With so much to choose from, perhaps it’s time to pass over the sacrificial baby story.
Like all solstice celebrations, Christmas brings light and warmth and beauty into the darkest time of the year. Christmastime offers us a smorgasbord of mid-winter festivities from cultures across the Northern Hemisphere, and we build our family traditions around whichever of these bring us happiness.
But the traditional Christmas story —if you look closely—is not so warm and beautiful.
I’ve written elsewhere about the rapey-ness of god-impregnates-human-woman stories and how this one in particular glorifies female subservience. For parents raising their young daughters to be strong, independent women, that alone might be grounds for setting aside the nativity scene. But even worse, from a moral standpoint, is the idea of a baby conceived to be a human sacrifice, born to be killed so that others can live. That is the story for which the baby in the manger is Chapter 1. That’s what the beautiful angels and wizened wise men and awestruck shepherds are celebrating. If you actually think it through, it’s about as family friendly as Noah’s ark.
Savior Clones and Savior Siblings
In recent years, several novelists have explored moral, spiritual and deeply emotional dimensions of stories about people who are brought into the world as saviors—not to be themselves, but to save others.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s science fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, was listed by The Guardian as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century. The story is set in a boarding school where the young students learn that they are clones who were created to donate organs and that they will die young after multiple donations. The narrator, Kathy, is a caretaker for the organ donor children. She forms a special relationship with a young couple, Tommy and Ruth, who hope that their love for each other may grant them a deferral and allow them to live like normal people.
In the futuristic young adult novel, House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer (winner of multiple awards) the protagonist, Matt, learns that he too is a clone—in this case the clone of an aging drug lord known as El Patrón, who rules a small country between the U.S. and Mexico and hopes to do so indefinitely. Matt is spared the fate of other donor-clones, who normally are injected at birth with something that leaves them vegetative. Instead, he is raised on the hacienda of El Patrón, where he develops a sense of self and hope and a strong will to live.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult forces readers to wrestle with a kind of donor-baby scenario that is less extreme and less futuristic. In fact, it is actually happening now. Anna is conceived as a savior sister for Kate, who has leukemia. She isn’t going to be sacrificed altogether, but she does donate tissue, blood, stem cells and organs before finally suing for medical emancipation. Family members are torn by the suffering of both girls.
On the internet, savior siblings or people around them discuss the ethical quandaries or life experiences of those who have been conceived not to be their own people, but to save someone else. We find these discussions troubling even when the plan isn’t to literally sacrifice someone, as in kill them.
For reasons that aren’t fully clear, human sacrifice has appealed to people in a wide variety of cultures around the world and for many it still holds mythic appeal. It is intimately tied to the concept of aristocracy (that some people by birthright deserve to wield power over other lives) and the concept of human chattel (the notion that people such as children, women, slaves, or war captives lack their own independent right to existence and self-determination and can be owned).
Ancient Fijians buried a human sacrifice under each corner pillar of some buildings. Ancient Peruvians drugged young girls and left them on glaciers as offerings. The Aztecs cut out hearts. The burial chambers of Egyptian pyramids contained not only the deceased royalty but also their servants. Chinese emperors routinely were entombed with their servants and concubines. The practice of sati—burning a woman on her husband’s funeral pyre—wasn’t eradicated in India until the 20th Century.
The Hebrew tribes that produced the texts now bound in the Bible were no exception. They mirrored the bronze age cultures around them. Bible writers endorsed both aristocracy (in the form of privileged blood lines and birthrights) and human chattel (in the form of captives, women, children, and purchased slaves). They also wrestled with the morality of human sacrifice.
After demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, God spares Isaac at the last minute by providing a ram. Jephthah’s daughter isn’t so fortunate. Her father promises that if he wins his battle against the neighboring Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house when he returns home. She comes dancing to meet him. After granting her two months in the wilderness to “mourn her virginity,” her father fulfills his vow (Judges 11).
These stories explicitly endorse human sacrifice. Jephthah’s willingness to follow through with killing his daughter is considered righteous, and he becomes a venerated judge. Mostly, though, even the oldest texts of the Torah discuss the Hebrews sacrificing other species such as goats, cows, sheep and doves. We are told that the scent of these burnt offerings was pleasing to God.
By the time the New Testament books were written, human sacrifice had gone out of vogue in the region, which is why Jesus was (and is still today) described as a “lamb without blemish,” not a “virginal child without blemish” or a “healthy young adult at the peak of manhood.” In this metaphor, he is not the culmination of a long history of human sacrifice but the grand finale in a long history of sacrificing other creatures.
And yet, Christianity also talks about God sacrificing his only begotten son, like the sacrifice that God demanded of Abraham. So, the history of actual human sacrifice is close at hand. Setting aside debate about whoever Jesus may have been as a historical figure, assuming there was a historical rabbi at the heart of the stories, the Jesus of mythos is a transitional form in whom we can see the evolutionary history of human beliefs about the supernatural, and that includes humanity’s history of human sacrifice.
Beyond the Bronze Age
At the time the Bible was written, even the New Testament, children were chattel, as were their mothers—assets belonging to a male head of family. That is why God—or Abraham—could sacrifice his only begotten son. It is why a daughter could be given in marriage, or in the case of Lot’s daughters, given to a rabbling mob as appeasement, or in the case of Jepthah’s daughter, sent into the wilderness to mourn her virginity.
But we know better. Today we question the morality of conceiving a child as a blood and organ donor. Unlike our Bronze Age ancestors, we recognize children as individuals in their own right, dependent on parents, yes, but not our property. “Your children are not your children,” wrote the poet Khalil Gibran. “ . . . And though they are with you, they belong not to you./ You may give them your love but not your thoughts./ For they have their own thoughts. . . .”
It has taken millennia, but over time humanity’s sense of morality has grown more expansive because it is more centered in what other beings can experience and feel and desire. Do unto others no longer applies only to male adults of our own tribe, as it did in much of the Hebrew law and early codes. It applies to women and children and members of other cultures and even other species. That is what makes stories about children born to be organ donors or sacrifice siblings so moving. We recognize the forced donors as fully people, capable of happiness and suffering and dreams all their own, which may or may not include giving up blood or a liver or sacrificing their one precious life for that of another person.
In the House of the Scorpion, Matt fights not just for his own life but for others who have been denied freedom. In My Sister’s Keeper, Kate, the sibling with leukemia, ultimately rejects the idea that Anna should be a living sacrifice. Never Let Me Go draws poignance from the resignation with which organ donor children accept their fate.
The traditional Christmas narrative, built as it is around the idea of a child born to be a blood sacrifice, escapes our scrutiny only because it is so familiar—that, and the fact that the story is wrapped in the beauty and love and generosity and joyfulness that is the rest of the Christmas season. Many people, both Christians and not, emphasize parts of Christmastime that aren’t about the human sacrifice story, and despite complaints about mangers and nativity scenes disappearing, they have the right to do so. The holiday traditions handed down by our ancestors come in all sizes and shapes. And, as with everything else we’ve inherited, some fit and some don’t. Each of us decides which to leave in the basement as we unpack those we cherish, those that fill us with delight and inspiration.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.