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;
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
We will shine without caring
It is good for us
To be unknown
Like the sun’s pure
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
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.
from “September 1, 1939”