From doomed lamb to potential phoenix – the story of a modern sacrifice

‘Is there a place for sacrifice in the modern world?’ a colleague asked during a conference in Oxford this weekend. To an extent the answer appears to depend on what we mean by sacrifice. The traditional religious version is arguably in demise in a secular and increasingly individualistic society, but could it be that another version is on the rise? It has become almost standard procedure that when a politician, business leader or other public person is caught doing something they really shouldn’t do, they go for the public apology. In this grovelling mea culpa parade they offer themselves up in tasty little morsels intended to satisfy the public appetite. Sometimes the outrage is such that, for all their efforts, they are still sent packing. Yet all is not lost, after a while out in the cold a surprising number resurface to take on new posts involving big responsibilities presumably requiring both a strong character and sound judgement. But do we really have good reason to think that time out of the lime light equals time spent on moral contemplation?

The traditional Christian understanding that sacrifice is not a loss of self but indeed a way to flourish (naturally that should not be the driving force) is somewhat grotesquely echoed in these displays. A major difference of course being that the rewards to be reaped has moved from the afterlife to a not too distant future. Purified and ready to take on new challenges they boomerang back under the radar as the collective is busy with new fresh scandals. Is it possible that the sacrificial lamb is no longer purely a victim but rather a phoenix in the making?

It could, of course, be said that this is in fact not a sacrifice at all but rather a mechanical and purely tactical move specifically tailored to sooth public wrath. If so this practice might have more in common with a letter of repentance. But such reservations aside, this behaviour appears to give rise to other problems. It would seem possible to make mistakes of a kind that reveals such a lack of professional judgement that no apology, sincere or otherwise, can make up for it. Although the apology might improve matters on one level and pour some well needed oil on troubled waters, it has little bearing on the actual capacity of judgement of the perpetrator.

But, you may say, we do after all believe that people can learn from their mistakes and improve themselves once they have come to realise the erring of their ways. I would agree with this but if the slip-up is really massive it might be taken to tell us something important about the person in question. Factors such as the magnitude, the duration and whether or not it is self-confessed or a case of the proverbial cookie jar disclosure ought to be taken into account. Severe moral lapses indicate a substantial character flaw which, presumably, is intimately connected to a set of core values this person subscribes to. So how can we address this problem then? Well, one view would of course be that the way back onto the straight and narrow is to attach blame to individual(s) and banish them in the hope that whatever evils were committed will disappear along with them. This strategy, however, would appear especially vain when dealing with flawed values and practices as they tend both to be widespread and engrained within groups and even communities. Singling out a sacrificial lamb will not rid society of these problems; if anything it will lull us into a sense a false security as we smugly assume ourselves safe and purged.

Instilling the moral virtues we would like to see both in ourselves and our leaders is a rather time consuming affair.  Here I have tried to make the point that it is not entirely obvious how repenting on the media altar combined with a few months out in the cold somehow automatically will bring about a significant change in character. Moral ‘retraining’ which involves the internalisation of a set of values, is not a quick fix. Rather, a more promising way forward is to create a dialogue – an ongoing, public discussion of the virtues and values that we think good and worthwhile. The public apology might be a good start, even a necessary one, but it is hardly a satisfactory end.

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