Suffering Servant, the Circuit Breaker Print
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A former student wrote recently asking why sacrifices are necessary. By this I take it she meant ceremonial sacrifices. But let’s presume for a moment that such external ceremonial sacrifices are meant both to signify our devotion to God and to help put it into effect – for example, sacrificing meat on Fridays during Lent both signifies our devotion to God and also helps us discipline our appetites so that we can put into effect that devotion. Understood in this way, asking why we have ceremonial sacrifices is not unrelated to asking about the need for personal sacrifices.

I take it that most people understand why personal sacrifices are necessary. There is no love without sacrifice  without going out of yourself and putting another person’s needs before your own.  When we put the well being of others before our own, we sacrifice something we hold very dear: our own self-interests. When we put others first, we have to displace a very powerful force: our own ego. That sort of displacement is often painful – sometimes very much so – especially when we haven’t practiced it much.

I assign my students the task of asking their parents: “Did raising me ever involve any sacrifice?”  I’ve never had a student yet stupid enough not to know the answer to that question.  Indeed, it’s precisely because they know the answer all too well that they are so frightened of falling in love, getting married, and having children. These things makes life so. . .messy.  What they don’t see yet is that behind the mess, within the mess, is blessedness, beatitude.

And yet it’s one thing to sacrifice for our loved ones, quite another when it involves people we don’t know or like.  And what about sacrifice or suffering for our enemies – for  people who treat us badly?

It is at this point that I introduce my students to the crucial role in society played by a character I call “the circuit breaker.” You could call him “the suffering servant,” but since pious-sounding designations of this sort seem to push the “off” button in my student’s brains, I call him “the circuit breaker.” Here’s what he or she does.

It seems almost a natural law of physics that people, when treated badly, will often “pay it forward.” There is a good sense of that term (and a Kevin Spacey movie), but that’s not what I have in mind.  Rather, I have in mind is precisely the opposite of “paying forward” goodness. 

Let’s say you’re at work and your boss really lays into you for something you’ve done in front of your fellow workers. The problem with such interactions is that there is a crucial disparity in power involved. Your boss can lay into you, but you can’t “pay it back” to him or her because you’d probably lose your job. 

So what do you do?  Often enough, you pay it forward: you treat the clerk at the store with contempt, or your children find themselves taking a tongue lashing for little or no reason.  And then, because they have been dumped on by you, they “pay it forward” to the next powerless person they meet. The clerk treats other customers like the enemy; the family dog gets kicked; a younger sibling gets poked.  And so on and so forth, with each person “paying it forward” in an ever-expanding “vicious circle.” 

One person is connected to many others, and so just as infectious diseases spread readily from person to person, so too degradation and de-humanization can pass from person to person until they have become an unstoppable epidemic.  No one knows who threw the first punch, but the streets and stores and Internet “Comment” sections are filled with brawlers, primed and ready for a fight.

This is pretty much the natural fate of a society of fallen human beings unless someone rises to the occasion and elects to serve as a “circuit breaker”: that is, someone who breaks the vicious cycle by taking the hit, but then refusing to pay it forward to anyone else. He or she either pays it back to the person who has done the original injustice, willing to accept whatever suffering may result from that unequal power struggle, or, resolves at the very least not to pay it forward. I take the slap on the cheek, and I turn and offer the other as well. 

Why do I do that?  First, to show that my dignity has not been lost or diminished. And second, to offer the offender a moment to reconsider and perhaps even to reconcile, upon the realization that your courage and dignity remains, in spite of their anger and injustice. If the “victim” pays forward anything, it will only be a blessing, not the curse or the suffering heaped upon him or her.

Without “the circuit breaker” in a world of fallen human beings, no true community would be possible, and our lives would be (to quote Hobbes): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There is, in other words, a necessarily communal dimension of sacrifice – it makes community possible – and it can help us make sense of the communal ceremonials of sacrifice such as we find in the Old Testament.

So too, if God wanted to show us how any sort of human community could possibly take root in this world of fallen beings, how better than by coming in person Himself as one of these paradigmatic “circuit breakers”: one who takes the most outrageous and undeserved suffering upon Himself, but then pays forward only blessings.  He would then have become both the culmination of all those other sacrifices and the key to their true meaning.

Our job, then, would be to become like Him, working each in our own way as little circuit breakers to stop society’s natural vicious cycle, transforming it rather into a virtuous cycle of blessings paid forward.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Other Articles By This Author