Suffering As Sacrifice

Christian women trying to balance their own ambitions and needs with those of family and colleagues may discover in Stephanie Golden's new book, Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, something they have always suspected: how deeply embedded in their tradition is the idea that a "good woman is a sacrificing one."

Golden, an independent scholar and writer, begins with an incident from her own work with the homeless. While working at a shelter run by five nuns, she watched a fellow volunteer persuade the sisters to give up one after another of their very limited pleasures—in order to "become one" with the women they served. Already living in the shelter and dressing in donated clothing, the nuns reached farther, to fast on fruit and water so their poorer friends could have more food, and to give up both vacations and friends outside their little community. On the brink of cutting off contact with their families as well, the nuns came to their senses, rejected the influence of the volunteer who had so aggressively recommended these measures, and asked him to leave. Some were so shaken by the experience of having been forced to choose between altruism and mental health that they left the shelter permanently.

With this parable in mind, Golden examines the genesis and growth of the idea that women are peculiarly responsible for others' happiness. The word sacrifice simply means to make sacred, but the practice of sacrifice in the ancient world, a usually communal act in which material goods were set aside and offered to a deity, may have had a variety of purposes. Its central one was to unify communities and maintain their connection with divinity, but other purposes may have included creating a reciprocal obligation on the part of the god and expiating sin.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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