In August 2008, the prime minister of Japan broke with tradition by refusing to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honours two-and-a-half million Japanese war dead. Some of those commemorated had been found guilty of war crimes during the Second World War.
In the run-up to that war, the Shinto religion had been used to unite the Japanese people behind an increasingly militaristic state. While the sacrifice of those in the military who gave their lives was in some cases truly heroic, the cause was unworthy, bringing great suffering to many peoples, including the Japanese themselves.
The themes of unity and sacrifice can be found in many religious traditions. These can have negative as well as positive aspects, though it is easier to recognise this in faiths other than one’s own. There is a difference between an ascetic giving up comfort and security in the quest to become wiser and kinder and a widow being persuaded to throw herself into her husband’s funeral pyre in the custom of suttee. Though God, being merciful and aware of the human tendency to get things wrong, may give people credit even for misplaced piety, some practices are damaging, even to those communities whose unity they are supposed to cement.
The Bible indicates something of the complexity of such concepts. There is a difference between the attempt to create unity by fashioning a golden calf (Exodus 32) and the gift of unity through Christ (John 17.20-26), sacrificing sons and daughters to Molech (Jeremiah 32.35) and dying to an old self enslaved by sin so that one can be born into the freedom of the Holy Spirit (Romans 7.4-6, Galatians 5.16-24).
Indeed, sociologist and theologian René Girard has argued that religious ritual often involves uniting communities, at least temporarily, through finding a scapegoat who is sacrificed, literally or symbolically. In his view, Christianity can break through this pattern by enabling people to identify with the victim: through the crucified Christ, we can be freed from the urge to find outsiders to victimise but can instead recognise our common humanity, overcoming our divisions with our neighbours in a way that does not harm others. In today’s world, where societies are often highly competitive and unstable, it can indeed be tempting for people to feel a sense of togetherness, at least for a while, by uniting against a common target.
In responding to recent divisions in churches, some bishops have urged sacrifice in the interests of unity. After all, are these not religious values? However, it is prudent in such circumstances to probe more deeply. What sacrifice will be required, and from whom? What kind of unity is likely to result, and will this be short-lived? Will existing power relationships and prejudices be undermined or reinforced? How closely does this resemble the actions of Jesus and other great leaders who reached out to the most marginalised, and inspired those around them to show compassion across social barriers?
In doing this, it may be helpful to draw on the insights of social science, and the observations of perceptive commentators outside one’s own tradition. It is all too easy for the suffering of those with less prestige or power, or whose experience is outside the mainstream, to be underestimated. Many pious Japanese, for instance, still do not fully understand why many Chinese and Koreans were so distressed when former prime ministers of Japan paid their respects at the Yasukuni shrine.
Sometimes it will indeed be worth giving up something precious for a greater good. But in other circumstances, mercy should perhaps be valued above sacrifice (Matthew 9.13), and divisions may need to be exposed (Matthew 10.16-39) before a deeper unity can be achieved.
(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK. She is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of a number of research essays and a regular column. She has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change , edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).