Staying the Knife

Avigayil Halpern

Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice.

Yale University Press, 216 pp., $25.00

The back cover of Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice bills the book as an “analysis of sacrifice as the foundation of the modern, as well as the ancient, social order.” This is an exciting proposition for exploration, with the potential to provide a new way of conceptualizing what religion can offer to our understandings of society. Disappointingly, Radical Sacrifice does not deliver on this ambitious goal. Almost the entirety of Eagleton’s slim volume reads as a literature review rather than a manifesto full of innovative ideas. Despite consistently stunning prose, reading Radical Sacrifice often feels like being stuck in conversation at a cocktail party with a philosophy major acutely aware of how well-read he is.

The titles of the book’s five chapters promise to address hot topics in culture, history, and metaphysics: “Radical Sacrifice,” “Tragedy and Crucifixion,” “Martyrdom and Mortality,” “Exchange and Excess,” and finally “Kings and Beggars.” The eponymous first chapter is the only one in which Eagleton’s purported topic is addressed at any length; the following chapters, with the exception of the final pages of “Kings and Beggars,” cover ideas only loosely connected to the idea of sacrifice, and even then bringing the themes together requires some real intellectual legwork. Eagleton leaves that work for the reader, instead presenting atomized units that discuss, in order, the nature of the Crucifixion, death, gift-giving, and the scapegoat. (As the reader will notice, the chapter titles are sometimes helpful and sometimes misleading.)

Eagleton, who is writing from a Catholic Marxist perspective, confidently informs the reader that his book “broods on questions not commonly investigated by the political left, and certainly not by its postmodern wing. Love, death, suffering, sacrifice, evil, martyrdom, forgiveness and so on are not exactly modish preoccupations among cultural or political theorists today.” To bring these questions into postmodern academic discourse is an admirable goal, but in attempting to do so, Eagleton ignores those who have been working with them outside his own intellectual milieu and thus puts forth a shortsighted argument.

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Eagleton believes that sacrifice is a crucial model for modern politics. He begins with a compelling argument: “if sacrifice is a political act, it is not least because it concerns an accession to power.” He says that “[s]acrifice concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to 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.” This is an appealing notion for the religious leftist reader: it is a framework for the transformation of the downtrodden into the powerful, an alchemic formula that transforms the weak into the strong. In a world where religion is deployed to prop up unjust and cruel uses of power, to use religious discourse to argue for the political—not just spiritual—power of the weak is innovative. Eagleton’s attempt to do so is praiseworthy. In imagining sacrifice as the transformation of the downtrodden to the powerful, he offers a metaphysical grounding for a leftist political project.

But where does this framework of sacrifice come from? Eagleton does not provide a satisfying genealogy. Radical Sacrifice is a book that quotes frequently and at length. Each page is replete with references to philosophy and literature; Eagleton cites sources ranging from Hegel to Shakespeare. (King Lear is a particular favorite.) Of course, the two-and-a-half centuries between Hegel and Shakespeare are not the only ones available to Eagleton; still, one often gets the sense that the quotations in Radical Sacrifice are the selections of an erudite man remembering something he already knows rather than the result of novel research. Although the text strives, per the introduction, not to “take the dismissive attitude to theology generally to be found among-left wingers,” one notes the absence of any theologian writing after Thomas Aquinas. There is great merit in seeking to use sources from one’s own area of expertise and intellectual lineage to answer new and important questions. However, Eagleton’s seeming ignorance of sources outside of his postmodern critical framework leads to an impoverished analysis of his subject. There exist libraries upon libraries of liberal Christian and non-Christian theology that Eagleton does not so much as mention and which could have deeply enhanced his argument. His blinders in this area are a significant obstacle to both the coherence of his theory and its trustworthiness.

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Eagleton’s notion of sacrifice depends on Christian supersessionist attitudes towards Judaism. Supersessionism is the perspective which, as David Novak defines it, “sees Judaism and the Jewish people as that which the triumph of Christianity over history has left in the irretrievable past.” “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ He [Jesus] has made the first one obsolete,” says Paul in Hebrews 8:13. God had made a covenant with the Jews, but once Jesus came, Christians became true participants in God’s covenant, and Jews, who had rejected Jesus as the messiah, were no longer deserving of that covenantal relationship. Supersessionism, which had been the dominant approach to Jews and Judaism within Christianity until modern reckonings with anti-Semitism, treats Jesus as the “fulfillment” of Jewish Law, bringing the Law to its telos and thus ending its claims on the faithful.

The supersessionist attitude towards the Law goes beyond rejecting it or treating it as obsolete.  Paul says of the Law that “[t]he sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:46). The Law he is referring to is what was at the time becoming rabbinic law. The stereotype that treats this Law as antithetical to love and mercy, and therefore the Jews who follow it as cruel and hardhearted, has been used to justify anti-Semitism for centuries. The prototypical example of this is, of course, Shakespeare’s Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, who insists in The Merchant of Venice on receiving the pound of flesh he is owed despite the human cost.

Among the best-known moments in The Merchant of Venice is Portia’s speech about mercy. Dressed as a man and pretending to be a lawyer, Portia argues that Shylock ought to spare Antonio from giving the pound of flesh he has promised as a guarantee for his friend Bassanio, Antonio having found himself unable to repay the loan in cash. Shylock has refused Bassanio’s offer of twice the money he is owed, insisting instead on the contractual pound of flesh. Portia entreats Shylock to be merciful:

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render 

The deeds of mercy. (IV.i.179–197)

Portia contrasts Shylock’s drive for justice, for being given what he is owed, with mercy. It is not justice, that strict insistence on rule-following, that will bring salvation, she contends. It is mercy, which is a defining attribute of God. The implication behind these arguments is clear: the Law has been superseded not merely because it is outdated, but because it is barbarous. This is a paradigm that has permeated Western society for centuries, and it is one that Eagleton buys wholeheartedly.

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In our modern, multicultural, liberal society, it is taken for granted that Judaism is one religion among many, part of a grand conversation among equally valid visions of divine service and meaning. But Eagleton’s text demonstrates that this is not yet the case in some branches of Christian thought. In explaining how sacrifice moved from a physical ritual to the concept he wishes to discuss, Eagleton asserts that “it was the exile of the Israelites and the destruction of the Temple that forced the moral or spiritual aspects of sacrifice to the fore.” It is certainly accurate that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the year 70 CE led to a religious reckoning, both in emerging Rabbinic Judaism as well as in the developing Jesus movement. Both groups increasingly prioritized abstract thinking and ideas, in a transition from the stark physicality of animal sacrifice. However, Eagleton goes on to claim, “acts of love and mercy came to assume place of pride over donations of corn or the shedding of lambs’ blood. It is the lowly of spirit who are great in God’s esteem, not goats or handfuls of grain.”

This analysis of the transition from cultic Temple sacrifice to a different form of religious practice is one that assumes that the rightful successor to the Jewish Temple cult is the Christian religion. It is only in Christianity that “acts of love and mercy” have the “place of pride.” Though love and mercy are of course important in Judaism, the central religious emphasis is the study of legal text and non-sacrificial ritual practice. Eagleton’s statement treats Christianity as the inevitable—and only—replacement of Temple sacrifice. It is perhaps this troubling assumption that leads to the greatest problem in his work: the conflation of sacrifice and martyrdom.

By the end of the first chapter, Eagleton has shifted from a discussion of cultic ritual sacrifice and its nature to the martyrdom of Jesus. In attempting to reconcile how the Biblical prophets can both endorse sacrifice and claim that it is inadequate, he concludes that “[t]he oblation that counts is the surrender of one’s selfish interests for the sake of others,” and then proceeds to assume that “the surrender of one’s selfish interests” is identical with the surrender of one’s very life.

Without the slightest acknowledgement of a transition from one subject to another, Eagleton begins to discuss the Crucifixion’s political nature: “[i]t is the tale of a how sacrifice as selfless devotion is likely to result in a bloody execution at the hands of the state.” Though Eagleton devotes an entire chapter to the nature of martyrdom, he in no place acknowledges that martyrdom is not a mere subcategory of sacrifice. There is a world of difference between sacrificing something that belongs to oneself and sacrificing one’s very life.

By treating the death of Jesus as the paradigmatic sacrifice and the historical culmination of such acts, Eagleton not only creates a framework for understanding leftism that is dangerous in its political expectations, but also actively participates in a history of Christian supersessionism that has done great violence to Jews and that continues to ignore the enduring value and relevance of the Law to a living group. Eagleton believes that the Law “is perverse to the core…Though it is blameless in itself, it resembles the kind of grossly inadequate parent who can do no more than rub our noses in where we go wrong.” He adds that “it is a useful device for the moral tenderfoot, even if it proves superfluous for those who have spiritually come of age. The Law is a ladder to be kicked away once we have mounted it.”

For Jewish readers who consider themselves bound to follow the Law, this is plainly insulting, a dig at a meaningful model of community and service of God, and an assertion that Jews have not “spiritually come of age.” But as modern Christians—in particular Catholics post-Vatican II—work to rectify their long history of anti-Semitism, the concept of the Law has been decoupled in Christian thought from the idea of the Jewish commitment to it. The Law is a “vindictive campaign to bring us to nothing,” says Eagleton, not a defining idea for any real people. By abstracting a concept that is in reality a present and vibrant force in the lives of many Jews, Eagleton articulates what would, in a medieval text, read as an attack on Jews.

Eagleton’s reduction of the Law to an abstract, noxious force not anchored in any real lives is disturbing, but it is consonant with strands of modern Christian discourse that deride the Law as merciless without directing that criticism at those who observe the Law. More distressing still is his intellectual abstraction from the lives and suffering of Jews.

In “Kings and Beggars,” his final chapter, Eagleton devotes much ink to a discussion of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the Muselmann. The “Muselmänner” were those Jews who, forced into concentration camps during the Holocaust, had in their starvation and despair given up on life. The term originated in the camps themselves and has been used by numerous survivors in written and oral testimony. The horror of these people’s lives is still present in living memory, but Eagleton treats this horror as simply an academic curiosity, an example of “a kind of living death.” He claims that “this ravaged creature is not even tragic, at least in the classical sense of a protagonist raised by his death to sublime status” and adds that “[t]he Muselmann offers men and women an icon of their own inhumanity, without a confession of which there would be no possibility of redemption.”  

The only source Eagleton draws from on the Muselmann is Agamben’s book, Remnants of Auschwitz, a philosophical analysis of survivors’ testimony of the death camp. He cites no Jewish scholars and certainly no Jewish survivors. Real Jews here are as invisible to Eagleton as they are in his discussion of the Law. Eagleton treats Jewish death as being noteworthy only when it can raise a victim to “sublime status.” He ignores a rich literature of Jewish post-Holocaust theology to instead instrumentalize the suffering and murder of Jews within his Christian philosophical project. Eagleton’s Muselmann is not a person but a “ravaged creature” and an “icon.” Auschwitz is an interesting moment in the history of ideas, not the site of a genocide. Jews exist in Eagleton’s thought only as obsolete half-siblings or as victims, paradigms of death. This is an act of intellectual violence.

* * *

Eagleton’s theorizing is built on a disregard for Jews and Jewish bodies as well as the assumption that Jews are only relevant insofar as they participate in — or, really, represent ideas that are important to — his Christian framework. But any attempt to create a Christian metaphysics compatible with contemporary leftist ideology must grapple with supersessionism. Christianity has historically been the source of terrible violence: in the form of missionary work, conquest, pogroms, and more. This gory heritage is one with intellectual underpinnings, and supersessionism is implicated in tremendous Jewish suffering.  There are theologians doing that work, but Eagleton, with his intellectual blinkers, does not concern himself with them. He thus illustrates the potential pitfalls of a leftism based in Christian thought.

In the final twenty pages of the book, where he at long last makes his argument, Eagleton proposes that the proletariat equals the scapegoat equals Jesus. The scapegoat is powerful, he says, because

the more besmirched it becomes, staggering under the weight of the transgressions heaped on its head, the more admirably selfless it shows itself to be. Its redemptive power grows as its identification with human sin deepens, which is one reason why the sacrificial beast, like all sacred things, is both blessed and cursed. The scapegoat is an unthinkable animal, at once guilty and innocent, blessed and cursed, poison and cure.

Karl Marx, says Eagleton, views the scapegoat as a “revolutionary agent.” Eagleton writes,

Like the sacrificial tribute, it signifies the gain of humanity through the loss of it. Because the poor have less of a stake in the status quo than the well-heeled, they have less to lose from the impending upheaval which Marx calls Communism and Christian Gospel calls the Kingdom of God, and are thus more likely to be open to its advent. Only by living its wretched condition to the full can it hope to annul it, and in doing so abolish itself.  Seen in this light, revolution is a modern version of what the ancient world knew as sacrifice.”

This is a politics that cherishes the suffering of the weak until the moment it can be made useful. It is the hazard of a religion based on the fetishization of the act of ultimate sacrifice. To understand suffering as beautiful, and to transfigure or import that idea into a political ideology, is to wager victory at the expense of those who are suffering. Uplifting the idea of wretchedness will lead to wretchedness being preserved. Weakness must never go unaddressed in an attempt to create change. An ideology that glorifies pain is one that will allow pain to continue. Suffering is never beautiful.

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Eagleton’s supersessionism and his advocacy of self-sacrifice as the ideal model for modern Marxism are not unrelated. Because he views Jesus’s death as the ultimate moment of sacrifice, the purest distillation of the idea, he does not consider the possibility of a model in which sacrifice can stop short of one’s own life.

Judaism offers another option. In the Ein Yaakov, a collection of all of the stories in the Talmud, one finds a dispute about which verse is the most important in the Bible. The scholar Ben Azzai suggests that it is Genesis 5:1, “this is the record of Adam’s line,” the account of Creation. Rabbi Akiva offers that it is “love your fellow as yourself.” Shimon ben Pazi, by contrast, offers a less intuitive answer in Exodus 29:39: “You shall offer the one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight.” This is the commandment to offer the Korban Tamid, the daily offering in the Temple, a model of sacrifice in which one dedicates all the days of one’s life to a transcendent ideal, not through offering one’s life in suffering but by committing to daily work. The revolution Eagleton seeks will not be found in martyrdom but in achievable sacrifices, regularly offered.

Revolution to create a just world does not require death. It instead demands a life oriented towards the pursuit of a set of ultimate ideals. There is radicalism in regular observances—indeed, in Law. To commit oneself daily to a set of transcendent precepts, precepts that defy conventional logic and cut against the less explicit but no less present rules of a fundamentally unjust society, is also revolutionary. To adhere to Divine Law, the Law of a God who, as in Christianity, is hopelessly in love with humanity, instead of the fickle and malleable norms of a culture that elevates individual success over care for each of God’s beloved children, is a means of making this love manifest through consistent, small actions.

In his supersessionist bias, Eagleton misses an opportunity to draw from an alternate Biblical picture of a human life offered on an altar. If the Binding of Isaac—which Eagleton mentions only once, in passing—is a simple prefiguration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, then it does not add to our understanding of sacrifice. But taken on its own terms, the Akedah is a vision of martyrdom as sacrifice in which it is possible to suffer but not die, to sacrifice much of what one has without sacrificing oneself, to be on the altar but for God to stay the knife. What if we had a politics that treated each life not as valuable enough to sacrifice, but as too valuable?