I’ve had the idea of sacrifice on my mind recently, so I wanted to share some insights from the Baha’i teachings that can illuminate the sacrificial qualities conducive to a life of transformative action.
As I’ve grown to the ripe old age of 33, become more established and more entangled in family responsibilities, I’m finding it less and less practical to give myself over wholly to some worthwhile cause.
My life is filled with a lot of hard work and care for my loved ones. But what I’m doing doesn’t necessarily transform the world. It doesn’t create new forms of social existence, or galvanize large numbers of people for collective action. Drawing so deeply into private life can be discouraging when it is obvious that the social and spiritual change the world needs requires personal sacrifice.
Whether it comes to issues surrounding the environment, economic inequality, the spiritual suffocation of materialism, the oppression of whole groups based race, gender, religion, or other markers of identity—somebody, somewhere, somehow needs to set aside their current ways of doing things to contribute to the social and spiritual well-being of the world. That requires sacrifice. We can’t just take the easy way out.
But questions of who should sacrifice what, and when, why and how they should do it are far more difficult to settle. After all, sacrifice is hard. If you’re going to do it or call on others to do it, you need to articulate a persuasive vision of what it would accomplish—especially if they’re starting to get stuck in their ways like I am.
The Baha’i teachings offer fresh insights into the true meaning of sacrifice that can help us answer these hard questions, and that are broadly useful for meeting today’s social and spiritual challenges. Rather than seeing sacrifice merely as loss or deprivation, the Baha’i teachings frame sacrifice as an exchange of one hierarchy of values for a new one that’s more spiritually enriching than the old:
It is appropriate and befitting that in this illumined age—the age of the progress of the world of humanity—we should be self-sacrificing and should serve the human race. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 68.
Insights into these new spiritual principles will change not only how motivated we are to make a sacrifice, but also the content of that sacrifice.
In a talk Abdu’l-Baha delivered in 1912 in New York City, he outlined four meanings of sacrifice. Speaking to an audience in a predominantly Christian country, he referred in each case to the life of Jesus. On the one hand, Abdu’l-Baha used the concept of sacrifice to clarify the identity and mission of Jesus, and on the other hand, he unfolded the concept of sacrifice using Jesus as his prime example. By identifying sacrifice so strongly with the example of Jesus, he implicitly associated the practice of sacrifice with the work of individual and collective redemption so central to Jesus’ mission—and Abdu’l-Baha’s and our own, for that matter.
The first meaning of sacrifice, Abdu’l-Baha said, involves the hardship and hostility someone can face when they arise to advance a just cause. Even if we have not personally sacrificed for something we believe in, most of us can think of people we admire from the past or the present and the suffering they endured for a higher good. Looking back, we can see the benefits that came from their perseverance through ordeals. While we may have different challenges and goals than previous generations, we can still draw courage from the example of those who sacrificed on our behalf. Abdu’l-Baha wrote of Jesus:
He realized that His blood would be shed and His body rent by violence. Notwithstanding His knowledge of what would befall Him, He arose to proclaim His message, suffered all tribulation and hardships from the people and finally offered His life as a sacrifice in order to illumine humanity—gave His blood in order to guide the world of mankind. He accepted every calamity and suffering in order to guide men to the truth. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 450.
This kind of sacrifice means that our actions for a higher purpose can have painful consequences in our lives: speaking up for justice when it could jeopardize our career or educational success, devoting an entire life to the service of others even when it endangers that life, and other selfless deeds of that nature. Not only are such actions hard to do, they can be controversial, even among people who sympathize with the overarching goals.
Because of the negative consequences that can follow, it’s important that the burden of sacrifice isn’t carried exclusively by those who already have much hardship in their lives; the poor, the harassed, and the desperate. They’ve got enough to worry about already. Instead, those of us with a measure of security in our lives need to step up.
For Abdu’l-Baha, the second meaning of sacrifice means embodying divine qualities: love, wisdom, compassion, generosity, etc., making God’s spirit present in the world. He said that Christian theologians have misunderstood the nature of Jesus Christ by thinking that divinity has sacrificed itself by coming into the world in a physical form; that a divine person has lowered himself into flesh and blood. For Baha’is, Jesus’ sacrifice is not just an obscure metaphysical mystery for contemplation or merely belief—instead, the descent of God’s spirit in the world happens through the marvelous love Jesus demonstrated in his life.