causes, it is the aftermath of events that has given them the power to bring about some relevant changes. From this perspective, their lives could be construed as political as well as fruitful to their respective causes.

But at this point, I would like to take a complete detour and claim that no life should be ever sacrificed and that the value of a person's existence far exceeds any cause, no matter how worthy and enticing at first sight. In other words, I wish that Socrates had not drunk that cup but had actually run away. It would not have made him a coward or hypocrite in my eyes but only highlighted that he was a human being who knows and appreciates the value and significance of

I wish Mishima had not committed suicide but had gone on to live another forty years. He would have written much more beautiful works of art and eventually won the Nobel Prize (though that prize in itself may not be as valuable as many think). And I wish that Emily Wilding Davison had not thrown herself in front of the King's horse but had chosen to continue a life of protest, an unyielding defiance and constant reminder to the authorities. I think it is better to stick out as a sore thumb but alive than be dead and talked about in one's grave.

I am weary of politics because it is transitory in nature. I do not mean that it is not important, nor do I claim that one should not be politically aware or active, but rather that it can be of a rather temporal nature. Struggles come and go. Slavery was abolished (in fact it never should have existed in the first place, but that is another matter), women's liberation has brought about some changes (though again definitely not enough judging by today's standards). Currently, there are gay issues, and they are gaining ground at least in some more open-minded places. Furthermore, there are new problems connected with surveillance and the Internet that we need to pay close attention to. But these things, as a flowing river, come and go.

Yes, Emily Wilding Davison died for her cause, and had an effect, but the fact remains that she is dead and few people remember her for her sacrifice (previous to this article I had not heard of her). Also, it seems that some changes are contingent with one's time and environment, the circumstances surrounding the events. Gay rights could not have been brought up during the women's liberation movement as people and minds were not ready for them at the time.

Change happens when there is a readiness to embrace it. When there is a certain willingness no matter how remote, one ought to push and push hard, but it is not worth one's life. I do not claim that one should accept injustice or remain idle when human rights are trampled upon; quite to the contrary. One must be denouncing those acts and stand up against tyrants.

But once it is an issue of life and death, it is not cowardice to back up and choose or prefer one's own existence, to continue to remain alive and useful in this world for the sake of oneself, of others and of many causes to come. Nothing can compensate or make up for the value of an individual human existence, least of all a concept or an idea, patriotism and religion being two of the most pervasive and destructive ones out there and inside people's minds.

If more people saw through this, there would be no credible reasons for war (which are often based on “dead” territory or ideology) nor to die a martyr, such as the suicide bombers of modern times. No life should be offered nor blood spilled for any cause. As Oded Na'aman mentions we may be somewhat in control of our lives in our lifetime, but when it comes to death, it is almost entirely in the hands of others. And they can do with it as they please; they can turn you into a hero or a tyrant, or both or none.

So what about Jesus then? It comes down to a brilliant scenario best described in Nikos Kazantzaki's Last Temptation of Christ. Should Jesus have had a life of moderate joys but little significance for the future or should he have turned into a perpetual shooting star by dying young and inspiring minds and hearts for time immemorial? But my counter-question is this, what has changed since his self-sacrifice? Would Jesus be happy with the outcomes, the status quo of religion, those interminable years of the Crusades and its past and current (mis-)interpretation of his words or ideas? 

At this point, and to give this seemingly interminable post a kind of cliffhanger and food-for-thought ending on this Good Friday of ours, the lines of a Spiritualized song come to mind: “You'd better come right down and do it all over again.”

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