A Study in Sacrifice

A Study in Sacrifice

Bob Jones Sr. was an avowed segregationist and KKK supporter who founded a fundamentalist Christian school. Sometime in the 1930s, he declared, “The Christian philosophy is a philosophy of self-denial, self-control, and self-restraint.” 

Decades later, as an elementary student in his eponymous school, I learned this quote and recited it with my classmates during weekly school-wide chapels. We dutifully pledged allegiance to the American and Christian flags, and then the Bible. And then we rattled off these words in unison:

“The Christian philosophy is a philosophy of self-denial, self-control, and self-restraint.” 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the virtue of self-denial, or selflessness. I’ve realized I hold an internalized belief that self-sacrifice is of greatest moral value. Perhaps it’s due in part to this false and non-biblical teaching that I heard and recited as a child of what it means to live as a good Christian. 

But this message dominates mainstream culture and thought. Consider: Frodo’s selfless determination in Lord of the Rings. Darth Vader’s final redemption through sacrifice. Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame martyrs. An act of sacrifice can atone for any past failings, any past wrongs; at times, one person’s self-sacrifice can even extend salvation to others. 

At the end of season 3 of NBC’s The Good Place, an ethics survey course disguised as a sunny television comedy, a primary character makes a sacrifice of ineffable significance, a decision presented as the pinnacle of a life-long commitment to Aristotelian virtue ethics. This sacrificial act, then, is the greatest good he has performed, a moral accomplishment of highest virtue. 

To give up something of yourself—your own desires, your own comfort, your own life—is to be a good person. We applaud those who maintain spartan diets. We honor fallen soldiers for their sacrifice with national holidays. We celebrate the spiritual abandonment of the self in meditative states.

We’ve idealized this philosophy of self-denial, self-control, and self-restraint.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

—T.S. Eliot
from Four Quartets: Burnt Norton

Maryland is nearing the end of week 11 of intentional physical distancing. Our conversations are often framed by what we’ve given up in this time. We talk about trips we’ve cancelled in selfless consideration. We tell our coworkers over Zoom how much we miss our families, our favorite restaurants, our hobbies. “Remember places? We used to go to those,” we ask each other.

We are positioned to bask in a virtuous glow of selflessness by merely existing at home. I silently judge my older sister for her selfish choice to travel, while I am proud of how I’ve managed to survive on one grocery trip a month.

In believing that being selfless = being good, we glorify the negative action of not doing things. 

But ours is a faith of positive action. Most of us chose Unitarian Universalism because it propels us to live our values through active engagement with each other and the world around us, because we find that acting together brings us spiritual nourishment more than doctrinal discourse or abstract pious devotion ever did. 

Merely existing in selfless abandon is not what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. 

Being Unitarian Universalist means being called to love. Not a passive, “in my heart” sort of love, but an active love that often demands sacrifice.

In the preface to the great passage about love in the Christian scriptures, quoted endlessly in wedding vows, the writer says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). 

Sacrifice without love is empty. “Sacrifice without love is pain,” describes the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Sacrifice without love is a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation, without merit and without gain. 

But love often requires sacrifice. 

Years from now, to remember this pandemic primarily as a season of personal sacrifice is to have missed the point. This pandemic didn’t cause physical distancing to be done to us. We chose—and are choosing today—to physically distance ourselves in an act of love to save lives during this pandemic. 

We are called to love. During this time, let us identify ways we can radically, fervently, and intentionally love those in our communities. Let us make active decisions to save lives, preserve communities, and pursue equity, and may we be willing to sacrifice what is demanded of us in the process.  

Why then has the whole world
Forgotten love?
We will shine without caring
It is good for us
To be unknown

Like the sun’s pure 
Untouched wine
We love without care
In spite of every dead heart
And sick intelligence

The slow hymn of May is everlasting
And every beautiful day
Is our invention

—Thomas Merton
from Six Night Letters: II.

There’s another type of sacrifice we’re making these days. Collectively, as a society, we are sacrificing the poor, the immigrant, and the incarcerated—giving them up for slaughter—to a deadly disease. Is this a sacrifice we feel proud to make? 

The story of this country is one in which the dominant few sacrifice the lives we don’t value, in the name of economic prosperity. We sacrificed the lives of native peoples by the tens of millions, decimating countless cultures until over 100 native languages are considered extinct today, so that we could fulfill our manifest destiny to claim lush, green backyards bursting with wildlife for our suburban homesteads. 

We sacrificed the lives of the 1.2 million men, women, and children sold during our years of domestic slave trade, barely batting an eye at the 50% death rate in the first year of life for those born into slavery, so that our cotton could be picked and sold abroad through profitable transatlantic trade agreements.

We sacrificed the lives of over 1,200 migrant Chinese laborers, denied a path to citizenship and then banned from this country by congressional law, their bodies abandoned in the blizzards of the Great Plains, to increase our railroad stock investment values during a season of corporate gain. 

We sacrificed the lives of 146 factory workers, mostly young immigrant women earning pennies, to a shirtwaist factory fire, so that we could fill our wardrobes with stylish, affordable clothes purchased on a whim. 

Recent events have reminded us that there are still certain lives we don’t value. Some lives don’t deserve to jog through residential neighborhoods, or to be in their own homes after midnight. Some lives aren’t worthy of observing the birds that fly above the land we occupy. 

Some people don’t deserve to breathe, even when they beg for breath. 

As a country, we sacrifice lives too willingly, too knowingly, too regularly. 

Today, Howard County and other jurisdictions across Maryland are choosing yet again to make a sacrificial offering of lives in the name of economic prosperity. As restaurants and retail stores reopen, the lives at risk are the same lives we value least: the undocumented restaurant employee, the distribution warehouse worker, the minimum-wage store clerk.

Our choices reflect our values. Will you choose to act in love, a type of love that requires a sacrifice of your own desires? Or will you let the story of this country continue to unfold the way it always has: sacrificing the lives of the poor and marginalized for the economic gain of the few, in the name of our right to shop and dine for pleasure?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

W.H. Auden
from “September 1, 1939”


  1. Gwen Brown

    This is remarkable and timely. As woman of color with children and grandchildren who have to navigate all that continues to happens, its speaks so completely to so much of what I am feeling right now.

    Thank you

  2. JoAnne Stanton

    This is such a powerful and moving testimony in what it means to love. The bridge between the historical and the present demonstrates how far we have chosen not to come. We all need to read this and choose to act differently.

  3. Will Z

    Well written and so true. We so often forget those who have to sacrifice for the rest of us to live comfortably. It would behoove us to consider them more than we do.

  4. Susan Haugh

    Valerie, well done and well said. You took my breath away. I would love a copy of this. I wat to read and re-read and act on this ; and to share it with alot of folks. So true, so well done. Thank you.

  5. Diane E Page

    Throughout the years I have attended services and events at UUCC I have been drawn to the intellect, character, lived experiences of good people, who have, carefully and kindly drawn me to them. The voices, skill, wisdom, science and humanity of April Lee, Carla Gates, Tom Monroe, Michael Adcock, Tom Benjamin, Inge Hyder, Karl Branting, Betty Jackson, Candy Wachterman, made me return with the intent of giving of my “time and labor” for the good of UUCC.
    When introduced to the 7 principles, they were just words, but they embodied in my mind, across time and space, the interconnected web of life, race, class, education, gender identity, religious upbringing, ethnicity.
    UUCC seemed a spiritual home for my wounded soul.
    I saw them lived out in action, without a written directive to act, when we marched, arm in arm for the right to love and live freely, “whoever you are, you are welcome”.
    I have heard time and time again, to this very day, across UUCC’s generations, the vilification of a racist in the white house, the inequities in society, the hunger and hurt in our community, without a directive to act, because we believe and live our values. The Light within me recognizes and respects the Light within you.

    “Let us make active decisions to save lives, preserve communities, and pursue equity, and may we be willing to sacrifice what is demanded of us in the process.”
    To echo Valarie Hsu’s comments in her detailed letter to the congregation, that in this time of great crisis, let us, each in our own way, with our own abilities, as we have always done as Unitarians across history, demand rational, compassionate leadership and protect our brethren.

  6. Cristina Paglinauan

    Yes. Yes. And Yes. Bravo Valerie: Thank you for the hard and painful truth you so clearly and beautifully articulate, for acting, and calling us to action-in-love.

  7. Cristina Paglinauan

    Yes. Yes. And Yes. Bravo Valerie: Thank you for the hard and painful truth you so clearly and beautifully articulate, for acting, and calling us to action-in-love.

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