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     The Rite of Human Sacrifice in the Five Civilizations 

Westerners are appalled by the cruel rituals of Aztec priests tearing out the hearts of human beings to appease their gods. Yet, human sacrifice has been and continues to be a factor in the religious and spiritual life of western society. Its religious nature implies a certain consent on the part of the victims.

In ancient Canaan and other agricultural societies, human beings were killed to improve crop fertility. As a grain of wheat must “die” and be buried in the ground to bring forth new life in the sprouting crops, so it was believed that live persons needed to be killed to ensure an abundant harvest. The Phoenicians and their colonial relatives in Carthage both practiced human sacrifice.

A vestige of this practice from agricultural society is found in the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac. This story foreshadows the story of Christ in which God offers his Only Son as a sacrificial victim on the Cross, taking away humanity’s sins.

In Civilization I,      

human communities were worshiped as gods. Often a statue of the god stood in a temple that was the center of civic life. (A statue of the goddess Pallas Athena once stood in the Parthenon.) Arnold Toynbee believes that this type of society practiced human sacrifice in the form of war. City governments sent out their young men to die in battle in honor of the city and its god.

Toynbee also believes that modern-day patriotism is a type of religion. This religion continues to demand large numbers of persons to fight and die in wars. As casualties in the Iraq war continue to mount, we see the religious aspect in the spectacle of flag-draped caskets brought to their burial place, twenty-one gun salutes, and solemn military officers presiding over such ceremonies. Political leaders such as George W. Bush and Rudolph Guiliani gained popularity as adroit mourners in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In Civilization II,

human sacrifice was, of course, an element in the Crucifixion of Jesus, who died for the sins of others. Those Christian martyrs who willingly died for their faith rather than bow to Roman gods were also practicing self-sacrifice. In a modern context, we have suicide bombers blowing themselves up in fanatical acts of martyrdom to advance political agendas in Israel or Iraq. The Islamic religion promises immediate admission to Heaven for those who die for the faith.

 

In Civilization III,      

the idea of voluntary submission to death largely disappears. Human sacrifice takes the form of economic exploitation. In the institution of slavery, human beings lost their freedom as commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Inhumane practices in factories effectively deny workers a life apart from working. Some workers are killed from unsafe conditions in those factories or from toxic materials to which they are exposed in the process of production.

In Civilization IV,

several icons of pop culture - Elvis Presley, Janice Joplin, John Lennon, Van Morrison, Kurt Cobain - have died young. Several have died from drug overdose or prescription-drug abuse. John Lennon was assassinated. In either case, it would seem that the early death of the creative artist was related to the artistic lifestyle, with its emotional intensity and fame. The rock n’ roll singer who dies young is like the hard-drinking novelist of yesteryear who sacrificed healthy and longevity to pursue an intense creative vision; or, in generic terms, like the moth which flies too close to the flame of inspiration and is destroyed.

 

  In Civilization V,      

those of us who spend too much time in front of the computer may be missing out on some things. Go out and get a life.

 

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