In today’s America, “sacrifice” sounds like a bad thing—like having to give up what you deserve, like an unjust hardship. In what Christopher Lasch called our culture of self-absorption and narcissism, the idea of giving for the sake of others or a common future seems just plain out of touch. Not in every community, but in our polarized national politics and in many business and finance sectors. Though self-reliance, individual striving, and competition have historically been parts of American culture, they used to be accompanied by a sense of responsibility toward the now quaint-sounding “common good.” Profits and success were supposed to lead at some point to giving back. We followed, or tried to follow, some version of the rule in the Gospel of Luke: “unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required” (12:48). But in the hardnosed public life of today’s America, sacrifice sounds—as one newly minted MBA I know put it—“retarded.”
But before we allow the wolves of Wall Street to highjack our principles, “sacrifice” deserves another look. Might it, rightly understood, address some of the economic and political gridlock in which we’re stuck?
Eighteenth-century social-market economists like Antonio Genovesi recognized that the new capitalist markets got around the nobility’s stranglehold on the economy and gave commoners a way in. But they also recognized that markets flourish only when mutual concern, trust, and honesty do. In Genovesi’s view, “When the foundations of ethical trust tremble in a nation, neither can economic or political trust remain firm.” Adam Smith, now considered the guru of greed, had much the same view, warning that when markets were not embedded in honesty and reciprocal concern they made workers dull, destroyed communities, and weakened morality. He proposed instead that in markets, as in the rest of society, each should “endeavor, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer.”
Such sympathy emerges from a covenantal relationship and the giving that comes with it. This kind of relationship grounds not only families and close communities but our species and planet. A covenant, whether between persons and God or among persons, is a bond of reciprocal regard and care. It is a bond of mutual giving—of sacrifice—for the flourishing of the other. Unlike a contract, which protects interests, a covenant protects a relationship even at some cost to oneself.
The great medieval philosophers—Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali—each developed this idea in a series of steps. They understood God as the source of all existence. There could be nothing, but instead there is something. And the reason for all “somethings” (planets, thoughts, languages, people)—what sustains their existence—is God. Nicholas of Cusa wrote in the fifteenth century that God unfolds into all (explication) and all is enfolded in God (implication). In Aquinas’s words, “God himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things…in all things God works intimately.” Having something of God unfolded into us, we have something of a moral correspondence with him, which is what it means to say we are made in his image. Not directly or proportionally—we are not like God only smaller—but analogously. Our ability to act in the world, to cause things to happen—secondarily, within human capacity—is analogous to God’s. The Jewish tradition gets at a similar idea with the concept of “co-creatorship”: humanity, within its limited capacities, furthers God’s creation. Al-Ash’ari and al-Ghazali described it as humanity “performing” what God creates.
God’s primary mode toward creation is giving. At every moment, he gives existence to everything that is. And this giving of oneself for another is the basis of all covenants. As creatures made in God’s image, we, too, can give of ourselves for others, and that means that we, too, are capable of covenant. Even more remarkably, God, who needs nothing, has invited us to give back to him. This is a radical departure from pagan cosmogonic myths. It is easy to imagine a nonreciprocal covenant between unequal parties, and easy to imagine a reciprocal bond between equal parties. But the covenant introduced in the Hebrew Bible, between God and humanity, is a reciprocal bond between unequal parties.
This was the meaning, for instance, of bringing tokens of the harvest to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Harvest gifts were acceptance of covenantal reciprocity and mutual responsibility. Another instance of gift from humanity to God is generosity to other persons. Giving to the needy, a sacrifice from person to person, constitutes gift to God. Moreover, if one fails to give to others, one fails in giving to God—an idea captured in John’s famous observation “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” In medieval Jewish communities, things given to persons in need were called hekdesh—“made holy” as gifts to God.