My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51)
The ceremony is described in detail. After days of fasting from food and water, the scalpel slices two openings on the arm, chest or back and a peg is slipped under the skin. Eventually this peg will be ripped through the skin, taking with it a piece of flesh. That piece of flesh is wrapped up and given as a sacred offering.
We have been studying The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew, the book selected by our Bishop for Lenten study across the diocese of Niagara. The sundance ceremony, of which the act of piercing is a part, is understood as deeply spiritual and becomes powerfully linked to the healing of individuals, families and communities who have lived for decades with the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, who have had language and religion systematically taken away from them. “I could tell you many things about the sundance,” Kinew writes. “That it is a ceremony of thanksgiving, and that after fasting for four days we pierce our flesh. I could explain that we do this because we believe the only meaningful thing we can offer to the Creator of all that exists is a little piece of ourselves.”
The reactions in our study group have been interesting. Many admitted that the descriptions were hard to read and the slicing and ripping of skin was more than they wanted to imagine. However, the conversation then went deeper into reflections on suffering, into the question of whether the sacrifice of personal comfort—sacrifice even at the cost of suffering—should have a place in religion.
“God doesn’t want us to suffer,” was a common refrain. And this may be true. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” God says through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6). “I come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus promises, and that is the accepted wisdom of today. The Gospel is Good News: it is about the claiming of joy, it is freedom from sin, it is no longer being bound to the old order of needing to earn God’s love and acceptance. God doesn’t require any thing but rather gives and loves freely. God certainly doesn’t require a piece of our flesh.
I don’t disagree with this conclusion. But Wab Kinew’s willingness to invest himself in his relationship with God with his whole body nonetheless made me question what has become the conventional Christian practice of today. We have a tendency to read onto Jesus a generic self-help quest for personal fulfilment, attaching to Jesus the bland and all-encompassing motto of “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.” Perhaps this allows us to better fit with the general cultural standard that is willing to tolerate religious practice, as long as it remains safely in the realm of the private and polite. The only witness to the power of redemptive suffering that carries mainstream acceptability is in the secular religions of diet, exercise and sport. We willingly accept “no pain, no gain” for attaining an ideal body weight and dropping a dress size; and we pay millions to those who, for example, are willing to get their heads pile-driven into the ground for our football entertainment, and if the cost is life-long brain damage, well at least they lived for the dream. Yet we so roundly dismiss any whiff of sacrifice from the realm of religion that even Lenten disciplines can be frowned upon. A friend of mine was attacked on Facebook a few years ago for sharing that she had given up chocolate for Lent. “God doesn’t want you to suffer!” her combatant cyber-yelled at her.
And yet, if it is love that God truly requires of us, is there really a way of offering this to God without some element of sacrifice? From the animal sacrifices of the Hebrew Scriptures, to the calls to repentance and fasting and the wearing of sackcloth, to the body of Christ pierced and whipped and hanging on the cross and Jesus’ very clear call to his followers to likewise “take up your cross and follow me,” there are practices of sacrifice woven through the practice and the story of our faith. Our own experience firmly corroborates this Scriptural wisdom. It isn’t just diet, exercise and sports that require sacrifice to show results. Even laying aside the more heroic acts of sacrifice that throughout history and around the globe have allowed lives to be saved, freedom to be gained, and movements to be championed, on just a purely personal level we know that there simply isn’t any way of investing ourselves in love—being a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbour—without regularly putting our personal comfort and desires to the side for the sake of other. When I consider all of the people, the goals, the values for which I am prepared to endure some level of personal sacrifice, it seems a small step from there to imagine that my devotion to God likewise invites the putting aside of my own comfort, my own needs, my own will, my own desire, in order to be more true and clear, and therefore to enable a stronger and deeper connection of love.
I am not advocating that Christians adopt the practice of piercing (although another remarkable part of Kinew’s book is the descriptions of welcome and hospitality and inclusion for non-Indigenous people within their communities and traditions). I am also not suggesting the institution of religious traditions that require pain and suffering as some sort of proof of commitment or requirement by God. But I do think Wab’s understanding of sacrifice is beautiful and can challenge us outside of our religious comfort zone. I think, for example, of our Christian story of Jesus anointed at Bethany—perhaps by an unnamed woman, perhaps by his friend Mary. She shocks and upsets Jesus’ male followers by abandoning all protocol and all common sense to break open the most costly thing she owns and to pour that perfumed oil over one that she loves. This tearing of flesh, this anointing with oil, is an offering of love, reminding us that God’s love is freely given, and the great gift of our humanity is that we can reciprocate, we can love in return.
What is most challenging, however, about Wab Kinew’s descriptions of piercing and sundance is not the act of love offered, but rather what becomes possible as sacrifice and love meet. As his people fast and dance and sing and see visions and offer themselves to their Creator, healing of the most miraculous kind takes place across his family, across his community, and most stunning of all, healing and reconciliation is extended outward from his community even to the institutions that caused such trauma and took so much from the First Nations’ people and from Wab’s own family. The book rings with truth that does more that illuminate Wab’s faith, it illuminates my faith too. Our Christian faith does need to be liberated from the safe realm of the private and polite and to connect our love for God with sacrificial living that dares to carry communal implications. Our devotion to the Creator should implicate our voices to speak out, our bodies to act out, for the life of the planet, the air we breathe, the water we need, the land we live on, our neighbours who are suffering.
There are and should be religious practices of sacrifice which are not about earning God’s love and which are distinctly different from the sacrifices we make for diet and exercise because they are about the building and healing of community, the extension of hospitality, the move from individual to relationship. The truth of the sundance, in the end, might be named by Christians as Eucharistic. We, too, are called in some small way to see in the bread and the wine as offering, an offering of a piece of ourselves, which we then enact by coming forward, out of our own realms of self-concern, to place ourselves once more before God and as we offer ourselves, to receive the flesh and blood of our Lord, our offering lifted into his offering and our lives no longer merely our own. It is not the tearing of flesh, but it is that physical reminder that love costs something, that we are capable of pure and wild and extravagant devotion, that God can use this extravagant devotion and this costly love to enact healing and truth.