THIS WEEK, key underpinnings of the Western unconscious will reveal themselves in the observance of Passover and Good Friday — two rituals of sacrifice that have penetrated the American mind. Far from being an ancient irrelevance, the blood sacrifice that these occasions commemorate helps to define even secular culture — with profound consequences for how we, and our government, see the world.
The sacrificial lamb is the central figure of Passover, for its blood, in marking the lintels of the Hebrews in Egypt, prompted the angel of death to pass them by. The God-willed deaths of Egypt’s firstborns recalls the piety of Abraham, who, at God’s behest, was prepared to kill his beloved son. But Isaac, too, was spared by a lamb —“a ram caught in a thicket’’ — that took his place.
Later, Jesus was hailed as the “Lamb of God,’’ with his death being interpreted (either by himself or others) in terms drawn from Passover. As the Harvard scholar Jon D. Levenson has observed, this beloved son, through his passion and death, reversed Isaac’s fate by replacing the lamb on the altar of sacrifice at Golgotha with himself. His atoning blood gives all who call upon him the mark they need to be spared.
What does this have to do with the United States of America today? Everything.
This nation’s identity, as we understand it, emerged during the Civil War, the violence of which was made tolerable by comparisons to biblical rites. The famously secular Abraham Lincoln consoled a mother whose five sons were reported killed while fighting for the Union by lifting up “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.’’ Freedom was not only the altar of sacrifice, but also its purpose. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’’ made the parallel to Christ explicit: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make them free.’’
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln equated the outpouring of blood - by then massive - with a God-willed sacrifice atoning for the sin of slavery. “Every drop of blood drawn from the lash,’’ he declared, “shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so it still must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ’’
The American Abraham laid hundreds of thousands of beloved sons upon what historian Harry S. Stout calls “the altar of the nation.’’ Only ancient tropes of sacred bloodletting made such loss tolerable. They also sealed the nation’s self-understanding. “Sacrifice and state became inextricably intertwined,’’ Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in her study of the Civil War. “Death created the modern American union - not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures.’’
All of this might have remained abstraction but for a terrible coincidence that burned a cult of sacrifice into the American soul. On April 14, exactly four years to the day after the Union flag was lowered at Fort Sumter, it was once again raised - a defining symbol of the end of the Civil War. That evening, President and Mrs. Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater. It was Good Friday.
Throughout Easter weekend, preachers all across the North inevitably equated Lincoln’s martyrdom with the sacrifice of Jesus. “He has been appointed,’’ as one group put it, “to be laid as the costliest sacrifice of all upon the altar of the Republic, and to cement with his blood the free institutions of this land.’’ Having been the American Abraham, he was now the American Christ. The salvation of the union (more, in fact, than the emancipation of slaves) was his sacred accomplishment. And it was the most natural thing in the world for Lincoln to be memorialized in a temple on the Washington Mall, a structure with its own deep roots in the mythic past of holy violence.
Across the century and a half since that Good Friday, legions of beloved sons and daughters have been offered on the altars of America’s wars, several of which in recent times have been broadly deemed after the fact to have been unnecessary and unjust. Undercurrents tied to sacrificial atonement are far from the only cause of this quick readiness to shed blood. But they certainly help.