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There will be a book session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) for Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s new book, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation.  Dr. Mark Heim and myself will be responding to her book.  This session is on Saturday Nov. 17, 2012 at McCormick Place West – 182,  1p.m.

This book grew out of consternation and confusion that I experienced in the post 9/11 period regarding the heightened naturalization of war-culture in the U.S. as an unquestioned and to-be-expected feature of life.  My exploration of the role of the rhetoric, practices and cognitive frameworks of sacrifice as central to this naturalization may be placed alongside other books from the current time that explore what scholar Nelson Maldonado-Torres has called “the darkest side of Western Modernity, which is found in the naturalization of war: the radical suspension or displacement of ethical and political relationships in favor of the propagation of a peculiar death ethic that renders massacre and different forms of genocide as natural” (Against War: Views from the Underside, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, xi).

Fairly recently before the events of 9/11, I had completed a Ph.D. program in which I focused on the theological ethical literature of women’s writing and critique of Christian understandings of redemption, or salvation.  As you will no doubt recall, this literature is replete with many diverse criticisms of sacrificial frameworks, recommendations and requirements, especially as they have been imposed on marginalized people through various Christian doctrines and forms of Christian social, religious and political power.  At the same time, in the early years of the post-9/11 period, in the United States the drumbeats for war grew ever louder, the nation eagerly geared itself for war, and political and popular culture was evermore infused with justifications and as some would have it, mystifications for the wars that soon began.

Many scholars besides me have mused over the fact that the nation slipped into the mindset of war with what seemed unbelievable ease, as if this was a well-worn glove.  Of course the rise of U.S. Empire has been explored and deconstructed by a plethora of scholars along the way, as well as what some have called the “obliviousness” of the American people with respect to the massive increase of war-culture in this same period.  I define war-culture as the ethos, institutions and practices of war that interpenetrate more and more deeply with all kinds of cultural sites in the U.S., including the economy, education, government, popular culture and youth culture, and religious institutions, just to name a few sites.

But what stood out so strongly for me, no doubt in no small measure due to my training and focus, was the rhetoric of sacrifice that surged in politics, religion, military cultures, and popular culture at large.   There are so many examples I could draw from here.  Recall the addition to the national mall that was made during this time, the commemorative site honoring the dead from WWII.  The plaque at the central exhibit proclaims, “Here we mark the price of freedom.”  In contrast to those founders of the nation, who in the Declaration of Independence wrote that “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are “inalienable rights” bestowed by the Creator, a very different mindset is at the center of portrayals of U.S. citizenship such as this.  Here freedom is not a right, but something which must be purchased with blood, something that demands sacrifice.

Of course, along the way of my research, I learned from sociologists of religion such as Catherine Albanese that sacrificial rhetoric always surges in times of potential or actual war.  But why and how?  And how was all this connected to specifically religious frameworks, practices and identities in the United States?  What did and should this relationship between sacrifice and war-culture mean for the work of Christian theology, especially soteriology, in the U.S. context?   What was the role of sacrifice in U.S. conceptions of citizenship, and national identity, and what should we make of these sacrificial portrayals?

These were the questions that drove my research and analysis.

Overtime I became increasingly convinced that the criticisms of Christian sacrifice I knew so well from the theological ethical literature of women’s writing could be drawn upon for a wider cultural criticism of sacrificial war-culture in the United States.

My method in the book is to attempt to peel back the layers of sacrifice to try to understand their operations, in order to gain more clarity about ourselves, our values and our actions. Chapter Two of the book is the best example of the way I go about this method.  There I analyzed the victimage rhetoric, and frameworks and rhetoric of sacrifice utilized by President George W. Bush and other governmental leaders to not only build a case for war in Iraq, but to maintain and build support for the war while at the same time veiling increasing evidence of its erroneous foundations and devastating consequences.  Here I include a quote from President Bush from his Radio Address to the Nation on Easter Sunday:

Good morning.  This weekend, families across America are coming together to celebrate Easter. . . during this special and holy time each year, millions of Americans pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world. . . On Easter we hold in our hearts those who will be spending this holiday far from home – our troops. . . I deeply appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families are making. . . On Easter, we especially remember those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom.  These brave individuals have lived out the words of the Gospel: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. . . (President’s Radio Address, Easter 2008)

As I wrote, ”Shining the light of suspicion on the sacrificial constructions in U.S. war-culture leads to the following insights: The “necessary sacrifice of war” is a quasi-religious canopy that mystifies analysis of the true nature of war.  Language of sacrifice slips from specifically Christian religious formulations into national “secular” tropes, such as in national commemorations, military school traditions and State of the Union addresses.  Such practices and cognitive frameworks tie together specifically religious, civil religious and nationalistic rhetoric, resulting in an unquestioned presumption for war, and a sacralized, sacrificial national identity in American civil religion that is strongly connected to war and the need for an invincible military.  The incalculable worth of life is minimized through sacrifice’s exchange system in which supposed goods are traded for other goods, such as in the calculus of Just War principles.  As feminists have emphasized, sacrificial exchange systems regularly rely on the most vulnerable members of society as sacrificial collateral, but this insight is shrouded through the sanctified “necessity of sacrifice” that neatly masks material economic and social power interest at stake.  Thus, glorification of the soldier’s sacrifice obfuscates more realistic analysis of her/his experience, even as the sacrifice of the enemy plays easily into victimage rhetoric to dehumanize the other and promote a smooth slide away from the reality of his/her suffering.  Finally, this rhetoric and these practices have great resonance in the American public at large, so they go unquestioned, and the imagination of the American collective is sharply disciplined away from the perception of alternatives outside of sacrificial violence to meet the needs of a suffering and conflicted world”(76).

I hope that the themes of the book have resonance both for those who call themselves Christian and for U.S. citizens of other diverse religious orientations.  It does not appear to me that Christian institutions in the United States really in any way have begun to deal with the destructive relationship between sacrifice and war-culture, and I believe it is incumbent upon theologians to provide assistance for this extremely important ethical deliberation.

In the end, I align myself most closely with Delores Williams in her critique of scapegoating sacrifice in Christianity.  She wrote about the essentializing of sacrifice and scapegoating in Christianity that played such a strong role in naturalizing the scapegoating dynamics of black women’s labor in the United States.  She rejects sacrificial interpretations of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, in favor of what she calls a “ministerial vision of new life”; she rejects the notion that the actualizing of the Kingdom of God requires anyone’s death (including Jesus’).   Along the same lines, it seems to me that essentializing the need for sacrifice in Christianity plays a strong role in the similar naturalizing of sacrifice that undergirds and mystifies war-culture, and that so influences portrayals of national identity and citizenship in the U.S. based on a paradigm of war and violence.

Thus, in my work I am looking for alternatives to sacrifice.  I have suggested that perhaps the category of work or labor, offers a more fruitful and distinct way of thinking about how we may go about addressing and dedicating ourselves to the very real conflicts we face and the very real suffering that endures in our world.  In other words, I am searching for ways of relating and working (as well as models of salvation) that do not rely on exchange dynamics, and that do not require the injury, destruction or death of any party.  The frameworks and sacred canopy of sacrificial U.S. war-culture have disciplined the imagination of the people of the United States towards a presumption for war; in the current moment, I hope to contribute to theological work that can name our current reality and help to develop energy and space for imaginative reform.


Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religion at Moravian College, and a clergyperson in the ELCA. Author of U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation (Great Britain: Equinox, 2011), her work focuses on resources in theological ethics that may be mobilized to address the increase of militarization and war in the United States and beyond. She also teaches courses that explore feminist theological ethics, liberation theology, Christian ethics and war, and courses in the discipline of Peace and Justice Studies.