Sacrifice? It’s just not our thing


By Frank Wessling

During President Obama’s televised press conference last week he was asked what “sacrifice” the American people might experience from a reform of the health insurance system. The president avoided using the word “sacrifice,” and responded by noting that sacrifices of a kind are already in the system through limitations and directives imposed by insurance companies as well as the limits that come from a lack of money.

But the notion of sacrifice itself seems appropriate as a frame for so much that was in the news during July. However, this wouldn’t be sacrifice as Jesus experienced it in showing us the way to eternal life. Our national attitude is more a grandiose self-pity that rises when we’re told we can’t have our favorite candy, or that something must change in our routine.

Where did the specter of sacrificial pain show up in the news? Three items: one somewhat petty, one dangerous and one a reminder of our tendency to avoid the real thing.

The petty: We might be asked to let the cell phone go unused while we’re driving. This simple, reasonable idea is considered so radical that a research project demonstrating that it would save lives, property and money was not allowed. It was thought to be a sacrifice too big for the American people to even consider.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002. Imagine what the numbers would be today, seven years and millions more phones later.

The cell phone has become such a “must have” for young people that they can’t stop using the device even in church, where young teens can be seen texting during the most solemn parts of Mass.

Yet when the NHTSA showed evidence to Congress of the danger in driving while phoning and asked for authorization to do a large, long-term study of the risk, they were rebuffed. Trying to do its job anyway, the agency did a small study, confirming what it already knew: the cell phone is a dangerous, sometimes fatal, distraction.

But we can’t make that official. Too much “sacrifice” of convenience and habit.

The dangerous: The National Rifle Association tried to get a federal law allowing people with concealed gun permits from any state to travel carrying their concealed weapons to any other state that allows such behavior. With great drama last week, the Senate rejected the idea by two votes — dramatic because of the fearsome way the NRA targets lawmakers who don’t follow its dictate.

The people who have to clean up the mess caused by guns — police and big-city mayors — plead in vain against the “self-defense” propaganda peddled by the NRA. Our march back to the wild frontier continues because there are enough lawmakers who believe their political life depends on it. They don’t want to sacrifice themselves any more than the gun industry wants to sacrifice sales.

Except as a tool for hunting, the gun today in our culture represents distrust and fear; the concealed weapon certainly so. Do religious people who support the NRA agenda realize how they contribute to distrust and fear? Probably not. It might be useful to wonder how the ministry of Mother Teresa would have worked if she had gone into desperate slums around the world armed with guns rather than compassionate love.

Avoiding real sacrifice: July 15 was the 30th anniversary of a speech by President Jimmy Carter popularly and derisively known as the “malaise” speech. Back in 1979 it was obvious that our dependence on foreign, especially Mideast, oil was a problem.

It was affecting our priorities, made us thoughtless energy hogs and polluters, and left us open to manipulation.

The economy was struggling, prices were high and the national mood was sour. Carter saw a “crisis of the spirit in our country” and tried to point out that our habit of over-consumption did not provide real freedom. It only allowed us to be self-indulgent. We no longer saw value in “what one does but by what one owns,” he noted, and asked for temporary sacrifices while we reconsidered the fundamental direction of our society.

Such a long-term view was too much for most of us. We turned away from the whiff of sacrifice, went on buying gas-guzzlers, and piled up ever higher national debt.

If the Christian understanding of sacrifice followed us out the door of church and into daily life, would things be different? Would there be more peace and less fear? More mutual aid and less self-indulgence? More thoughtful, healthy, faithful living?

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