Religions (May 2021)

The Persistence of Sacrifice as Self-Sacrifice and Its Contemporary Embodiment in the 9/11 Rescuers and COVID-19 Healthcare Professionals

  • Javier Gil-Gimeno,
  • Celso Sánchez Capdequí

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12, no. 5
p. 323


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The aim of this paper is to analyze the persistence of sacrifice as self-sacrifice in contemporary societies. In order to reach this goal, firstly, we discuss how in the Axial Age (800–200 B.C.E.) an understanding of sacrifice as ritual worship or a ritual practice that involves the immolation of a victim became less prevalent and a new understanding of sacrifice emerges. This new notion of sacrifice focuses on individual relinquishment and gift exchange, that is, on a person sacrificing or relinquishing him/herself as a gift that is given in an exchange relationship for protecting a greater good (a god, a community, a person, a nation, and so on). Secondly, we analyze how this new sacrifice formula had an important impact on the understanding of sacrifice. Most notably, it led people to conceptualize sacrifice as a project or as something that persons could intentionally embrace. Thirdly, and as a result of the previous processes, we attend to the secularization of sacrifice, not in the sense of a de-sacralization of this phenomenon but in the way of sacralization of the mundane realm and mundane things, such as intentional self-sacrificial acts, in social contexts where there is religious pluralism. Insight into how the notion of sacrifice is secularized is found throughout the classic works of Marcel Mauss and Georg Simmel, and these works are discussed in section three. Fourthly, we study the sacredness of the person as a clear type of secular religiosity that develops self-sacrificial forms. Two of these self-sacrificial forms are the actions of 9/11 rescuers and COVID-19 healthcare professionals. A short analysis of both will serve us to illustrate how self-sacrifice is embodied in contemporary societies.