Sacrifice features to varying degrees of prominence in all the religions of Africa. The other articles in this issue give us a basis for noting many differences, similarities and common traits. The comparative awareness of the authors has allowed them to see and point out certain features which might otherwise have escaped notice because they are less conspicuous in the religion being treated, e.g. Islam.

What are the common features of sacrifice in the various religions? What is the meaning and interconnection of these features, on the psychological, social and theological levels? Can any adequate definition be formulated to reflect the complex reality of sacrifice in multiple religious traditions?

To attempt to answer these questions requires attention to the full panorama of sacrifice in its various forms in the various religions, and the use of an appropriate conceptual framework to interpret this data from the perspective of theology and the human sciences.

With the date of the other articles in mind, we can first search for a definition of sacrifice, and then see briefly how it applies to each of the religious traditions.

Search for a definition

Psychological foundations

The word sacrifice, as Mala observes, is often used for the foregoing of some lesser good for the sake of achieving a higher good for oneself, such as gaining an education or a good post, or for another, such as the success of one's children and the welfare of one's parents, town or country. Properly, however, the word applies to a religious action.

Our experience of the divine always reflects our human experience. We may think of God as a friend or a tyrant, a father or even a mother. If we have experienced love and generous interaction with our fellow humans we may look for something similar from God. If our experience with others has been negative we may either think that God is also evil and run from him or we may see him as different and better than our enemies and turn to him for compensation, redress and healing. (1)

In human relationships the attitude of the junior, less powerful and inferior partner to one who is senior, more powerful and superior is not usually mature, frank and open. There lurks an element of rear, even when relations are most cordial and smooth, which leads to sycophancy, outward conformity and a desire to keep the superior happy and well disposed so as to enjoy his continued benevolence. The fact of the matter is that human relationships usually have an element of infantilism in them, even though we aspire to mature relationships characterized by truthfulness, trust and the absence of fear.

So it is in our relationship with God. More often than not, among followers of all religions, there is an infantile stage of looking to God as a master who must be placated when angry and bribed for his favour. Sacrifice is one of the chief means of doing this. (2)

But let us look at religion in its ideal, as it is maturely understood and practised. mature religion is founded on mature human interaction, which is characterized by the demands of both strict justice, especially with strangers, and of gratitude for gifts freely given. We are indebted first to our parents for bringing us to life and raising us, secondly to our elders and community leaders who have provided good conditions of life for us, and lastly to friends and benefactors who help us in more ordinary ways. (3)

Human gratitude expresses itself in returning something to the benefactor. Repayment is not usually in the same coin, but consists, in the case of our parents or elders, in honour and reverence, and for other benefactors in a word of thanks. The law of gratitude requires: 1) an immediate expression of thanks, 2) an attempt to repay our benefactors at an appropriate time according to their needs and our ability, and 3) a bid to outdo them in generosity, if by no other way than our prayers.

Gratitude in human affairs is the fundamental model for talking about our relationship with God. but in human affairs it often happens that we are also indebted to our neighbour because of injuries to him or his property. Likewise our relationship with God can be disturbed by our evil actions and we think we owe him something in compensation. This is a secondary feature of our indebtedness to God.

What we have received from God (or through spirits according to A.T.R.), beginning with our very life, is much greater than what we receive from humans. Likewise an offence against God is far graver than an offense against other humans. Of ourselves we are in no position to make adequate repayment to God for what we owe. We always remain totally in debt.

All the religions of our survey, therefore, express our moral reaction to this consciousness of indebtedness. Our reaction is fundamentally one of submission and obedience. Ideally this engages the total dedication of ourselves to God and an eagerness to do all that he might ask of us. No outward gift can substitute for or take the place of this attitude. Moreover, any outward attempt to repay God in the slightest way for what he has done for us is limited by two considerations: 1) Whatever we have of our selves to give cannot reduce our indebtedness in any way, 2) Whatever we have to give benefits God in no way. Our gift expresses our dedication to God, but benefits only ourselves and our neighbours. This is clearest in the Islamic tradition, and least clear in the case of sacrifice to the intermediate spirits in A.T.R.

In spite of such hesitations of our reflective intelligence, our bodily nature requires us to show our gratitude and submission to God in an outward palpable way, including setting aside some of our most prized possessions, if not for God himself, at least for his worship and honour. In a wider, indirect sense anything done for God's sake can be called a sacrifice, such as giving alms or fasting. But strictly speaking, sacrifice is something set aside for no other purpose but God's honour.

The primary purpose of sacrifice is to accept and recognize God's supreme and total rule over our lives. At the same time its expresses our thanks for all he has given us, seeks his pardon for our offenses, and asks his blessings on us in all our needs.

The religious context of sacrifice

Already we see that our indebtedness and consequent gratitude to God finds a variety of expressions, not all of them sacrifice, at least directly. (4) Attachment to the Lord and eagerness to serve him leads us to pray interiorly Outwardly it leads us to praise God with our voices, lift our hands, bend our knees, bow or prostrate, whichever helps raise our mind to God or makes us aware of our lowliness before him. We may even look for a church or shrine or sacred place to pray in because of its sacred atmosphere and the association of other people in praying to God.

Sacrifice, however, has to do with an external thing which we dedicate to God's service. Even here we must be more specific. As was said before, any good done directly to our neighbour or even ourselves (e.g. self-discipline; cf. Romans 12:1), if it is done for love of God, is only indirectly a sacrifice (though not thereby of lesser value).

Besides, a variety of contributions or offerings are given directly to a religious body and used for building, furnishing or maintaining the place of worship, supporting the priests and other attendants, or used to help the poor. Of these offerings some are given without any religious ceremony or ritual. For example, in the O.T. there was the compulsory payment of tithes which were given directly to the Levites (Num 18:24) or the poor (Deut 14:29). Tithes are parallel to the Islamic zakât, which is given in a fixed measure at fixed times of the year directly to community leaders or the poor without any religious ceremony or formal dedication to God. Likewise in the Church today offerings are sometimes made in a purely secular way, such as by bank transfer.

It is more usual, however, for offerings to be made in the context of worship. thus in the O.T. first fruits were first dedicated to God and only afterwards handed over to the priests (Num 18:12) or shared with the Levites and strangers (Deut 26:2-11). In Christianity the bringing of gifts has formed part of the Eucharistic liturgy at least from the time of the Didache. For Islam, it is interesting to see in Nigeria the introduction of a collection during the Jumu`a service.

All such contributions, whether within or without a worship service, are not yet sacrifices in the strict sense. For a gift to become a sacrifice normally something is done to it, such as killing an animal, burning the offering, pouring blood, breaking and eating bread. If a gift is presented and then transferred intact for some other purpose it is an offering or oblation, but not a sacrifice.

We can conclude that there are four types of religious contributions:

  1. Any kind of good deed done for anyone for God's sake; this is a sacrifice in an indirect sense.
  2. A payment made under religious precept to the ministers of religion, the poor or for other purposes, without any formal dedication to God or religious ceremony.
  3. Offerings made to God in a formal religious rite, and then transferred intact to some other approved use.
  4. Offerings presented to God in a religious ceremony which includes their destruction or consumption.

A sacrifice in the strict sense can then be defined as a gift presented to God in a religious ceremony which includes a destruction or consumption of the gift; this outward offering is a symbol of the internal offering of oneself to God by way of commitment and surrender, for the primary purpose of acknowledging God's mastery over one's life. At the same time it functions to reconcile the offerer with God, to thank him for particular benefits and to obtain particular blessings.

Application to the religious traditions

African Traditional Religion

Writers such as Idowu, Awolalu and Adewale stress the principle that sacrifice in A.T.R. primarily expresses one's subjection to God and is a tribute to his overlordship. god is first and man is subordinate to him.

This principle has been challenged by writers such as Ogungbemi, who maintain that for many, if not the majority of worshippers, man is first and God is honoured only to the extent that he fits into man's scheme of needs. (5)

This may be a just critique of religious practice, not only in A.T.R. but also in Christianity and Islam, as it certainly was in O.T. Judaism, as evidenced by the prophetic condemnations of ritual worship without interior love of God and the practice of justice to one's neighbour.

The idea of A.T.R., however, if we accept the thesis of Idowu and his school, is that God is truly primary. Offerings to him are not bribes used to bend his will in a bargaining process. Nor are they something god or the divinities need for feeding or any other vital function. They merely acknowledge his supremacy and ask his blessing, just as did the sacrifices of O.T. Judaism.

Old Testament Judaism (6)

For O.T. Judaism sacrifice is an act of worship made to God exclusively as the creator and first source of all things. It cannot be made to any other spirits or traditional divinities designated as "false gods".

The simplest, and perhaps earliest, form of sacrifice was one of agricultural products, as the offering of Cain (Gen 4:3), the bread and wine of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18) and the later established sacrifice called hxnm (Lev 2:1-16).

Animal sacrifices from an early date became the more standard or usual form of sacrifice. For the Jews blood was the life or soul of an animal (Lev 17:10-11, Deut 12:23). It belonged to God alone (Gen 4:10, 9:4), so that Jews were forbidden to use blood in making food, but had to pour it away. The principal element of an animal sacrifice seems to have been not the killing but the pouring of the collected blood on the altar. In that way the life of the animal was offered back to God from whom it had come, and symbolically the person having the sacrifice offered presented his own life to God. This offering was expressed in the most intense way in the holocaust, in which the whole animal was burned (Lev 1:1-17, 6:1-6, 22:17-20). Normally, however, the meat was consumed by the priest and offerers, whether in communion sacrifices (xvz, Lev 7:11-34, 3:1-17) or in expiatory sacrifices (mva hajx Lev 4:1- 5:13, 6:17-30).

The Prophets stressed the moral state of the offerer's heart, preferring, in Hebrew hyperbolic disjunctive, obedience and mercy to outward sacrifice (Amos 4:4-5, 5:21-2, Hosea 5:6, 8:11-13, Micah 6:6-9, Is 1:11-15, 66:3-4, Jer 6:20, 7:21-2 etc., Ps 40:6-8, 69:31, 50, 51).

A novel concept of sacrifice began with the suffering-servant songs in Isaiah, that human suffering and death voluntarily accepted can be offered vicariously for others (Is 42:1-9, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13- 53:12; see also 2 Mac 7:32-38). This is the key transition point to the New Testament.

New Testament sacrifice

Like the Prophets of the O.T., the N.T. stresses love over rituals (Mt 9:13, 12:7).

The core idea of the N.T., however, is that Jesus sacrificed himself for us in obedience to the Father to take away our sins and redeem us all (Mt 20:28, Mk 10:45, Jn 10:17-18, 1 Cor 5:7, Rm 3:25, 5:8-9, Eph 1:7, 5:2,25, Col 1:20, Phil 2:5-11, Gal 2:20, 1 Tim 2:6, Heb 2:14-15, 9:12-14, 10:10, 13:12, 1 Jn 2:2, 3:16, 4:10 etc.). Jesus offered himself not in substitution for us as different and other from himself, but for us as his own kin (Heb 2:14-18) and members of his won body (1 Cor 6:15, 12:12-27, Col 1:18, 2:19, Eph 1:22-23, 5:23).

The idea of redemption by solidarity was explained by Thomas Aquinas in these words: (7)

Grace was given to Christ not just as a single person, but as he is head of the Church, so that from him grace would permeate his members.

This is important in combatting the substitution theory common in the medieval West and repeated in Muslim repudiation of the idea of redemption by Christ, because it is true that merit or penalty cannot be simply transferred from one to someone who is altogether other. Those who are mystically part of Christ benefit from his sacrifice. Christians commune in this sacrifice through the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:14-22, Jn 6:51-58, Heb 13:10), and it is in this context that we can understand our own interaction with the sacrifice of Jesus.

Eucharistic commemoration (8)
Do this in remembrance of me... Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:24,26)

Just as the Passover feast not only recalled the Exodus but celebrated the ever recurring today of that event and the actualization of the Covenant on Sinai, so the Eucharist not only recalls Jesus' death but makes really present the Christ who suffered and rose, "the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb 13:8). He is the High Priest who offered his life-blood on the cross and through his resurrection entered the heavenly Holy of Holies where he continues his eternal priestly action of presenting himself to the Father and interceding for us (cf. Heb 7:24-25).

Jesus' internal act of offering, initiated at his conception, anticipated at the Last Supper, actualized on the cross, and continuing forever as his priesthood is eternal, becomes present under the visible signs of bread and wine when a member of the Church who has been given a special share in his priesthood by ordination acts in his name. In this action the entire assembly exercise their general share of Jesus' priesthood given in baptism, and all offer to the Father the everlasting sacrificial act of Jesus made present before them. In this way the sacrifice of Jesus becomes the sacrifice of the Church. The Church offers the Father Jesus himself and the infinite value of his own offering.

At the same time the participants become beneficiaries of his sacrifice. According to the ancient prayer for the seventh Sunday after the Octave of Trinity (as the Sundays were then reckoned, now used n the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time), "whenever the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is enacted."

The Eucharistic commemoration is not simply a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus. It envelops as well the entire lives of the participants. Peter's lofty description of the priesthood of all the baptized who make "spiritual sacrifices" and "sing the praises of God" (1 Pet 2:4-10) is concretized by Paul who describes the help that the Philippians gave him as "a pleasing smell, the sacrifice which is acceptable and pleasing to God" (Phil 4:18). All these sacrifices in the wide sense, which really should include everything that a Christian does, are also re-presented in the Eucharistic commemoration, united with the sacrifice of Jesus and offered "through him, with him, in him" to the Father.

The Eucharistic commemoration thus is a cosmic communion, uniting not only the participants in a particular celebration, but bringing them into a mystical sharing with the whole realm of those redeemed by Jesus from the beginning of time.


Islamic law prescribes the killing of an animal, usually a ram, at the time of the yearly pilgrimage, and recommends the same after the birth of a child. (9) The Qur'ân gives no hint that the animal or its blood is offered to God. In fact blood, in Islam, is not the sacred element it is in Judaism, but is something unclean. Nevertheless Tradition recommends saying, "Lord, receive [this sacrifice] from us." (10)

The `Îd al-adhâ sacrifice is sometimes associated in Tradition literature - not in the Qur'ân - with Abraham's accepting to sacrifice his son, but this appears to be a mere footnote to the celebration, and hardly any legal commentary mentions it. Furthermore, although Abraham's sacrifice is said to have been offered in substitution for his son (Q. 37:107), there is no suggestion in the `Id al-adhâ rites that the animal substitutes for the offerer. Only modern commentators develop the ideas of substitution (Yusuf Ali) or expiation (Doi), as was pointed out by Mala.

Nevertheless the popular belief, particularly in Africa, is that an animal is sacrificed as an offering to God to thank him for his blessings and expiate sins.

What really makes the event a sacrifice, however, is the fact that a person slaughters an animal in obedience to God and as a sign of his subjection to him. The crucial Qur'ân verse for interpreting the act is: "It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches God. It is your piety that reaches him" (2:37).

Coming to sacrifice in the wider senses, Islam is replete with the idea. Muslims are urged to pray, pay the zakât and even give their lives, if necessary, for the promotion of Islam. This is construed as a "loan" to God. (11)


Sacrifice, in the concrete practice of religion, can be an immature attempt to placate or bribe God or other divinities. but a mature relationship, where one honestly recognizes his indebtedness to God, also finds expression in various types of sacrifice.

The indirect type of sacrifice - putting oneself out to meet the material or spiritual needs of our neighbour for the sake of God - is stressed in all the religions reviewed as the necessary validating fibre of the everyday life of the believer. Sacrifice in the strict formal sense of destroying something in acknowledgement of god's mastery over life is found in all these religions, but is a special event recapitulating the continuous indirect sacrifices.

Apart from this, the religions differ widely in the form and frequency of sacrifice. In the O.T. there were special sacrifices for certain feasts, but also the daily morning and evening sacrifices of both animals and incense. In A.T.R. sacrifices we have a wider variety of form, from chickens, dogs and goats to palm wine, and the frequency is determined by special occasions or crises in the people's lives. In Islam only specific animals may be sacrificed and the occasions are strictly specified. In Christianity there is the single sacrifice of Jesus, but which is re-presented in the Eucharistic commemoration. This may take place daily, but it is celebrated with greater solemnity on Sundays and special feasts.

Sacrifice is negative, the destruction of a good thing made by God. Its value is that it expresses the desire of the offerer to lose his life and all that he has in order to gain life in union with God. That is worthwhile.


1. For some discussion of the psychology of sacrifice see Otto Semmelroth, "Concept of sacrifice," in Karl Rahner (ed.), Sacramentum Mundi (Herder & Herder, 1970), vol. 5, pp. 388-91.

2. Sigmund Freud develops this idea in The future of an illusion, in his Complete psychological works, tr. J. Strachey, vol. 21 (London: Hogarth, 1961), ch. 4, having discussed sacrifice in the context of a complex and dubious totemistic theory in his Totem and taboo (ed. cit., vol. 13).

3. For a detailed discussion of gratitude see Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 106, art. 1.

4. On the various acts of religion, of which sacrifice is one, see ibid., q. 82-91. On sacrifice in particular, see also A. Gaudel, "Sacrifice," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 14-1, pp. 662-692.

5. S. Ogungbemi, "A philosophical reflection on the religiosity of the traditional Yoruba," Orita, 18:2 (December 1986), pp. 61-67; for a practical example of the author's thesis cf. in the same issue P.R. McKenzie, "William Moore on a case of slave-raiding and Ifa in 1881," pp. 68-77.

6. Cf. Rudolf Schnackenburg, "Sacrifice," in J.B. Bauer (ed.), Encyclopedia of Biblical theology (N.Y.: Sheed & Ward, 1970), vol. 3, pp. 800-807, and A. Gaudel, op. cit.

7. Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., III, q. 48, art. 1.

8. Cf. Josef Jungmann, The Mass, a historical, theological and pastoral survey (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1976). See also the surprisingly good essay of C.C. Jung, "Transformation symbolism in the Mass," in his Collected Works (N.Y.: Bollingen, 1958), vol. 20, pp. 201-221.

9. Cf. Ibn-abî-Zayd al-Qayrawânî, ar-Risâla, printed with the commentary of Ahma