As we begin this second week of reading, has your ‘mental movie’ come into focus at all? The scenery and behaviour won’t change much this week: people keep bringing meat and food sacrifices, or the equivalent in shekels. (The acknowledgement of financial payments continues the transition, from a crude primitive tent, to our online virtual forum of community religious behaviour.) There is early reference to issues of ‘clean and unclean’, and I promise we’ll get to the interpretive lens of ‘Purity & Pollution’ through weeks 3 and 4!
Now that we’ve taken the plunge with Leviticus into the middle of the practice, on our second sabbatarian pause (on the Lord’s Day beginning the week, rather than the Sabbath ending it), we might be ready for Eagleton’s offer of a catalogue of words to express our own ideas seeking diction:
Ancient Israel had names for different forms of sacrifice, but no name or the institution as such. There is no discernible essence to the custom, which since the dawn o time has fulfilled a striking diversity of functions. It can be anything from a form of celestial bribery (I’ll give you this if you’ll give me that’) to the act of martyrdom, in which one makes a gift of one’s death to others. Sacrifice is a polythetic term, encompassing a range of activities that need have no single feature in common. It has been seen at various times as gift, tribute, covenant, prayer, bargain, gratitude, atonement, adoration, cajolement, celebration, restitution, expiation, sanctification, propitiation, communion, fellowship, purification and discharge of debt. It can involve a redemptive death, a purging of evil, a refusal of death, a dialogue with divinity, a restoration of cosmic order or a prudent investment in order to secure a profitable return. There are those who have regarded it as a rite of passage or reinforcement of patriarchal power, whereas others have found in it a source of social cohesion, a liberation of vital energies, a ritual working through of guilt or trauma or a species of mourning….
….It is true that the institution has a number of retrograde features, as its critics have been at pains to point out. As we shall see, it has been for the most part a profoundly conservative practice. Yet there is a radical kernel to be extracted from its mystical shell. Sacrifice concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power. It marks a movement from victimhood to full humanity, destitution to riches, the world as we know it to some transfigured domain. It is this disruptive rite of passage that is known among other things as consecration. To make an object sacred is to mark it out be investing it with a sublimely dangerous power. If sacrifice is often violent, it is because the depth of the change it promises cannot be a matter of smooth evolution or simple continuity.
In this sense, the practice of ritual sacrifice nurtures a wisdom beyond the rationality of the modern, a least at its most callow. It sets its face against the consoling illusion that fulfillment can be achieved without a fundamental rupture and rebirth. The consecration of the sacrificial victim is a matter of wholesale transformation, mot some piecemeal evolution. One cannot pass from time to eternity while remaining intact….
Another way to ‘normalize’ the strangeness of this contrast between our culture and economy of consumption and Leviticus’ vision of sacrifice, is to translate some of the discussion into our legal categories. Some conflicts and resolutions between private parties are addressed in litigation. When the state is involved as a party regulating behaviour, there may be fines and collection.
‘Administrative’ law or ‘trusts’ laws address procedural justice, since as artist Jenny Holzer made famous: ‘abuse of power comes as no surprise!’
Perhaps too often, I analyze situations in terms of ‘benefit, burden, and choice’: who gets how much of each in any situation or transaction? Reasonable and faithful people often differ on the balance of benefit and burden among individuals and groups, not only in material terms, but also in terms of agency. Who gets to make the choice, for better or for worse, distributing benefits and burdens? How is that authorized and legitimated? Next Sunday, we’ll have a workshop on those issues in relation to our church governance.
When I started a university course in economics in 1971, I could not put my finger on my discomfort with the utilitarian calculus proposed. People and groups were assumed to seek to maximize their benefit, and minimize their burden. My suspicion of moral sleight of hand drove me into law and then theology study and practice. It took me 45 years to discover Kahneman’s ‘behavioural economics’ through the bestseller ‘Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow’ – you can take this short-cut!
This time while we are reading Leviticus, we are surely obliged to keep near the surface the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about our cultural genocide of First Nations, and constant press about sexual abuse by priests of vulnerable people, and financial abuses by politicians of public trusts. Ending the week, see how Leviticus addresses abuse of power by the first generation of presiders in a sacrificial system. Let’s get back to it!