Sacrifice and Suffering, Scripture and the State: Americans' Pursuit of Divine Meaning in Times of War

AHA Session 39
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
John W. Stauffer, Harvard University
Sponsored by the AHA Working Group on Religion, Peace, and Violence
Jennifer Graber, College of Wooster

Session Abstract

From the burnt offerings of ancient Israel to the self-abnegations of the Christian testament, the sacred texts cherished by many Americans contain the recurring message that sacrifice brings the faithful closer to God.  Historically, these ideas of sacrifice have become especially prominent and complicated in times of political conflict and war.  Is subordination of one’s personal sense of morality to "the powers that be" comparable to the submission one’s will to the commands of God?  Is laying down one’s life for the state as holy an act as dying for the Lord?  Do the scriptural teachings on sacrifice even apply in the political arena?  Americans have repeatedly wrestled with these questions when called on by their country and their culture to sacrifice for their nation.  This session explores the historical implications of those struggles.

The first paper considers the ways in which Americans used the example of Abraham and Isaac—the Bible’s ultimate story of mortal sacrifice— to make sense of the sectional crisis and Civil War.  Some invoked it to explain their compliance with the unjust Fugitive Slave Act; others employed it to account for their willingness to send their innocent young men into battle.  The story was widely cited in the political discourse of this period and contested in a variety of ways that shed light on nineteenth-century conceptions of sacrifice and citizenship.  The second paper considers the disparity between Civil War-era discussions of slain soldiers, which typically demonstrated a high degree of theological scrupulosity in leaving the question of their salvation unanswered, and the post-war hagiographies of the fallen, which seemed utterly confident that those who had died in this cause had found their reward in heaven.  To explain this difference, the paper chronicles the widespread wartime belief that service to one’s country offered a promising opportunity for conversion but did not, of itself, affect one’s standing with God.  Finally, the third paper considers  the ways in which American soldiers in World Wars I and II were compared to Jesus Christ; that is, just as Christ was the suffering embodiment of God’s will, soldiers were the suffering embodiment of the state’s will.  This paper, which has a transatlantic scope, will specifically consider how this notion played out in the public commemoration of these wars.

In each case, the papers address the debate over whether sacrifice for the state has divine meaning.  They engage this matter in different contexts and different ways, but their angles of approach are complementary.  Ultimately, the session will expose the centrality of this debate as it played out in some of the most historically significant conflicts in American history.

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