Rev Dr Simon Perry
8th February, 2015
‘After several hours’ tracking a stag through the wilderness, his footprints tell you that he has begun to tire. Your kinsmen have separated him from his herd, leaving you, the runner, only one set of marks to track. He will outrun you over a short distance, but you are built for endurance and he is not. He can only flee, hide and rest but you cannot afford to give him rest because precious lives depend upon the final chase now before you. Your pace quickens as the land rises and hardens. You make little sound as you weave your way through the trees, keeping the weight of your body in the lift of your arms and off the fall of your feet, but now his tracks have vanished. The stag has been your companion for hours, connected to you by the bonds of the lengthy, exhausting hunt. He is no stranger. You spirit yourself into the mind of your prey. You know the rhythm of his movements and, feeling his instincts, you anticipate the path he must have taken and you push on. A sound in the woodland ahead confirms your gamble so closing in, and nearing the point of your own exhaustion you break into a sprint. He comes into full view and bolts but all his energy is spent. After a few scrambled strides he stumbles, his legs buckle and the beast collapses, chin flat on the dry earth panting and helpless. Hours of relentless pursuit have reduced him to the mortal fatigue from which no animal can recover. Those huge brown eyes which for hours have sought out the paths you have been forced to follow, are now fixed upon you. As your spear sinks deep into his heart, a small pool of dark blood spreads silently across the dry earth.
If we could perhaps access our genetic memory and feel for ourselves the monstrous vulnerability of life, the radical insecurity of our hold on it, the bloody costs of our own survival we might begin to appreciate what is taking place in the hunt.
At the moment of death, something happens between hunter and prey, an event he experiences as an engagement with otherness. The stag’s death somehow gives him a glimpse of his own, exposing him to his own fragile mortality. This event draws the attention to something beyond the parties involved in the hunt, to some greater economy within which he is reminded of his proper place. The prey has been his partner in this deadly game, a game which on many occasions he has lost. But today his death brings life to those he loves. Having slaughtered the beast he is left alone in the wilderness with a terrible gratitude that must be expressed. But how? And to whom? The ritual following such a kill is no less instinctive than the pursuit itself.
Long before humans learned to forge iron, loose arrows or even hurl javelins, this form of ‘persistence hunting’ ensured the survival of our species from one generation to another. From the earliest rituals surrounding the slaughter of an animal, clearly the nature of the event has evolved in multiple directions. In every case, a combination of factors have no doubt shaped the way in which this great otherness has been described: Deities of tribal, global, and cosmic nature have all been named, with varying degrees of personal interest and involvement in the lives of mortals. The rituals then, that develop around the deliberate killing of an animal, seem to be the origins of what we call religion – and they confirm the worshippers place in their local and their cosmic hierarchy.
In fact, the Christian practice of saying ‘grace’ (a prayer of thanksgiving) before a meal has its origins in ancient hunting rites. Of course, it’s a long way from our ancestors who knew both how to hunt and how to be hungry, to the overfed 20th century western family pausing to splutter, ‘rub-a-dub-dub, thank God for the grub’ before burying their teeth into factory-produced meat. More recently, as the Christendom ideology has given way to the Secular, the departure of the grace from the dinner table distances us still further from our ancestors. This is by no means because we are now somehow enlightened, more aware of what our world is and how it works. After all, according to Philip Limbery’s book, Farmageddon, ‘more than a third of young adults in Britain don’t know that bacon comes from a pig, milk from a cow or eggs from a hen.’
In many ways our supposedly superstitious and unenlightened ancestors understood the world far better than we. Tucking into shrink-wrapped processed meat, at a safe and sanitized distance from the animals killed for our sake, with at best only a theoretical awareness of what happened prior to its arrival at the back doors of the supermarket, might it be that our grasp of our place in the universe is somewhat blinkered? It is precisely this grasp at our place within the cosmic order that sacrificial rituals are designed to affirm. That is why mal time grace, in any setting, is usually said by the senior person at table – you notice that even at Robisnon, it is not the priest who says grace, nor should it be: and not only because – as our bursar points out – Robinson is probably the only college whose chaplain does not know any Latin. No, grace at a meal is spoken by the senior member of the family or institution – it reflects the proper structure by which we order our families and our institutions.
In the secular modern west, whether we like it or not, we are the cultural descendents of Abrahamic religion – and at the root of Abrahamic religion lies this incident of Abraham’s wilingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Although trendier theologians now like to describe this kind of event as an act of divine child abuse, it is worth remembering that Isaac was about 30 years old when his ancient father placed him on the altar of sacrifice. But then what happened? God’s voice told him to kill his own son, and then God’s voice told him not to… and Abraham is commended for his willingness to kill his own son! What is that all about?
It’s worth remembering, that this is not just any son. Isaac is the one through whom God has already promised to bless Arbaham’s innumberable descendents. By killing one man Isaac, Abraham knew he would be committing genocide – destroying the entire Jewish nation. While God commends Abraham for his willingingess, the real point of this passage is that – unlike the gods of other nations – this is not one who demands human sacrifice. If you know your Greek poetry, you know that even the great King of Kings, Agamemnon, is forced by his own promise to the gods to sacrifice his own daughter – and there was no divine intervention to prevent that. And it’s easy for us to miss how distinctive the Abrahamic religion is here, when we stand in the cultural, ethical mainstream of tradition that flows from this narrative. Had the Olympian worldview remained dominant and shaped our culture at the deepest level, would we value human life in precisely the way we do? Of course we would not – although we can only guess at what our worldview would be if the wars of history had had different winners.
The very criticisms that westerners often level at Abrahamic religion, arise from critical, ethical, frameworks that are unwittingly inherited from Abrahamic religion in the first place. So take the ancient Greek and Roman practice of throwing away your baby if it defective or female or unwanted. Jews, for instance, had a questionable morality in Roman eyes because they refused to get rid of unwanted babies but valued every human life. And early Christians were criticised because they rescued unwanted babies from rubbish tips as part of their religious commitment to the God of Abraham. So these supposedly intellectual questions like, ‘is the catholic church a force for good and evil in the world?’ make little sense, when our very conceptions of good and evil are so radically and unwittingly shaped by the effects that catholic religion has had on our culture. We simply cannot measure the extent to which our own value system is dependent upon the valus of Abrahamic religion.
What we do know is that when divine intervention prevents Abraham from killing Isaac, the usual cosmic order is disrupted. This is not a god who requires human sacrifice… Or is it? The Gospel reading has Jesus describing himself as a ransom for many. But too easily we read this as some mechanical spiritual transaction where a supernaturally abusive father is about to destroy his rebellious and independently minded offspring simply because they are human, so Jesus gives his own life to assuage god’s anger. But that is a mis reading. The context in Mark, has Jesus – to some extent – as a representative of Israel, who in this context are the ‘many’. The Son of Man gives his life – not to gain victory of the ‘many’ but to liberate the ‘many’. The cosmic hierarchy here, is not Jesus presiding over the many, the one whose power is affirmed at the sacrifice – Instead, Jesus himself offers a radically alternative cosmic order: his way of being a leader, is giving oneself entirely to those he would lead, a king who subjects himself to his subjects, a Messiah whose path to greatness gives himself to suffering and failure and defeat. And for whom greatness, and divinity, and cosmic hierarchy look entirely different by the time they are re-read through him. And in this light, I close by reading again those words from Mark’s gospel which show that the sacrifice of which he speaks undermines the cosmic hierarchies with which we might be familiar.