What We Actually Mean By ‘Sacrifice’ During the Pandemic Makes All the Difference

In the wake of COVID-19 and its continuing casualties, we’re inundated with references to human sacrifices. Not since WWII have notions of human sacrifice been so prevalent in the public consciousness. Memes on social media pose questions like “Have we tried throwing a billionaire into a volcano to appease the virus?” or note that “In pagan cultures during a plague the ruler could be sacrificed to the gods…” Incidentally, both the throwing of victims into volcanos—or off cliffs—and the use of scapegoat sacrifices echo ancient sacrificial traditions from across the world. 

Apart from these more humorous suggestions, images abound of doctors, nurses, first-responders, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers and other essential workers holding signs or bracketed by texts that reference their victimization as human sacrifices. Sadly, this imagery isn’t entirely inaccurate. Many of those regularly exposed to the public these days are at genuine risk in their daily service. 

Sacrificial ideas don’t just seem to be everywhere right now: they are. But what’s meant by the term ‘sacrifice,’ and is its use appropriate for the current state of affairs? What are the implications for the notion of sacrifice as it’s used by some to express a willingness to haphazardly expose portions of the population to a potentially deadly virus? 

In the U.S., statements by some government officials (including the president) and media personalities have gone so far as to implore citizens, using the language of sacrifice, to accept the grim realities that come with the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent strains on society. Some have gone so far as to suggest the public sacrifice themselves and others for the sake of re-opening faltering global economies. But, who are we supposed to be willing to sacrifice?

The implication is to concede that minorities (see also here and here), the working-class poor, the elderly and infirm, and of course first-responders and healthcare professionals should be willing to pay the ultimate price for the good of the economy in the wake of pandemic-related shutdowns. Stephen Young’s excellent op-ed here on RD brings the absurd notion of human sacrifice for the ‘good’ of the economy into sharp focus. 

The rash of state capitol protests by anti-lockdown protestors has also shown the disregard for public safety and civic good that a small (but increasingly well-armed) minority of Americans espouse in these troubling times. One Tennessee protest poster gained notoriety for its appropriation of the rhetoric of sacrifice, stating plainly that we should “Sacrifice the weak”. These lock-down protests highlight their profound lack of community concern which invalidates any notion that the inconveniences most of us face are anything remotely approaching real ‘sacrifices’. On the contrary, those dissenting to precautionary measures and closures are doing the opposite of sacrifice, as they put the lives of innocent people at risk for their own selfish reasons. Here’s the difference between an act of sacrifice solemnly made and negligent homicide. In the Abrahamic traditions, generally speaking, sacrifices by definition are meant as sacred acts. Taken from the Latin ‘sacrificium’, the term ‘sacrifice’ literally means ‘to make holy’. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, regardless of the myriad religious connotations it may have, any act of sacrifice is unavoidably bound to the pursuit of communion, thanksgiving and cathartic oblation (or offering to a god). And, above all else, sacrifices are meant for the greater good and are not to be undertaken lightly. To sacrifice is both an acquiescence to catastrophic circumstances and a resolution to alter those circumstances by the most unthinkable means necessary. 

Contrast this with acts of violence like murder or manslaughter, in which the death of a victim is nearly always devoid of even the notion of value in relation to the act of killing. Even when misconstrued as sacrifices, such acts remain devoid of “social or moral values… without any consideration for the good of the community as a whole.”

As noted earlier, when individuals congregate to willfully flaunt self-distancing, shelter-in-place orders, or other measures meant for the protection of the overall population, they put members of the community at direct risk. The deaths that will result from subsequent and unnecessary exposures will not be sacrifices; they will be, at best, manslaughters. And each instance will have crowds of perpetrators.

Sacrifice to, for and of

So, what can we learn from those who would so readily ‘sacrifice’ others for their own selfish impulses? 

A sacrifice to indicates that something is destroyed as an offering to some entity or supernatural power. This is meant to be a solemn show of gratitude and/or communion. A genuine sacrifice to is a gift given with no explicit reciprocal obligation beyond the onus to give.If we concede to make human sacrifices to the economy as a higher power, then we elevate it to greater value than the lives of the workers and taxpayers who create it in the first place. Offering lives to the economy as such is an exercise in greed, not sacrifice.

To sacrifice for represents an offering made with the intention of achieving a particular purpose. This implies an expectation of reciprocity: X is sacrificed for Y. But, one may also sacrifice for a higher purpose. Various forms of martyrdom come to mind—e.g. the urge to self-sacrifice for an ideology. We may imagine that those on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis—if they associate their efforts with sacrifice at all—make such actions for the greater good of their communities and with the expectation that the public have the respect, wherewithal and resolve to heed the inconveniences necessary to not let those sacrifices be in vain. 

The sacrifice of makes the victim an object of exchange—a mere commodity. But, just as one may self-sacrifice for, one may also sacrifice of themselves– be it of their time, labor, money or other commodity, even of their own life or wellbeing. A secular and contemporarily relevant application of sacrificing of one’s self is to abide through exceptional hardship or cope through extraordinary adversity.

Inconveniences are not sacrifices; sacrifices are not mere inconveniences

So can any of the social-distancing measures or shut-downs that we’re asked to endure these days be called sacrifices? Not really. Even in these uncertain times, most of us are not called upon to make real sacrifices—and certainly not human ones. Those of us not on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 need not engage with and define our current circumstances melodramatically as sacrifices. We don’t need to make unnecessary victims of ourselves, and certainly not of others. What most of us make are concessions. This is not to say that the things we give up are not valuable or that our concessions are not difficult to make. But value is relative, especially when we’re talking about the exchange of human lives. 

That which we give up for the greater good—be it our time, creature comforts, freedom of movement or capacity to interact in public—are not sacrifices made to, for or of; they are simply circumstances met. As one person tweeted in the early days of the quarantine: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”