A Noble Death

My son asked me a strange question this week, as inquisitive and experimental eleven-year-olds are bound to do. He asked if I would be willing to sacrifice his life so that world hunger could be appeased.

Nothing prepares you for the suddenness with which the childish question rushes in, arrests your train of thought, turns you upside down, and shakes you like a bully searching for hidden coins. Indeed, I felt molested by the horror of his inquiry, uncertain if I should respond with offended bemusement or paternal pride. In times like this, God confronts us with the perspective of the young that we may retain the novelty of creativity and awaken from the doldrums and trenches of adult habituation.

Assuming, therefore, the reality of the hypothetical, I pondered briefly, furrowing my brow and smoking my imaginary pipe in a way that attempted to bring gravity to the seriousness of his question. But it did not take long for me to tell him that I would not give him up to save the human race from the evil of hunger.

The ethical quandary is thick with implication, and with irony, prompting schools of response as virtue-centric as Aristotle, as utilitarian as Bentham, and deontological as Kant. Do the good of the many truly outweigh the good of the few? as Mr. Spock would claim. Is saving one life an intrinsic good? A useful good? What about all lives? Which duty comes first: the father or the brother—or the brotherhood of man? Further, should a Christian, tasked with loving his neighbor, be willing to sacrifice one neighbor for several others?

But in considering his conflicting responsibilities, the ethicist fails to understand, and therefore cannot explain, the relationship between father and son. My efforts here in this short space to defend my response, thus, will be wholly unsatisfactory to the objectivist critic.

First, I cannot save the mass of humanity, even temporarily. I fear I would make a terrible action hero—for my lack of grace as well as my lack of grace. To abort world hunger is a good, and one towards which humanity, and especially the Church, should labor. I do not know that we can achieve it universally, but we should certainly attempt the effort locally. It seems callous to say so, but many people will die of many kinds of maladies. To save from the sword today will still result in death by knife tomorrow. But let us say that I could save the many from more than just hunger; were it in my power to defeat cancer, war, pestilence, nuclear annihilation—even death itself—I still would not place my son on the altar of destruction.

Second, to sacrifice another’s life to champion a greater cause is as horrific as it is inhumane. This claim needs less unpacking, I assume, but perhaps we are still in need of instruction on this point. We are enamored by political causes these days, aspiring to a more perfect world. If we can create such a system where more die now so that a more just system can exist and fewer will die in the aggregate, then many assume shrinking statistics to be a worthy aim. Let us make the ideal omelet while cracking some very real eggs. The idealist becomes, in the short run, a fabulist, and in the long run, a diabolist. But were such an ideal to be achieved through the simple murder of one, were the gods to demand the choice between the world and one soul, I do not have the wisdom to choose nor the right to make that choice. If the masses could truly be saved with the death of the one, then let it fall upon me and not another.

Finally, one will object, but what about God? Did he not give up his own son for the lives of his creation? True, but the Son, we must remember, was a willing participant, an obedient servant—even while his resistance in the Garden was pressing in on him. Further, we must remember that such astounding love is to be imitated not in my sacrifice for the world but in my sacrifice for my neighbor. I am skeptical that I even hold the potential to love the world, even though I know this is the kind of love the Christ has for humanity. How can I love the neighbor I never meet? The neighbor divided from me by geography and time is faceless—and thus easy to love in principle, impossible to love in reality. Truly, I cannot love my unknown neighbor at all. Yet I know I must cultivate a spirit of love and generosity to the neighbor I hate so that I can also embrace the neighbor I newly meet.

Sacrifice begins at home, extends to work and play, but never reaches beyond my knowledge of my neighbor. Our social circles are the places wherein we practice charity. I do not love the world first before I love my son, nor can I say I love the world when I do not love my neighbor. It is through my neighbor that I learn charity—even and especially when he is difficult to love. It is here that I practice self-death.

And it is here that we merge the love of son and the love of the Son. St. Paul reminds us that for a good man someone might be willing to die but not for one’s enemies (Rom. 5:7-8). For the Father, then, to sacrifice the Son to a hateful, twisted human race speaks of a love I cannot comprehend. We delude ourselves if we think we are just good enough to be lovable. No, we are become a wretched creation, sick with our own self-centeredness, deserving of our consignment to the rubbish bin. Yet the Father and Son give up, temporarily, the relationship that makes them whole to build a family that makes all of us together whole. The Christ defeated death, the gravest of all evils. But death is still a baptism we must all undergo, not merely the mortification of the flesh but the suffering and self-denial of the soul, to achieve restoration and reconciliation.

At the end of the day, I could no more sacrifice my son to the sea of humanity than I could sacrifice the sea of humanity to an extraterrestrial species on the brink of death. Thankfully, I will never have to make this decision. Death is an evil, but it is not, thank Christ, an ultimate evil.