Authentic Sacrifice

My son, Christopher, is reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Ah, I do love Dostoevsky, especially this, his tour de force. In this book, he explores the concept of sacrificing oneself—or others—for what is deemed to be a higher cause. This notion intrigues me in ways that go well beyond the ideas expressed in the book. Sacrifice for others is both noble and Christian: “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) It is an oft-repeated theme that sits at the very heart of Christian theology.

The world, however, has perverted it.

I recollect the old Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan and the climactic scene where (**spoiler**) Spock is dying inside the ship’s reactor. “It is logical – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one,” he says as he gives his life to save the crew of the Enterprise. His act was volitional, hence the virtuous (if fictitious) nature of it. But the words and the context in which they are spoken suggest that the film is equating the giving of one’s own life for others with the taking of someone else’s life for the benefit of a majority.

But this confuses authentic sacrifice with, well, murder.

Another modern film gives us a better picture of real sacrifice: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. (I know, the reviewers hated it.) In a similarly climactic scene, Corelli stands before a Nazi machine gun facing certain death when, at the last moment, his faithful sergeant throws himself in front of the machine gun. It is an extraordinary (and equally fictitious) act of love and courage. It was also volitional.

Today, however, it is Spock’s philosophy that has carried the day, and in so doing, has corrupted and ennobled the diabolical. Peter Singer—or should I say Friedrich Nietzsche?—has come to the masses. Think about it: some are forced to “sacrifice” themselves for others through euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion. Corelli’s sergeant is grabbed, as it were, and placed in front of the machine gun involuntarily. Some sacrifice.

One of the extraordinary things about Christ’s (historic and real) death on the cross is that He chose to do it. The Gospels are at pains to point this out. Jesus knew what was coming. He could walk away at any moment. Indeed, He had done so many times before. But when the time came, Jesus, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame …” (Hebrews 12:2) If it was otherwise, then He did not give himself up to be murdered for our sins. On the contrary, he was simply murdered, and that is not the same thing. No, for His act of love and sacrifice to be real, it must have been a choice.

“For God so loved the world that He gave …”