Chez Kimball, we are spending part of most evenings reading The Iliad aloud. I wish I could say that we are doing it in the original Greek, but no—we are reading Richmond Lattimore’s translation, which was published in 1951. Other translations are more popular than Lattimore’s, but I think it is the best English translation because it manages to preserve something of the primitive current of Homer’s verse.
In any event, whatever version you choose, you cannot read far into Homer without being struck by the prevalence of sacrifice and expiation. The Achaeans and Trojans alike are always making sacrifices to the gods. Something good happens: better slit the throats of a few oxen and roast the carcasses. Something bad happens: make that a hundred oxen or sheep.
First they drew back the victims’ heads and slaughtered them and skinned them,
and cut away the meat from thighs and wrapped them in fat,
making a double fold, and laid shreds of flesh upon them.
The old man burned these on a cleft stick and poured the gleaming
wine over, while the young men with forks in their hands stood about him.
Sacrifice and expiation are notable features in many cultures throughout history. Occasionally, there are some odd twists. Consider the story of Isaac and Abraham. God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. So the old man takes the boy up a mountain, bids his servants to wait behind, and binds Isaac to a stone altar. Abraham pulls out the fatal knife but at the last moment a ram is discovered in an adjoining bramble. Hurrah! Tough luck for the ram, but Isaac is saved and Abraham passes the rather extreme test with which God had confronted him.
Kierkegaard devoted an entire book—appropriately called Fear and Trembling—to the implications of this story. Is there such a thing, he wondered, as a “teleological suspension of the ethical”? (His answer, by the way, was Yes.)
Abraham was the protagonist of the tale—it was his faith that was put to the test—but I have always wondered about poor Isaac. He escaped that time, but I imagine he was henceforth pretty jumpy around dear old dad.
We Christians see an awesome foreshadowing in the story of Abraham’s aborted, or, rather, his deflected sacrifice. There is a lot that could be—that has been—said about it, but I propose to pass over that abundant commentary in order to note a distinction between sacrifice, on the one hand, and expiation, on the other. By its nature, I suggest, expiation involves something like sacrifice. But sacrifice can be undertaken for reasons other than expiation.
It’s the dynamic of expiation that I want to focus on. Discussing the panic that gripped Rome in the aftermath of the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., when Hannibal encircled and destroyed two consular armies, the historian Livy notes that the Romans applied to the oracle at Delphi “to find out with what prayers and acts of supplication they could appease the gods, and to ask what end there would be to their great disasters.”
Meanwhile a number of extraordinary sacrifices were conducted following instructions from the Books of Fate. These included a Gallic man and woman and a Greek man and woman being interred alive in the Forum Boarium, in a spot enclosed with stones that had already been stained by human sacrifice, which was very alien to Roman religious observance.
Hard cheese on those Gauls and Greeks, of course, especially since the Romans, as Livy notes, did not usually go in for human sacrifice. On the contrary, they abominated it and generally punished it severely whenever they came across it.
But the disaster of Cannae put paid to “generally.” Those were desperate times. They called, the Romans thought, for desperate measures.
I thought about that expiatory gesture when I heard the news that Derek Chauvin—the former Minneapolis policeman who had the misfortune to encounter a raging and intoxicated black man named George Floyd in May 2020—had been sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of Floyd.
Back in March, I wrote wondering whether Chauvin could get a fair trial in Hennepin County. I didn’t think so and laid out the reasons. Chauvin’s conviction a month later on all charges—unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter—strengthened my skepticism. Chauvin, a nearly 20-year police veteran who was cited for bravery multiple times (he also racked up at least 17 civilian complaints), may have used excessive force trying to subdue Floyd, who had serious cardiac problems, was high on fentanyl and other substances, and was probably in a state of excited delirium while he was resisting arrest. But was Chauvin guilty of second- or third-degree murder?
As I said at the time, it didn’t matter. George Floyd’s death was the catalyst that lit a holocaust. All across America, cities were burning. Derek Chauvin was the victim offered up to the gods in expiation. The ritual he was subjected to was less a legal trial than a sort of pagan sacrifice.
The expected penalty for the charges Chauvin was convicted of is 11-12 years. Peter Cahill, the judge in the case, said that “prosecutors had proven there were aggravating factors in the case that called for a tougher sentence.” What were those “aggravating factors”? You or I might think the explosive situation in Minneapolis and other “progressive” redoubts was part of the story. Judge Cahill cited Chauvin’s callousness and disregard for Floyd. Similarly, after sentencing Chauvin, Judge Cahill insisted that his harsh sentence was “not based on public opinion. I am not basing it on any attempt to send any messages. The job of a trial judge is to apply the law to specific facts.” Indeed it is. How did Judge Cahill do?
One friend, a lawyer who is knowledgeable about the case, told me that while he thought the prosecution mounted a strong case, it was also a battle between David and Goliath and David lost. Chauvin and his one attorney were totally outgunned by the prosecution. The verdict was a foregone conclusion.
Another friend touched on what seems to me to be an essential point. Yes, the sentence was grotesquely disproportionate, he said, but remember: Chauvin, although charged only in the Floyd death, is also being sentenced “for all the ones who got away”: Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the police officers involved in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Officer Daniel Pantaleo who was implicated in the death of Eric Garner in New York, etc. In every case, the media attack on the police was ferocious. But also in every case juries or other authorities found that the deaths were justifiable homicides.
The case of Derek Chauvin was different. For one thing, there was that video showing Chauvin leaning on Floyd’s shoulder with his knee, pressing him to the ground for nine minutes. But there was also the racially charged hysteria that was coruscating through American society. The message was clear: convict or else.
I wonder what Derek Chauvin thought about over breakfast on May 25, 2020. He could not have known that in just a few hours his career would be ended and his life forever blighted because he was too zealous in attempting to restrain a clearly intoxicated man who was resisting arrest. Neither could those two Greeks or those two Gauls in the aftermath of Cannae have had any inkling of what was about to befall them. They were just unlucky sacrificial victims. Isaac, at least, was reprieved at the last moment. I doubt there will be any hidden rams coming to save Derek Chauvin.