The Grip of Sacrifice

By Abel Merawi

SacrificeJanuary 27, 2020 ( -- In the late 1960s, the story of the criminal and cult leader Charles Manson shocked not just Americans but also the entire world. By establishing a racial cult known as the ‘Manson Family’, he made his followers commit a series of nine murders. When tried and convicted, none of his followers explicitly said that he ordered them to do the gruesome killings. They just confessed that they were following his ideology. His teaching demanded sacrifice, and they assumed that the sacrifice was necessary to prove their devotion to the cult. A story with a similar spirit occurred in Ethiopia about a decade ago when the witch doctor or ‘sorcerer’ named Tamirat had allegedly made people become his devotees. He lured them with the promise of fame and fortune, eventually making them ardent followers who were willing to sacrifice not only their possessions but also their loved ones into becoming his concubines. Even if we find these instances to be irrational and appalling, they are relics of the oldest traditions in human history. Demanding sacrifice from others is not unique to cult leaders; it is also a common feature of religions and nations as well. The famous author Harari thus states: “If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real.” Hereunder, we are going to explore the significance of sacrifice politicians and religious leaders exercise over people. We will also see the reasons behind sacrifice and how to rise above it.

Most religions plant the seeds of faith in the fertile soil of sacrifice. There is a recurrence of sacrifice in the Holy Scriptures and legends of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Rome, and Athens. It was common to make human and animal sacrifices to win the favor or plead against the wrath of the gods. In the classical literary works such as the works of Homer from Greek in the Iliad and Odyssey, we find great heroes making sacrifices to their gods before going to war and after victory or defeat. When we fast-forward to see modern religions, we also find sacrifice being a common feature. For example, Christianity is filled with such stories as found in the more famous story of Cain and Abel or in the story of Abraham. Another commonality amongst religions is that they demand the sacrifice of the very things held precious by people. In the case of making human sacrifices, most ancient religions chose it was the innocent children that should be sacrificed. In the case of animal and ornamental sacrifices, it was common to give up the best bull or the most precious jewelry. Let us put aside the reasons behind demanding the best sacrifice and explore what we are expected to sacrifice as a citizen of a nation.

Nations spread their ideologies through patriotic and nationalistic acts that demand sacrifice. Being a martyr for defending a country is taken as the highest and virtuous price citizens can pay. Harari claims, “self-sacrifice is extremely persuasive not just for the martyrs themselves, but also for the bystanders.” In other words, as evident in most cases, people endure pain and suffering to the point of death in order to defend a national myth or the personal agenda of politicians. It is said that Napoleon famously observed that he could make men sacrifice their lives for a colorful ribbon. Parents send their children to war with pride when it comes to defending the values of a nation or even an ethnic group. Those who have sacrificed their loved ones and themselves to a national cause cease doubting the essence of the nation and pledge an undying loyalty and support. The following words of Harari clearly show the way sacrifice operates:

“When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true.”

Most of the time, people refuse to believe that they have sacrificed the people they love and the things they value for a false belief. Thus, they prefer to sacrifice even more rather than accepting their wrong assumptions. In ancient times, after sacrificing their children and valuable objects for a god, people find it impossible to question the existence of their god because it implies that they have lost everything for nothing. In the case of nations, no one wants to admit that their children died in a meaningless war in the name of patriotism. They rather let another child go and fight in the same war than admit that the cause for their loss is wrong. Harari argues against this by stating, “If you suffer because of your belief in God or in the nation, that does not prove that your beliefs are true.” It is the same with national projects that demand public financing. Most of the time national projects that promise people prosperity end up costing more time and more money than initially planned. Yet people continue supporting the project because they have already sacrificed enough to see it go to ruin. The ‘Renaissance Dam’ underway in Ethiopia is a prime example. The project began with an ambitious completion period of five years, and most people sacrificed their income for the sake of the project. Sadly, it still has not reached completion and still demands more sacrifice from the same people. No one wants to back out now because much has been sacrificed already. Thanks to a heartless game of politicians, people are unable to forsake the dream or see its completion. Therefore, since it is difficult to reverse things after making some sacrifices, the wise thing to do is evaluate our choices carefully before making the first commitment.

Knowing how something works is essentially the first step in finding a way to deal with it. Once we know that politicians and religious leaders demand collective sacrifices from us in order to make their story acceptable, we will see it as a choice whether to follow it or not. Here, it is important to know that making sacrifices is part of life and it is also necessary to accomplish one’s goal. As Maya Angelou says, you can only be great at the thing you are willing to sacrifice for because success demands devotion. Thus, it is not the sacrifice per se that is the issue here, but the reasons behind it. We should not be tricked like children into accepting the ideologies of others without first examining it ourselves. At the very least, we must first know what we are accepting as truth before getting trapped in the grip of sacrifice.  


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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