The sacrificial machinery of the Golden Gate Bridge

Posted on October 28, 2008
The Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge District are custodians of a reality that can only be described as spiritual. Periodically the issue of a suicide barrier is raised for their consideration, typically by distraught parents, victims of an impulsive leap. They hear legal arguments, psychological perspectives on human depression, and artistic assessments of the significance of the structure in its setting.

When I appeared before this august body, it was not as a victim of suicide, though I am pastor of a congregation that has been, with countless friends, relatives and neighbors, plunged into deep grief, guilt, and shame by the bridge suicide of a beloved teenaged congregant. Instead it was as an expert on the social organization of sacred space, as a religious professional, that I raised my voice. Instead of arguing statistics, or pointing out the absurdity of monetizing human life, or adding to the mounting evidence that a simple barrier is the only solution, I made a different kind of point — an ethical, religious point — based on the significance of the Golden Gate Bridge as a sacred object.

 

The prophets of the Old Testament are not the only ones to engage the deadly evil of false worship. Religion is as human as wishing on a star or throwing coins in a fountain. However we may demur, it is as close as finding our aspirations represented in the symbolic power and beauty of a unique architectural and engineering feat like the bridge. One of the most recognizable monuments in the world, its image is the icon of a reality whose worship energizes millions of people. Such worship, the prophets warned, inevitably involves human sacrifice.

The bridge thus serves the machinery of sacrifice. A friend of mine recently challenged my public support for a barrier. He said to me, “We live in an ugly era. Such an example of aesthetic beauty for its own sake is really significant and needs to be supported.”

“I completely agree,” I replied.

And then he went where I never imagined he would go. “And if a few people have to be sacrificed, well . . .”

“Excuse me!” I interrupted, now indignant. “How many people are acceptable? How many lives is beauty worth?” I couldn’t believe he was saying it.

He made my point. The bridge has become an altar of sacrifice to the idol of some sort of San Francisco mystique. This dynamic is what the Scriptures warn about. Jesus’ ministry was based on the rejection of sacrifice, so much so that he offered himself as its victim to finally expose and deconstruct it.

As it stands the Golden Gate Bridge devours our children with the tide. At a rate of 30 to 50 a year its sacrificial machinery renders them anonymous, so much smoke up a chimney. But its “priesthood,” the Bridge District Board, can no longer remain hidden to its own complicity. With a simple barrier we can now bring an end to this silent cult of death. The fatal debt we owe the iconic beauty of the bridge will be cancelled. It is a diabolical transaction of which we must immediately repent.

 

The Rev. James Ward is rector at St. Stephen's, Belvedere .